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an easy guide to ordering and how to eat

Curious what to order at a Japanese restaurant? A chef and restaurant owner explains the menu. (Photos: Katsuya; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Japanese restaurants are among my favorite dining experiences. I love sushi and sashimi, cocktails and yakitori. But those who are new to the kitchen may not have a firm grasp on where or How to begin.

If you’re visiting—or taking a friend or family member to—a Japanese restaurant for the first time, it’s a good idea to be prepared with an introduction to the cuisine. “Being a Japanese chef, I always order something true to my heart and culture,” says Chef Taishi Yamaguchi, executive chef of New York Japanese restaurant Katsuya, who describes Japanese cuisine as versatile, seasonal and subtle. “I would usually start with vegetable dishes like ohitashi spinach (steamed spinach with a light dashi soy sauce, sake and mirin).”

Japanese restaurant menus 101

It also depends on the type of restaurant you’re dining at, whether it’s a sushi, izakaya, ramen, kaiseki or yakitori restaurant. Yamaguchi says the easiest place to start with someone unfamiliar with the food would be with recognizable proteins like tofu. “Any tofu dish like hiyayakko (cold tofu cut into large cubes with assorted spices on the side) and tofu sukui (soft tofu in a warm soy milk broth),” recommends Yamaguchi.

Seasonal vegetables and mountain vegetables are also a staple in Japanese cuisine. “Order any season, such as fiddlehead fern, zenmaia (a harvested mountain fern), renkon (lotus root), burdock root, yurine (Japanese turnips), kabocha (Japanese pumpkins) and mushrooms,” he says he.

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Fiddlehead ferns, for example, are prepared in numerous ways, such as tempura (battered and fried) with sea salt, kurumi-ae (in a sweet nut sauce) or goma-ae (in a sweet sesame sauce ).

Next, Yamaguchi says it’s time to switch to proteins like chicken and fish. “A very popular staple in Japanese cuisine is fried chicken (karaage chicken),” says Yamaguchi. “The chicken (usually leg meat) is marinated in ginger, garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, salt and pepper, then fried in a layer of cornstarch and flour.”

Because fried chicken is recognizable to someone who has never eaten Japanese food before, karaage is a way to introduce them to a new cuisine while still giving them familiar dishes.

Katsuya marinated black cod.  (Photo: Katsuya)

Katsuya marinated black cod. (Photo: Katsuya)

There are some glorious fish dishes in Japanese cuisine, especially at a restaurant as famous as Katsuya. “For fish dishes,” says Yamaguchi, “I would usually order grilled mackerel, hokke (atka mackerel), aji (horse mackerel), salmon or my favorite cod, marinated in miso saikyo.”

“Actually, miso saikyo marinated cod is a dish that was first eaten in Japan’s Muromachi period (1336-1568),” adds Yamaguchi. “It is a dish with a rich culture and history, made extremely popular in the West by chef Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu restaurant fame. In this dish, black cod is marinated with miso saikyo – a sweet miso from the region Kyoto from Japan.”

Start with something familiar, then build

Yamaguchi says that Japanese food is about starting with a broad stroke, then getting down to finer details. Go with the familiar, then move on to the adventure. “My advice to someone visiting a Japanese restaurant for the first time would be to start with something light, with familiar ingredients,” he says, “and then move on to fried and grilled dishes. If you’re not feeling too adventurous, order a protein. you’re familiar, so you have a sense of taste, but enjoy the Japanese sauces or the cooking methods with which the protein is prepared.”

Ramen is a great way to try a very popular Japanese dish. It’s also a good way to cap off your meal, especially if you’re at an izakaya-style restaurant (a casual Japanese bar that serves alcoholic drinks and snack-sized portions). “Don’t be intimidated by the options, it’s always important to find an ingredient that’s familiar to you and give it a try,” Yamaguchi tells Yahoo Life. “Once you get used to the flavor profiles, you can always get more adventurous.”

