The Japanese may seem very straight laced and serious, but trust me, they love their food. In fact, much to my surprise, they have a thriving street food culture that if not rivals, but at least compares to our own. Seasons and local ingredients play a big role in what you’ll be eating and where but rest assured, all of it is going to be tasty as heck. For the uninitiated, their street food stalls are also known as “yatai” and you’ll find them dotting random alleyways and in great numbers during seasonal festivals. So now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about a few delicious street treats you should get your hands on when you visit Japan.
Takoyaki are golden balls of fried batter filled with little pieces of octopus, tenkasu (tempura scraps), pickled ginger and spring onion. Originally from Osaka, the dough balls are fried in special cast-iron pans, and are served hot and crispy with Japanese mayonnaise, a savory brown sauce similar to Worcestershire, aonori (dried seaweed) and dried bonito fish flakes. Just be careful not burn your tongue!
No Japanese festival would be complete without the familiar sizzling of yakisoba. Wheat noodles, pork, cabbage, and onions are fried on a griddle, then topped with pickled ginger, dried bonito fish flakes, dried seaweed, a squeeze of Worcestershire sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, and occasionally, a fried egg. The deeply savory flavors of this dish give it wide appeal.
A truly classic Japanese treat, yakitori are chicken skewers that are grilled over charcoal and can be found all over Japan. Yakitori is made from all parts of the chicken, such as the thigh meat, tail meat, and even the skin, each with their own unique flavor. The most common seasonings are tare (soy grilling sauce) and shio (salt), but wasabi, umeboshi (sour pickled plum paste), and karashi (Japanese mustard) can also be found at yakitori stands.
Imagawayaki is a sweet street food treat that is made from a batter of eggs, flour, sugar, and water that is ‘baked’ in disk-shaped molds. The end-product is a golden, bite-sized sponge filled with either sweet red bean paste, chocolate, or custard.
Though whole-grilled squid on a stick may not sound like the most glamorous or appealing snack to some, Japanese street food chefs have mastered bringing out the best in a simple concept. Fresh, tender squid is grilled over charcoal, given a generous coating of shoyu (soy sauce) and served with a slice of lemon or lime. The chewy texture unique to squid meat is really something to be experienced.
If you’re in need of satisfying your sweet tooth, look no further than wataame. Wataame (also called watagashi), is Japanese cotton candy and can be found at street food stalls and festivals all over Japan, where you can watch the cotton candy being spun around a stick, or buy ready-made cotton candy in packets that are often decorated with manga characters.