This last part of my four-part recap of our winter trip to Japan covers some suggestions of what to eat in Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Osaka. This part was a little tricky to write because we ate a lot of informal meals over the holiday due to the shear abundance of available markets and festivals and the holiday closure of many more formal sit-down restaurants. We also only spent a day each in Hiroshima and Osaka, and didn't really have any meals specific to those areas (except one, which is noted).
That said, I was in heaven with the festival food, and discovered how much variety there is to Japanese cuisine; it's not all just sushi and ramen. I should note that I haven't done a very good job of recording all the candies and other snack foods that we saw on our trip, but I'm afraid my memory (and my camera's memory) have failed me there, and I'll just have to return in the future to blog about that!
We experienced a lot, so you'll notice that this recap is broken into four different parts to keep down the length of each post. I hope you'll find my tips and suggestions substantial, but if you want a recommendation and can't find one my posts, then please leave your questions in the comments.
What to eat in Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Osaka
Market food - Between Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, we made it to several markets on our trip to Japan. Unlike the temporary, open-air markets that I'm accustomed to in Germany, most of the markets we visited in Japan were packed into crowded, semi-covered shopping arcades and sandwiched between retail shops. The markets were fun because we got to see a great variety of foods.
- Japanese pickles were a common sight at the markets. I love cucumber pickles, so I was delighted to see the Japanese take pickles to a whole new level with tsukemono (pickled vegetables), from the usual cucumbers and ginger, to the more "exotic" plums, diakon radish, and lotus root.
- Another common sight at markets were various desserts made from green tea (in addition to actual green tea). We saw green tea cakes, green tea jellied candies, green tea ice cream, green tea mochi cakes, green tea pudding...and the list goes on.
- If you want something that's a little more grab-and-go, look for a good pork bun. These soft steamed buns are stuffed with a sweetish mixture of cooked pork. You can also look for curry buns, which I mentioned in my post on what to eat in Tokyo.
- Another handy snack are dried rice cakes, which are not like the stale cardboard kinds you get at American grocery stores. These are big, puffed rice goodness flavored with soy, seaweed, and more. You can also find fresh rice cakes or onigiri mixed or stuffed with vegetables and/or fish.
Many of the foods I've listed you can also sometimes find at the festival food stalls and vice versa, so my devision of them into two categories is somewhat arbitrary. However, I found the foods listed above and those below a little more common at each of their respective locations.
Festival food - If you haven't figured it out by now, I love trying a large variety of foods, and so the festival food stalls at which we ate on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day were beyond yummy. Here's an idea of some of the foods you can find:
- Takoyaki - Takoyaki is a kind of dough ball filled with octopus, diced onions, and other minced vegetables, pan fried and smothered takoyaki sauce. They're very popular in the Osaka area, and my favorite were some perfectly cooked doughy takoyaki smothered in dried bonito (fish flakes) that we had at a stall in Osaka near Shitteno-ji. Watching them being made is like watching an artist work. The takoyaki chefs have mastered the art of flipping the little balls in their special pans, much like the Dutch poffertjes.
- Karaage - Karaage technically refers to any kind of deep fried food, but my favorite is chicken karaage. I think they either marinate the chicken or mix the batter with some other spices, because the flavor is very different from Southern fried chicken. The meat usually isn't breast meat because the added fat just makes the karaage that much more juicy.
- Yakisoba - Yakisoba are the Japanese version of fried noodles, usually with pork and other vegetables, in a yakisoba sauce. It's great as street food, and one of Matt's favorites.
- Yakitori - Yakitori is basically grilled chicken (and sometimes other meats) on a skewer. I don't know why, but I like the novelty of food on a stick. Yakitori can also be one of the healthier food options that you'll find at a festival, if you're looking for that sort of thing.
- Candied fruits - We saw lots of apples, mandarins, strawberries, and other kinds of fruits coated in a thick, clear sugar candy on sticks. They look beautiful, though my candied pineapple was a little hard to bite into. Lollipops also seemed to be quite common.
- Filled pancakes - We saw tons of pancakes with with red bean paste, custard, and even chocolate. My favorite were taiyaki, which are fish-shaped pancakes filled with red bean paste, though I sadly didn't remember to get a picture.
Tip: Some of the markets and festivals can be quite packed. I remember being literally swept along in a crowd of busy, moving people at the market in Kyoto. Make sure you keep track of your traveling companions (especially children) and of your belongings.
