“Comfort food” is traditional cooking that tends to have a nostalgic or sentimental connection, often one related to family or childhood: the grilled cheese sandwiches your mother used to make; the thought of your grandmother’s bread pudding makes your mouth water; the way the whole house would be filled with the intoxicating aroma of roasted turkey or ham at Christmas? Because of such memories, these foods comfort us, especially when we’re longing for home or feeling especially vulnerable.
Not surprisingly, the sentimental Japanese have their own comfort foods. While you might think they’d be waxing over the octopus tentacles of home, very few of the dishes we’re about to talk about have much to do with seafood. Many Japanese comfort foods have a rice connection and may even center around the unique relationship between mothers or wives and their role in family food preparation. And in Japan, make no mistake about it–her kitchen rules!
Here are 10 distinctly Japanese comfort foods:
1. Miso soup and rice (味噌汁とご飯)
Miso soup and its companion bowl of rice are sometimes described as a “marriage.” This is the food Japanese miss most when they leave home to live on their own for the first time or if they travel abroad and tire of “Western breakfast.”
Miso soup is hardly ever served without its faithful rice. For centuries this edible couple has been considered the main part of a classic, healthy Japanese breakfast. “Mom’s miso soup” is, quite simply, to die for. And each Mom adds her own touch to the recipe, so the subtle flavors vary according to household. So powerful is this aromatic duo that the mere thought of smelling miso upon waking up in the morning can leave a study-abroad student salivating as he or she is transported temporarily back to the mother ship.
Other than the miso base, other ingredients in the soup may include dashi broth, tofu, chopped green onion, wakame seaweed and a plethora of others. See some miso soup anime ads that bring out the true miso spirit.
2. Onigiri (おにぎり)
While women’s hands are said to be too warm to become sushi chefs, those ostensibly hot hands surely come in handy when it comes to making rice balls. This favorite snack, made from either fresh steamed rice or leftover rice from the night before, is standard fare for bento lunches and picnics. All good outdoor gatherings feature the highly portable and nutritious triangular-shaped sticky rice ball, which is geometrically formed by squeezing it just so in the palms of the hands. Each ball is filled with one of a number of ingredients from sweet salmon to sour plums, and the triangle of rice is girthed with a seaweed belt so moist, it doesn’t actually stick to your lips like the papery convenience-store kind.
According to Japanese aesthetics, any food tastes better with proper scenery, so you’ll find rice balls at every “Hanami” cherry blossom party.
3. Tempura (天ぷら)
This favorite food of foreigners is also a favorite of the Japanese (even though tempura is thought to have originally come from Portugal). Surely, worldwide, everyone loves tempura! And mama’s home made has gotta be the best. But I can’t help think that the nostalgia surrounding this food (the taste of which doesn’t vary that much from kitchen to kitchen) has to do with the method of preparation: the wife dutifully stays in the kitchen throughout the meal, only emerging occasionally when the next batch of piping hot veggies are ready to be served to her expectant family. And of course a Japanese wife is happy, perhaps even ecstatic, to do this, in order to fulfill the expectations of the perfect mother who, at least in the old days, was said to “make and serves food with all her heart” (kokorokomete ryoriotsukurimasu).
4. Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き)
A close runner up as an all-time favorite by foreigners and Japanese alike is oknomiyaki (literally “grilled as you like it”). What could be more fun than playing with your food? Mix up the cabbage with a combination of okonomiyaki flour and milk, add a raw egg, then ingredients such as mochi, cheese, fish, pork, or corn (anything really–as you like it!). Leave it on the grill to cook then top it with sweet okonomiyaki sauce!
Whether Hiroshima style or Osaka style, oknonomiyaki satisfies even the most unsophisticated pallets. It’s what I serve to my parents who don’t like Japanese food (surely the only two people left in the world). This pancake-like food is certainly interactive and gets everyone communing at the table.
Not only that, but such comfort foods pull at the heartstrings of boys when they become myopic, nostalgic adults missing their mommies. In Japan, the relationship between mothers and sons is supposed to be extra special (sorry girls!).
5. Tamago Kake Gohan (卵かけ御飯)
This simple dish is so fast, so simple, and so good! Just a raw egg, a little soy sauce (if you like) and some cooked white rice will give you a meal on the go. One of our RocketNews24 writers who grew up eating TKG, says it’s her go-to comfort food. Just pour the raw egg yolk over the rice and mix it together: ta-da! Isn’t that convenient?! Who said you couldn’t cook Japanese food?
