15 Best Traditional Japanese Dishes

A journey through Japan's flavors: 15 must-try traditional dishes

Japanese cuisine is a beautiful combination of flavors, textures, and traditions that has delighted people around the world. There’s the simplicity of onigiri, the artistry of sushi, or the versatility of ramen, among many examples where this country’s culinary culture is full of wonder and surprises.

Here we round up the best 15 essential dishes that you cannot absolutely miss, enjoyed by locals and foreigners alike. So join us on this culinary journey to discover Japan through its most characteristic flavors! 

1. Sushi

SushiSushi (寿司) is one of the most beloved Japanese dishes and it’s easy to see why. The combination of soft, vinegared rice and fresh, flavorful ingredients creates a taste sensation that’s hard to beat. There are several varieties to choose from: classic nigiri, creative maki rolls, or the simplicity of temaki hand rolls.

In all cases, the attention to detail and presentation make sushi a true work of art and a feast for both the eyes and the taste buds, as long as you are ok with raw fish in most cases (although there’s also fried or seared sushi). 

▽If you want to learn more about sushi, check out the following links!▽

What is Sushi?

The History of Sushi

11 Best Sushi Restaurants in Japan

2. Ramen

Ramen BowlRamen (ラーメン) is another classic Japanese dish and the ultimate comfort food that has captured the hearts (and stomachs) of foodies worldwide. This soul-warming noodle soup is the perfect meal for a cold and dreary day.

With a variety of broth flavors to choose from, like the light and salty broth of Shio Ramen (塩ラーメン), the savory Miso Ramen (味噌ラーメン), or the creamy Tonkutsu Ramen (豚骨ラーメン), paired an endless array of toppings like tender slices of chashu pork, crispy tempura, boiled eggs or wakame seaweed, ramen is a tremendously versatile dish with a lot of regional variations that are worthy to discover and travel for.

▽Ready for a ramen deep-dive? Don’t miss our ramen special!▽

Ramen – Japanese Food Guide

3. Tempura

TempuraWhat’s not to love about Tempura (天ぷら)? Imagine anything you like, and then make it crunchy and crispy. Works like a charm. This dish evolved from the deep-fried fish that Portuguese and Spanish missionaries ate in Japan during the tempora (Latin term to designate the prayer and abstinence periods during which meat was avoided).

In Japan, the dish was further refined by coating ingredients such as shrimp, vegetables, and even sweet potatoes in a light batter and then frying them until they’re crispy and golden, as we know it today as one of the quintessential Japanese dishes.

▽If you want some Tempura restaurant recommendations, check the following links!▽

7 Best Tempura in Tokyo

8 Best Tendon in Tokyo

4. Udon

UdonUdon (うどん) is another popular Japanese comfort food, consisting of thick and chewy noodles. This hearty dish is usually served in a hot broth that’s loaded with flavor and topped with your choice of meats, vegetables, or seafood.

It also can be served grilled or stir-fried with vegetables and paired with a variety of toppings such as sliced beef, tempura shrimp, or even a soft-boiled egg. The latter variety is known as Yaki udon (焼うどん). These versatile noodles can be eaten all year round, as during the hotter months there are cold varieties of these dishes as well.  

▽For more information about Udon, check the following articles!▽

Udon Guide: Types of Udon Noodles

5 Best UDON Restaurants in Tokyo

5. Soba

SobaSoba (そば) is a type of thin noodle made from buckwheat flour, which gives it a nutty flavor and a slightly chewy texture. This dish is often served cold with a dipping sauce made of mirin, soy sauce, and dashi, or hot in a broth.

Soba noodles are versatile and just like the aforementioned udon, can be paired with a lot of different toppings ranging from seafood to all kinds of meat and vegetables. This is often enjoyed as a light and healthy meal, as it is lower in calories and higher in fiber than many other types of noodles. Also, soba is often the dish of choice for New Year’s Eve as a symbol of longevity!

▽Learn more about Soba on the following link!▽

Soba Guide: Types of Soba Noodles

6. Sukiyaki

SukiyakiSukiyaki (すき焼き) is a mouth-watering hot pot dish that’s perfect to warm your soul on a cold winter’s day. This dish is made by cooking thinly sliced beef, diced tofu, and vegetables in a sweet and savory broth made with soy sauce, sugar and mirin, often cooked at the table with a small portable gas stove.

Once the ingredients are cooked, they’re often dipped in a raw egg sauce to cool it a bit before being eaten. Usually at the end, once the meat and vegetables are eaten soba is added to the remaining broth to finish up the dish. 

7. Shabu-shabu

Shabu-shabuShabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) is, just like sukiyaki, another hot pot dish that is typically made with thinly sliced beef or pork, vegetables, and noodles cooked in a simmering broth that generally consists of light dashi with boiling kombu seaweed.

The meat has to be dipped just for a little bit, hence the name “shabu-shabu”, which is an onomatopeia of the meat sound as it is swished around in the pot. Afterward, the cooked meat is dipped in sauce which can be ponzu or sesame sauce. Shabu-shabu is a great meal to share with friends or family, as everyone can cook their own ingredients to their liking.