CoCo Ichibanya - CoCo Ichibanya is a chain of Japanese curry restaurants around Japan. I find Japanese curry to be a bit thicker and taste slightly different from most Indian curries that I've had, but it's still quite good. Coco Ichibanya is pretty good as chains go, and the big draw here is that you can customize your dish by size, hotness, sauce, and toppings. I tried the eggplant and karaage, which was very yummy. You should definitely try Japanese curry at least once, whether here or at another local curry house.
MOS Burger - MOS Burger is the second biggest fast-food chain in Japan (McDonald's is the first). I tried a MOS cheeseburger in Hiroshima when we were looking for a quick bite to eat for lunch. I was kind of surprised by how much my burger matched the menu picture, which is not often the case at other fast food chains, though it was somewhat smaller than most American burgers. The burger is a single patty with cheese, diced onions, a tomato slice, mayonnaise, mustard, and MOS's meat sauce. The meat sauce was not exactly what I'm used to having on my burger, but the flavor was good.
Tip: When you travel, try the local fast food at least once. For me this is one of the harder things to do because I always want "authentic" food from the culture I'm visiting, but sometimes it's fun to see what kinds of fast food are "normal" in another culture.
Soba - Soba refers to the thin buckwheat noodles that you can find in Japanese cuisine. We stopped at a soba restaurant in Kyoto where I had the best hot tempura soba, which was a dish with soba noodles in a hot, clear broth topped with scallions and two shrimp tempura. I also enjoyed them served cold on another occasion in Tokyo. I think they are possibly my favorite Japanese noodles in terms of flavor.
Udon - We had the best udon soup at a little restaurant in Arashiyama near the bamboo forest. The thick udon noodles were in a hot, clear broth with slices of scallions and pork. The meal also came with tsukemono (Japanese pickles), fried rice, and the best soft tofu that I've ever had in my life. The tofu was ridiculously hard to eat with chopsticks, but it was well worth the trouble. It made me wish that I'd made more of an effort to seek out tofu while in Japan. Next time, for sure.
Melonpan - I realize this should probably fall under my list of pastries in my Tokyo post, but really melonpan is so good that it deserves to be in a category all its own. Melonpan is a kind of soft white bun that's lightly flavored with melon (think honeydew) and covered in a thin cookie dough crust. The best melonpan we had in Japan was at a little bakery in the Gion district in Kyoto. It had the right kind of soft, fluffy inside and sugar-crisp outside. We also had a fantastic goma anpan (sesame-filled bun) from the same bakery.
Tip: I'm not sure if Japanese people do this or not, but we often found ourselves eating melonpan, anpan, and goma anpan for breakfast. Since we were often at the train station during our time in the south, it was convenient to get a morning bun with our coffee.
Belgian Beer Bars - I find it kind of ironic that we live just one country over from Belgium, and yet it is harder for us to find Belgian beer in Germany than it was for us to find Belgian beer in Japan, which is half a world away. For this reason, we spent a couple of nights after dinner at the Man in the Moon Irish pub sampling new Belgian beers. Japan seems to make an effort to establish some good craft beer bars (I hear there's a new BrewDog pub in Roppongi), so if beer is your thing, then definitely check one out.
Note: You can find some delicious Japanese beers, like Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo to name the big three, to go along with most meals. Of course you can also drink sake, but I would recommend trying shōchū. Schōchū is a clear distilled liquor usually made from barley, buckwheat, sweet potato, or rice, and served with ice or cut with water. I found it to be a little more drinkable with a meal than sake, and really liked the two kinds I had made from sweet potatoes.
Okonomiyaki - Matt assured me that eating okonomiyaki was a different kind of experience, and the best place to do it would be in Hiroshima, where it's from. The restaurant we found was on a side street in the center of town between the main train station and the Peace Musuem (there were several in that area). We sat at the bar in front of a hot griddle where there was an assembly line of chefs making okonomiyaki. First they started with a thin pancake layer, to which was added a pile of cabbage, bean sprouts, scallions, pork, noodles, egg, and my chosen toppings, scallops, shrimp, and calamari. Then the whole thing was pushed towards me for cutting, like a pizza, and smothered in okonomiyaki sauce. It was really fun to watch the entire process, which they had down to a synchronized dance, and then indulge in the messy pile of food.
This concludes my four-part recap on our trip to Japan. Did you miss something? Start at the beginning with Part 1 on what we saw in Tokyo.