“Why is there corn on my pizza?”
Let’s talk about food in Japan! Not to sound cliché but the best way to experience somewhere is food and Japan doesn’t disappoint. I’m a firm believer in trying things out (within your dietary restrictions, obviously). I’m a longtime vegetarian (20+ years) and eat a mostly vegan diet at home but sometimes I flex with dairy & eggs when I travel (triggers collective vegan *gasp*). I definitely paid for this on my last trip but that’s another story.
Here are a few things that might catch you off guard about food in Japan but are totally legit:
What is on my pizza?
Need I tell you that pizza isn’t a traditional Japanese food? The most Japanese thing about foreign foods like pizza are the twist they put into it to make it their own. Some unusual toppings might include: corn, baby spinach leaves in place of basil, mayo (Kewpie), potatoes, all manner of seafood & more. Don’t be put off by it, just try it out!
What is sweet bean paste & why is it in everything?
If you’re not familiar with Asian food then this one can be a bit odd, but I really love it! Sweet red bean paste can be found in pastries, mochi & more. Slightly earthy and sweet, my favorite is eating this in taiyaki (fish shaped cakes).
Why do people buy meals at 7-Eleven?
Biggest shock of all: you can get a decent meal at 7-Eleven, Lawson & Family Mart (all convenience stores) in Japan. I don’t know your stance on it but here in America I wouldn’t ever entertain the idea of buying prepared food at a convenience store. Maybe I’m a snob, maybe I wouldn’t find anything that I could even eat, whatever. The point is that you can get a good (and cheap) meal or snack at a convenience store. Soba, tempura, buns, tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and sandwiches. I would recommend the tamago sando (egg salad sandwich – even Anthony Bourdain got down with these, RIP) and the onigiri (rice balls) – just watch the filling ingredients if you’re not eating fish (they contain everything from seaweed to red beans to tuna with mayo).
Wait, are people lifting their bowls to their faces when they eat?
Totally fine! You’re better off slurping your noodles and it’s considered decent table manners to lift the bowl to your face with rice or noodles. Just take a peek around and follow suit.
What is up with this teapot looking thing they brought out after my soba dish?
So I’ll open with this: soba is my jam! I like the cold soba best and could probably eat it everyday….topped with nori….yum! Anyways, if you order soba at a restaurant you’ll usually be given a teapot looking vessel towards the end of your meal. This is actually part of the cooking liquid from the soba and is thought to contain high levels of nutrients. You’re supposed to take this and pour it into your leftover sauce (when you’re done!) and drink it like tea. It’s very salty and earthy but it’s tasty.
Why did my dinner companion pour my beer for me?
If you’re dining with others in Japan it’s considered proper manners to pour for others and let them do the same for you. Kampai!
What’s with the mayo?
It’s just…a thing. And it’s not just any mayo, it’s Kewpie. The Japanese take their mayo seriously and it’s used fairly liberally as a topping for things like pizza & okonomiyaki and can also be a filling for onigiri.
What’s being said at the table?
You’ll notice Japanese people saying something before they eat – Itadakimasu. It’s a way to recognize, show respect & appreciate the food that’s about to be consumed. Also very good form if you’re dining with others, FYI.
What food related customs/practices have you come across on your travels? I’d love to hear about them!