▽For more information about Sukiyaki and Shabu-shabu, check the articles below!▽

Sukiyaki vs Shabu Shabu: What is the Difference

8 Best Shabu Shabu/Sukiyaki Restaurants in Tokyo

8. Tonkatsu (and Katsudon)

TonkatsuTonkatsu (豚カツ) is a type of breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet made to achieve a crispy texture on the outside while keeping a juicy texture on the inside. This dish is generally served with a tangy tonkatsu sauce and paired with a side of rice or shredded cabbage or miso soup, making it a filling and satisfying meal.

One of its most popular spin-offs is the Katsudon (カツ丼), consisting of a bowl of rice topped with tonkatsu, which can also be simmered with vegetables and eggs. Nagoya’s tonkatsu is particularly famous, as it’s served with a savory sauce made of red miso paste.

▽Looking for places to get your Tonkatsu or Katsudon fix? We got you covered!▽

10 Best Tonkatsu Restaurants in Tokyo – Japan Web Magazine

9. Yakitori

YakitoriYakitori (焼き鳥) is a popular Japanese dish that consists of grilled chicken that’s skewered and then grilled, and served with a variety of sauces and seasonings. The chicken is typically marinated beforehand, and the skewers are grilled over charcoal until they are crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.

Yakitori is a favorite among locals in Japan and is often enjoyed with drinks in casual restaurants and izakayas (Japanese pubs). The variety of cuts and flavors of chicken used in Yakitori make it a fun dish to explore!

▽For Yakitori recommendations, check the link below!▽

5 Best Yakitori in Tokyo – Japan Web Magazine

10. Okonomiyaki

OkonomiyakiOkonomiyaki (お好み焼き) is a type of savory pancake that’s usually made with cabbage, flour, and eggs as base ingredients which may vary across regions, particularly in Osaka and Hiroshima where this is a particularly popular specialty.

This dish can be customized with a variety of toppings such as sliced pork, seafood, cheese, bonito flakes, etc, and then slathered to one’s heart’s content with mayonnaise and a special sauce that’s both tangy and sweet. Depending on the establishment, they may serve them ready to eat or patrons may be sitting at tables fitted with grills so they can prepare it themselves with the requested ingredients.

▽Find out more about Okonomiyaki on the following articles!▽


7 Best Okonomiyaki in Osaka

11. Miso Soup

Miso SoupMiso soup (味噌汁) is a traditional Japanese soup made with a flavorful miso paste made from fermented soybeans, fish broth, and various toppings such as tofu, seaweed, and green onions.

This soup is both comforting and delicious and is often served as a side dish with a meal, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. As such, it’s one of the most basic and widespread staples of Japanese cuisine. Miso soup is also believed to have numerous health benefits, including aiding digestion and boosting the immune system. 

12. Chirashi-Zushi

Chirashi-ZushiChirashi-zushi (ちらし寿司) is a type of sushi that features a variety of colorful ingredients such as raw fish, vegetables, and egg arranged over a bed of vinegared rice. The name “chirashi” means “scattered,” and refers to the way the ingredients are arranged on top of the rice.

This dish is often served in a bowl rather than on a plate and it’s very easy to make as it doesn’t require the same level of skill and attention to detail that normal sushi often requires, and is a great option for those who prefer a lighter sushi meal. This dish is particularly typical during Hinamatsuri (Girl’s day) on March 3rd.

13. Oden

OdenOden (おでん) is a traditional hot pot dish that’s perfect for a cold winter’s day. It features a variety of ingredients such as boiled eggs, fish cakes, and vegetables simmered in a light but flavorful broth. The ingredients are often served on skewers and dipped in soy sauce or spicy mustard.

This comfort food which is especially popular during the winter months is often served in convenience stores and food stalls as well, making it a convenient and easy meal for those on the go. 

14. Takoyaki

TakoyakiTakoyaki (たこ焼き) is a popular street food that consists of small and savory diced octopus-filled balls made from batter and topped with a variety of sauces and seasonings and a sprinkle of bonito flakes.

They are typically cooked in a special pan with round molds and flipped with a bamboo skewer to achieve its round shape, until they are golden brown and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Takoyaki is often enjoyed as a snack or appetizer and is a great staple of street and festival food in Japan. 

▽Find out more about Takoyaki on the following article!▽

What is Takoyaki?

15. Japanese Curry

Japanese CurryWhen you think of curry, India might come to mind, but did you know that Japan has its own unique take on this classic dish? Japanese curry (カレーライス) came to be through British troops during the Meiji-era in Japan, evolving to its current state as a hearty and comforting meal that’s made with a rich sauce, generally a stew of meat and vegetables such as potatoes, onions, and carrots, usually served over rice.

The main difference with Indian curry lies in its thickness, color, and hint of sweetness. The dish is also often coupled with tonkatsu and many different toppings depending on one’s own tastes.

▽If you want to learn how to make your own curry, follow the link below!▽

How to Make Japanese Curry Rice at Home

Japan’s culinary heritage is a treasure trove of diverse and delectable dishes that have captivated food lovers around the world. Do you have a personal favorite among this selection? If there are dishes you haven’t tried yet, hopefully, the above list will inspire you do to so!

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Written by

Photographer, journalist, and avid urban cyclist, making sense of Japan since 2017. I was born in Caracas and lived for 14 years in Barcelona before moving to Tokyo. Currently working towards my goal of visiting every prefecture in Japan, I hope to share with readers the everlasting joy of discovery and the neverending urge to keep exploring.