Make it! Try Rocket Kitchen’s Ultimate TKG
6. Nabe (鍋)
Nabe is one of those foods in the “cooked in large earthenware pot” family. It is stewed in a vessel that sits in the middle of the table. Meat and vegetables are added throughout the entire dinner session, with each person around the dinner table reaching into the pot with their chopsticks to pick out their own vegetables or meats (or perhaps dished out by mom) as the ingredients slowly cook. This dish is only shared with family or good friends who you’re absolutely sure don’t have any contagious diseases. The constant dipping of your chopsticks into the broth to dig out mighty morsels means that you’ll be sharing your germs. On the other hand, you can console yourself that the boiling broth may kill most of the cooties someone might unknowingly be passing on. Nabe, a winter food, is usually associated with close friends and family, the equivalent of sitting around a bonfire with a guitar and singing songs together. Being invited to a nabe party is a definitive indication you’ve been accepted into the inner circle. Try yosenabe–or “fling it all in” nabe!
Make it cute! Tips on how to make your nabe look as kawaii as possible!
7. Okayu (おかゆ)
When Japanese feel a cold coming on, they reach for okayu–a warm, easily digestible watery mush made from rice. It’s also the food of choice if you’re missing your teeth. Even Kiki, the heroine of the anime film Kiki’s Delivery Service, can be seen eating okayu in a scene when she is sick. So next time you’re feeling a bit under the weather, do what Kiki does and try some rice porridge!
Make it! Ghibli-inspired rice porridge
8. Udon (うどん)
While both ramen and udon noodles are loved by the Japanese, I’m going to stick to Udon here because, well, it’s Japanese (whereas ramen in technically Chinese) and udon is the Wall Street Journal of noodles–it’s way more sophisticated than ramen. Ramen’s reputation is that of an easy, greasy food eaten when you’re in need of something filling and moreish but not especially good for you–often after a night out drinking. But while ramen satisfies, udon nurtures. The warmth of steam emanating from a large bowl of udon, and enveloping your face in the wintertime is enough to warm you to your toes. It’s no wonder that in Kagawa Prefecture, the udon capital of Japan, and where they are known to eat udon while in the bath, that they’re using the long unleavened egg dough to generate power. How cool is that?!
9. Curry Rice (カレーライス)
Curry rice doesn’t sound like it’s Japanese, and surely its origins aren’t (Japanese curry comes from India by way of the British navy, would you believe), but the way the Japanese have modified their knock-off version is distinctly their own. It’s sweet, gooey and heaped over sticky rice! And it’s usually not spicy at all. Kids and adults alike love this cheap, easy-to-prepare food, usually made from boxed curry you buy at the store. And anything can be added to it including meat and veggies. For me, I prefer the real thing, but the fact is that Japanese kids grow up eating and loving the Japanese version. Curry rice is served in school lunches, at ski resorts, on the beach, and at restaurants everywhere. It’s ubiquitous, which means it’s a fallback food anywhere, anytime. Except abroad, where you’ll rarely, if ever, find it.
10. Ochazuke (お茶漬け)
We saved ochazuke for last because this dish is consumed at the very end of a meal. Ochazuke is most likely only encountered by foreigners who dine with Japanese, so may not be well-known to mere tourists. But most foreigners’ first encounter is similar: You’re at the end of a meal, feeling like a total pig because you’ve eaten so much amazing food. You’re sitting back in your chair, hands folded over the swollen stomach, thinking you couldn’t eat another bite of anything even if it were apple pie, when suddenly, someone at the table pipes up, “Let’s have ochazuke!” They tackle the waiter who dutifully takes away one thing from the table: the leftover rice. This is taken back to the kitchen, where the chef mixes it with green tea (and perhaps some other things). The rice concoction is brought back out to the table and presented as the last course, like a sort of savoury dessert. It’s warm, it’s delicious, and you somehow find a little extra room in your distended stomach for it before completely passing out.
Tip! Just combine green tea and rice.
Travel website Trip Advisor recently released its annual list of the 30 best sightseeing spots in Japan. Featuring centuries-old shrines, futuristic cityscapes, and no fewer than four whale sharks, it’s an impressive collection of much of what makes Japan such a unique and awesome country.
Honestly, if you had the time, we wouldn’t try to talk you out of an itinerary that hits all 30 places. Of course, with that much sightseeing, you’re bound to work up an appetite. Thankfully, Trip Advisor is back again with its top 30 restaurants in Japan.
