Elizabeth Waibel is a friend from college who became even closer after we graduated. We share a love of literary analysis, snarky humor, and now, the country and culture of Japan. She currently works as a journalist for The Gazette in Maryland.
I did not particularly want to go to Japan. My limited experience in sushi restaurants that smelled like seaweed did not earn it the same place on my travel priorities list as those countries famous for crisp baguettes or cappuccino, and I have never been a fan of rice.
“They eat tepid fish!” I complained to my sister in between looking for plane tickets, which were unjustly more expensive to Japan than to places known for pasta and cheese.
My best friend has lived in Japan since 2011. For about a year, ever since I realized she wasn’t coming back, I had been promising to visit. So, prodded by the thought that few are so lucky to have a friend in such an interesting place and reassured by the thought that, if necessary, I could live off tempura (breaded and deep-fried shrimp or vegetables) for a week, I brushed up my chopsticks skills and booked a knee-numbing flight to Tokyo.
In retrospect, it was horribly unfair to judge an entire country on which of its dishes had happened to make their way to suburban America. There is so much more to Japanese food than sushi, and I could have happily spent at least two more weeks exploring the flavors and ingredients of a cuisine almost entirely new to me.
So, whether you are planning a trip to Japan or are tired of faking a fish allergy to avoid sushi restaurants with friends, here area few Japanese food recommendations that do not involve raw fish:
1. Tonkatsu – A breaded and fried slice of pork often served with rice, cabbage, and a delicious sauce that (to this American) tastes similar to teriyaki. Recommended for fans of cornflake chicken or schnitzel.
2. Ramen – This is NOT the same as the 20-cent instant noodles you ate in your dorm room, although you can buy things like that in Japan too. One of my favorite things I ate in Japan, ramen is a soup of wheat noodles in a savory broth topped with things like pork, bean sprouts, onions, and a boiled egg. It was oishii (delicious)!
3. Okonomiyaki – Cabbage is mixed with a simple, smoky-flavored egg and flour batter and fried into a thick, savory pancake. Then, it is brushed with a sweet and smoky sauce and topped with bits of dried, smoked fish that seem to be Japan’s answer to bacon bits. Okonomiyaki often has other ingredients mixed in, such as shrimp and noodles. Some restaurants in Tokyo also serve monjayaki, which resembles a goopy stir-fry and tastes like a comfort-food casserole. I recommend trying the kind with cheese.
4. Kakigori – This is basically a gourmet sno-cone. Kakigori is shaved ice that can be topped with strawberry (ichigo) syrup and condensed milk or, for those seeking more uniquely Japanese flavors, green tea syrup, red beans and mochi (rice paste). Ichigo kakigori with milk served with hojicha (green tea whose leaves have been smoked) might have been the best thing I ate in Japan.
If you ever do make it to Japan, be sure to get food at one of the many conbinis, or convenience stores. Food at the 7-Eleven in Japan is wildly better than food at the 7-Eleven in America. You can get a wide selection of refrigerated lunches, drinks and fun snacks. I also recommend visiting a place that sells sushi (preferably the cooked kind) on conveyor belts that run past all the tables, delivering a steady line of food. This is the future of dining.
So yes, there is more to Japanese food than sashimi, and it is possible to visit there for a week or more without eating tepid fish. Enjoy!
Me (right) and my friend enjoying iced coffee from a cobini on the shinkansen, or bullet train.
The culinary genius behind my first Japanese ramen experience.
Keep up with Elizabeth via her Twitter account, @lizwaibel. I suggest you also look into Ishinomaki Christian Center if you’d like to donate to an organization that supports community rebuilding efforts after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.