Ramen can be an excellent appetizer for those unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine.  (Photo: Katsyua)

Ramen can be an excellent appetizer for those unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine. (Photo: Katsyua)

History of Japanese cuisine

Japanese cuisine has changed over the years due to inputs and changes. “A lot of regional cuisines have come together to become the most delicious cuisine in Japan,” says Kiyo Ideda, head chef of Umi Sushi and Oyster Bar at Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula, California.”[Japanese cuisine is made up of] rice, miso, fish, vegetables, noodles and more.”

But in general, Japanese cuisine is all about simplicity. “We like to let the essence of the ingredients do the heavy lifting,” says Ideda. “And we don’t like to add too many other flavors and sauces and things that mask the original flavor.”

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“For a long time in Japan, people were not allowed to eat meat,” he adds. “This goes back more than 1,000 years. But traditions die hard, and we are still a society that does not consume red meat or pork”.

Ideda explains that in the 1850s, when trade routes with the west began to open, the Japanese emperor allowed meat to be eaten. The Japanese became exposed to other countries and their eating habits, adopting some – such as eating beef and more animal products.

“Our cuisine is still mostly Japanese, without much influence,” he says. “You see some French, Chinese and Americans, but not as much as in other countries.”

How to eat at a Japanese restaurant

Are you ready to try Japanese food? Take your time with the menu and know that it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for assistance with the options on offer. “You can let the server know that you’re not that adventurous of an eater, and they’ll pass it on to the chef,” Ideda says. “They can make recommendations about what might be good. You can also order several appetizers to see what you like, or ask if the restaurant serves small plates from their entree options. They want you to come back, so it’s not in their best interest to scare you.”

Crispy whole fish served at Umi Sushi and Oyster Bar.  (Photo: Umi Sushi and Oyster Bar)

Crispy whole fish served at Umi Sushi and Oyster Bar. (Photo: Umi Sushi and Oyster Bar)

It can be easy to get intimidated, something that goes for any new experience, no matter how long you’ve spent dining out. “I have has been intimidated by large wine lists and menus featuring food from other cultures,” says Ideda. “We have to take it one step at a time.”

Try something, then branch out and try something else you might like. You might discover a new favorite food.

Top 5 items to order as a beginner:

Still not sure what to order from the menu? Chef Yamaguchi recommends going with the following items, which should be found on any menu, for the best first-time experience.

Seasonal dishes: For amazing flavors, order any dish the restaurant offers as a seasonal dish, such as bamboo or fiddle ferns in the spring, mountain vegetables in the fall, and monkfish liver in the winter.

Miso soup: Yamaguchi says you can learn a lot about a restaurant by trying their miso soup. For example, you can taste the flavor of dashi (soup stock) and the quality of miso (fermented soy seasoning). If the restaurant has confidence in their dashi, they will often offer a special miso soup, such as fish head miso, fish collar miso, or blue crab miso.

Tamago (egg omelet): In Japan, Yamaguchi says, it’s customary to try a sushi restaurant’s tamago (omelette) first, because tamago has dashi, soy and sugar and is a very technical dish to prepare. By tasting the tamago, you can get an idea of ​​how much sugar the chef likes to use in his dishes, as well as the quality of the dashi, eggs and other ingredients used at the restaurant.

Tempura: Yamaguchi recommends tempura (battered and fried meat, vegetables or seafood) because there are a million ways to prepare the dish. It’s a good way to see if the restaurant uses seasonal ingredients, as tempura is one of the best ways to use them. It’s also a good way to gauge the cook’s technique by looking at the thickness of the coating – traditional tempura coating should be very light on the batter.

Wagyu: Definitely try wagyu (Japanese beef) if the restaurant has it on the menu, Yamaguchi says, because it’s top-notch beef. There are many different types of wagyu – almost every prefecture in Japan has its own version, and Australia has their own variety as well.

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