As with the sightseeing list, the rankings are based on reviews from Trip Advisor users who dined at the restaurants. While there’s no shortage of high-priced Japanese fare, there are a few budget-friendly eateries that made the cut too, along with some foreign cuisine as well. Let’s dig in and get this multi-course meal started with number 30.
30. Abucha Nigoten
Hokkaido, Abuta-gun, Kucchan-cho, Yamada 191-29
Visitors to the Niseko ski resort on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido rave about this Japanese eatery’s sushi and hot pots.
29. The Niseko Supply Company
Hokkaido, Abuta-gun, Kucchan-cho, Azayamada 190-13
If you’re looking for western food in Niseko, the Supply Company is known for its crepes, pastries, and fondue, plus its invigorating coffee and relaxing beer.
28. Niseko Pizza
Hokkaido, Abuta-gun, Kucchan-cho, Yamada 167 3J, Sekka Building basement level 1
Not far from the above entry you’ll find this Italian restaurant that’s popular with the foreign community.
Tokyo-to, Minato-ku, Roppongi 5-9-17, Fujimori Building 1st floor
Not only does Jomon serve up outstanding yakitori chicken skewers, its location on one of the secluded backstreets of Tokyo’s rowdiest nightlife district means you won’t have to worry about barkers trying to drag you off to their hostess bar on the way there.
Tokyo-to, Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku 3-31-8
Just a few minutes’ walk from the always bustling Shinjuku Station, Tsunahachi’s mix of great tempura and moderate prices has had diners lining up out front for years.
25. Kani Doraku
Osaka-fu, Osaka-shi, Chuo-ku, Dotombori 1-6-18
Japan has a number of restaurants that advertise their specialty with a giant animatronic crab, but none is more famous than the Kani Doraku branch in Osaka’s Dotombori entertainment district.
24. Sukibayashi Jiro
Tokyo-to, Minato-ku, Roppongi 6-12-2 Roppongi Hills Keyakizakadori 3rd floor
Ever wanted to dine at the same sushi restaurant as sake-sampling heads of state and demanding Chinese exchange students? Here’s your chance.
Kyoto-fu, Kyoto-shi, Shimogyo-ku, Higashi Shiokojicho, Kyoto Station Building Senmontengai The Cube 11th floor
If you’re not interested in sushi, because of an aversion to raw food, this Kyoto Station restaurant specializes in deep-fried tonkatsu pork cutlets.
22. Yamato Sushi
Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku, Tsukiji 5-2-1, Tsukiji Fish Market, Building 6
Back to Tokyo, back to sushi with this restaurant located inside Japan’s largest seafood market.
21. New York Grill and Bar
Tokyo-to, Shinjuku-ku, Nishi Shinjuku 3-7-1-2 Park Hyatt Tokyo 52nd floor
Yes, you can drink and dine just where Bill Murray’s character did in Lost in Translation. Sip your Suntory whiskey, marvel at the fantastic view of Tokyo, and wonder just how Bob and Charlotte managed to get bored in such a massive city with so many places to explore.
20. Kyoto Gogyo
Kyoto-fu, Kyoto-shi, Nakagyo-ku, Yanagibabadori, Takoyakushi Kudaru, Jumonji-cho
Japan’s ancient capital isn’t all rarified restaurants and delicate delicacies, as proven by the many fans of Kyoto Gogyo’s ramen.
Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku, Jingumae 4-8-5
Once again, deep-fried pork proves to be a hit with a wide cross-section of travelers, as yet another tonkatsu restaurant, the Aoyama branch of Maiizumi, makes the list.
Hokkaido, Abuta-gun, Kucchan-cho, Yamada 190-4, Shiki Niseko 1st floor
The Niseko ski resort shows up again, this time with the Michelin-ranked French/Japanese fusion Kamimura.
Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku, Dogenzaka 1-12, Shibuya Mark City East 4th floor
Located beneath several floors of offices, you’ll want to get here before the lunch rush for some of Tokyo’s best reasonably-priced sushi.
Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku, Jingumae, 6-2-4
If you’re not looking for the latest fashions, you might be tempted to pass on visiting Tokyo’s shopping mecca of Harajuku. If you’re into deep-fried gyoza pot stickers, though, you owe it to yourself to wade through the fashionistas and try the ones at Ro.
Kyoto-fu, Kyoto-shi, Shimogyo-ku, Hashimoto-cho, 103-2
You’ll see a few revolving sushi restaurants in any large Japanese city, but Trip Advisor’s didn’t find any they liked more than Chojiro.
