Soba, sashimi, yakitori and kaiseki – the number of sub-cuisines in Japan almost matches its number of subcultures. Japan is a country of great culinary strength. Its capital, Tokyo, alone is home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else in the world.
With such diversity on hand, it can sometimes prove tricky choosing exactly what to eat. Outside of the usual suspects like sushi, gyoza, and okonomiyaki, here are five to try on a visit, and a few to make at home.
1. Nasu dengaku – the eggplant dish dreams are made of
Even if you've eaten it in Australia, nasu dengaku is a must try when in Japan. It's a dish simple yet mighty enough to convert even those who don't usually fancy eggplant. Chef Diana Chan says on the series Asia Unplated with Diana Chan that it's one of her most loved Japanese dishes.
"This is one of those dishes that's quite traditional and you find it in a lot of Japanese restaurants. It's a good starter."
Dishes that are glazed with sweet miso paste are referred to as 'dengaku', as is the case with nasu (eggplant). It is traditionally made with long, thin eggplants that are cut in half lengthways, placed skin-side down and cooked in the oven. While that's taking place, miso is boiled with the likes of brown sugar and mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine) to create a thick, umami-bursting glaze.
The glaze is then spread generously on top before being finished off in the oven. A celebratory, confetti-like sprinkling of black and white sesame seeds decorate the dish. Nasu dengaku is a top veg option, not to be missed.
2. Kaburamushi – a Kyoto classic
Kaburamushi is commonly enjoyed during the depths of winter in Kyoto. The dish combines white fish - be it snapper or rockfish - with turnip, dashi (fish stock) and mirin to create a soul-warming, nutrient-packed dish.
The fish is covered by a mixture of grated turnip and egg white before it's placed in a steamer for about 10 minutes. The dashi and mirin are boiled down together and spooned over the fish, egg and turnip. Finishing touches often include carrots, ginger, edamame and/or mushrooms.
3. Neapolitan pizza – an unassuming contender
Not a dish you expected to see, we guess. Great pizza knows no borders and that is definitely the case when it comes to Japan. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a renowned Naples-based association that grants designation for authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas, has given 54 Japanese restaurants a seal. Australia has 21.
Establishments with the accreditation are only allowed to use specific ingredients, they must abide by traditional pizza-making methods, and there are parameters on oven temperature, the size and the shape of the pizza. It's an honour to be certified, but the methods are strict.
However, in Japan, pizza masters do put their own Japanese spin on the classic by upping the salt factor.
4. Uni pasta – the carbonara of Japan
Tomoya Kawasaki, co-owner of new modern Japanese diner Chotto Motto in Melbourne, says uni pasta is worth indulging in Japan. "Uni pasta is really unusual, rich in taste and very addictive," Kawasaki says.
'Uni' is the Japanese word for sea urchin, and if Italian pastas topped with bottarga (mullet roe) work in Italy, this one would be bound to work too.
It's a pasta of few ingredients, not that it needs many thanks to the strength of flavour that comes with sea urchin.
Spaghetti is boiled, then fried together with garlic, sea urchin roe and cream (often the famed cream from Hokkaido). Think of it like a Japanese carbonara.
5. Soy sauce soft-serve – a dessert against the status quo
You may have heard about this by now, perhaps scrolled by it on Instagram – soy sauce has gone beyond its savoury duties and into ice-cream territory. The slightly salty flavour fits well with Japan's not-so-sweet reputation for desserts.
This is another favourite of Kawasaki who says it's "very unique but you'll want to go back and eat more.
"We also have a soy sauce and miso soft serve at Chotto Motto" for those who don't have a trip planned, but are intrigued nonetheless.
Catch Diana Chan and friends cooking and eating their way across Asia in Australia in the brand-new series, Asia Uplated with Diana Chan. Airs on SBS Food at 8pm Thursdays from 19 December 2019 to 20 February 2020, or catch up on SBS On Demand.