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7 Japanese Dishes You Need to Know

By Carolyn Alburger
September 10, 2013

Across the country, the best chefs are diving ever deeper into their obsession with hyper-regional Asian foods. They’re going beyond the ubiquitous chow fun and pad Thai, and reaching to approximate new delicacies like xiao long bao and larb moo.

To guide you through this new Asian food movement, here’s the third installment in Zagat’s series outlining the dishes that will define the Asian menus of the future. This primer on Japanese cuisine goes far beyond sushi and sashimi, looking into the izakaya and street-food staples showing up on American menus around the U.S.

  • Photo by: iNG Restaurant

    Okonomiyaki

    The quickest way to explain this dish to Americans? Call it a Japanese pancake. Okonomiyaki (“okonomi" means “as you like,” while “yaki” means “grilled”) is the ultimate soak-up-your-booze food, made from a batter of flour, grated Japanese yam, shredded cabbage, dashi and eggs. Chefs may fold in additional proteins and vegetables according to the season or their whimsy and then cook it like hotcakes on the griddle. Instead of syrup, okonomiyaki is finished off with one or more condiments, like Kewpie mayo and dense, sweet-spicy okonomiyaki sauce, in a toaster-strudel-like fashion. Then, a snowfall of bonito flakes. Few dishes beg more for a beer.

    Where to try: iNG Restaurant in Chicago, or Gottsui in Los Angeles

  • Takoyaki

    A street-food staple originating in Osaka, takoyaki are affectionately known in the U.S. as octopus balls. They are made from batter mixed with octopus chunks, ginger and green onions that are cooked in a special round mold, and then topped off with the same okonomiyaki sauce, Kewpie mayo, green seaweed, bonito flakes or all of the above. Takoyaki are so popular in Osaka that the city’s baseball dome is often referred to as the Takoyaki Dome. Octopus balls are slowly building steam in America as well.

    Where to try: Maru Global Takoyaki in Philadelphia, and Otafuku in NYC

  • Photo by: Onigilly

    Onigiri

    These are the sticky rice balls, formed into a soft triangular or oval shape. There’s often a bit of nori (seaweed) decoratively wrapped around the outside. They’re often eaten as a snack or a light lunch or at the end of a boozy meal to soak everything up. Herbs, seasonings and meats are mixed into the rice or stuffed into the middle, so the variety is endless. In Japan, onigiri are so common they’re sold in 7-Eleven stores.

    Where to try: Onigilly in San Francisco, and Tea Do in Philadelphia

  • Karaage

    The Japanese method of frying is surfacing all over U.S. menus these days. Meat or vegetables are marinated, usually in soy and ginger, and then coated in potato starch or corn flour and fried in oil. We’re seeing chicken karaage more than ever, possibly because it strikes the same chord as American fried chicken. But the ideal chicken karaage has a thin, light and crackly fried exterior that slides gently from the meat, unlike the heavier American rendition. Look for it (called “JFC”) on menus in major U.S. cities.

    Where to try: East Side King in Austin, TX, and Kai Zan in Chicago

  • Chawanmushi

    One of the most delicate dishes in Japanese cuisine, chawanmushi is a steamed savory egg custard seasoned with mirin, soy and dashi, and may have shrimp, uni white fish, mushrooms or numerous other delicacies folded into it. Chawanmushi may be served hot or cold, and the textbook renditions have a supple jiggle to them. If you like flan and Italian sformato, you’ll probably like its more glamourous cousin, chawanmushi, which is usually served in a small cup with a spoon. And it’s not just in Japanese restaurants: many non-native Japanese chefs are interpreting chawanmushi of late.

    Where to try: Shiki in Brookline, MA, and Izakaya Yuzuki in San Francisco

  • Kushiyaki

    With the rise of the izakaya genre of restaurants in America, kushiyaki - the word used to describe all skewered items - is becoming a regular thing. The best kushiyaki are cooked over Japanese binchotan charcoal in a robata grill. Chicken meatballs (tsukune), pork belly, bacon-wrapped mochi and chicken thighs are among the most pleasing kushiyaki to the American palate, while in Japan every part of the chicken - neck, gizzard, skin, etc. - is considered a delicacy.

    Where to try: Ippuku in Berkeley, CA, and Kushi in Washington, DC

  • Tsukemono

    Japanese chefs are slowly but surely getting more comfortable putting their pickled things, or tsukemono, on the table. Unlike Americans with their cucumbers, the Japanese love to pickle a wide variety of vegetables, from pickled daikon to pickled plums (umeboshi), pickled carrots and more - each of them fermented in a range of different spices, seasonings and pickling vinegars. Tsukemono are always served at the very beginning of the meal, as they’re a wonderful palate opener.

    Where to try: Kyo-Ya in NYC and Nojo in San Francisco

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