14. Ninja Akasaka
Tokyo-to, Chiyoda-ku, Nagata-cho 2-14-3, Akasaka Tokyo Plaza 1st floor
Even if it wasn’t designed to look like a secret ninja castle, and even if the wait staff didn’t perform incredible magic tricks at your table, Akasaka’s ninja-themed restaurant would still be worth a visit for its beautifully inventive and delicious food. Make sure you reserve a table ahead of time, though, as a two-hour wait isn’t unheard of.
Tokyo-to, Minato-ku, Shiba Koen 4-4-13
This branch of the Ukai chain, located near Tokyo Tower, specializes in tofu, which is served in private dining rooms surrounded by beautiful gardens.
12. Tapas Molecular Bar
Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku, Nihonbashi Muromachi 2-1-1 Mandarin Oriental Tokyo 38th floor
With space for only eight diners and just two seating per night, reservations are essential for this molecular cuisine restaurant in the luxury Mandarin Oriental Tokyo hotel.
11. Kaiseki 511
Tokyo-to, Minato-ku, Akasaka 4-3-28 Dia Plaza Akasaka basement level 1
Although it’s located in the upscale Akasaka neighborhood of Tokyo, Kaiseki 511’s specialty is kobe beef.
Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Jinnan 1-22-7 Iwamoto Building basement level 1
While travelers gave the no to the Shibuya branch in Tokyo, there’s a whole chain of Ichiran ramen joints. The first time I ate in one on the outskirts of a red light district in Yokohama, I thought its unique setup, with privacy-insuring walls and a screen that ensures even the waiter doesn’t see your face, was to protect the privacy of diners who stopped in for a bite after spending time at one of the local hostess bars. The reality isn’t anything so untoward, as Ichiran’s owners simply want to make sure nothing distracts you from the delicious noodles they serve.
Kyoto-fu, Kyoto-shi, Nakagyo-ku, Higashi Toin, Nishikikoji Higashiiru 653-1 Nishiki Building 1st floor
Edging Ichiran for the top ramen restaurant on the list was Ippudo. The original location of this pork-broth specialist is in Fukuoka, but you can find branches of the chain in Tokyo and Yokohama as well.
Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku, Tsukiji 5-2-1, Tsukiji Fish Market Building 6
Tsukiji gets still more help in building its reputation as the best place in Japan for sushi with this restaurant located inside the market.
Tokyo-to, Minato-ku, Aoyama 2-6-15
Trip Advisor’s number-seven restaurant actually did better in Hospitality Magazine’s rankings, where it was picked as the best in Japan for its innovative French-inspired menu that includes such unique offerings as dirt soup.
Kyoto-fu, Kyoto-shi, Nakagyo-ku, Fuyachodori, Ebisugawa Noboru, Sasayacho 471-1
This restaurant, which specializes in steak and beef cutlet, was Kyoto’s highest-ranked restaurant on the list.
Hyogo-ken, Kobe-shi, Chuo-ku, Kitanocho 1-1, Shin Kobe Oriental Avenue 3rd floor
It’s no surprise that Kobe’s top restaurant serves Kobe beef.
Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku, Ginza 8-7-6
This sushi restaurant, located in Tokyo’s Ginza, came so close to taking the sushi crown away from Tsukiji.
Toyko-to, Chuo-ku, Tsukiji 5-2-1, Tsukiji Fish Market Building 6
No, that’s not a photo of the entrance to Tokyo Station during rush hour. It’s just the line for lunch at Dai, Japan’s highest-ranked sushi restaurant.
2. Center4 Hamburgers
Gifu-ken, Takayama-shi, Kamiichino-cho 94
What’s more surprising, that Japan’s number-two restaurant is located in rural Takayama, or that it uses the region’s prized Hida beef to make mouth-watering hamburgers?
Osaka-fu, Osaka-shi, Chuo-ku Namba 1-1-19
Surprisingly, Trip Advisor’s top-ranked restaurant isn’t in Tokyo or Kyoto, and it doesn’t serve sushi or tempura. Instead, the Hozenji Yokocho branch of M in Osaka is ready to satisfy your carnivorous cravings with marbled Matsuzaka beef. Oddly enough, Matsuzaka beef isn’t raised in Osaka, but in Mie, two prefectures to the east.
Apparently the logistics aren’t a problem though, as travelers chose M as their favorite restaurant in the country.
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