In the Japanese small size bars and “tapas” eating places, owners take pride in every dish they put out. Those individually owned restaurants are found all throughout Japan, in big cities as well as villages. They tend to be much more intimate, have a more regular clientele, and offer significantly smaller food and drink menus. Even if you can barely say hello, thank you and goodbye in Japanese and can´t read any kanji/hiragana/katakana -the components of the Japanese writing system- don´t be afraid to push the doors of those places that will for sure provide you a surprisingly fun and delicious experience.
Dining in Japan can be intimidating to non-Japanese so here are my suggestions of what you should try out if available:
It is very common to start with some sashimi or some raw fish dish. Though it is a great pick, I strongly advise you to try some “ojisan” dishes such as: Tako wasa. It’s food that only “old Japanese men” usually eat…but that any adventurous foodie should try! This raw wasabi marinated octopus is a very refreshing dish and goes very with a very dry beer or a glass of shochu…
In the similar “gluey texture category ”_and to have some veggies during your meal_ Order a little bowl of thinly sliced okra (also called “Lady fingers” because of their shape) with a few drops of soy sauce. Cutting those vegetables into thin slices make the chopping board messy and slimy. Okra pods has the same clear juice as the one that flows through the aloe vera plant, known as mucilage.
To continue, you could follow what most Japanese people order: amongst the perennial favorites are the yakitoris (pieces of meat grilled on bamboo skewers). But, instead of going for the boring usual bits of chicken, give a chance to the amazing juicy and crispy chicken skin or even to the crunchy chicken cartilages.
If you are not on a romantic date, you might want to order a whole deep fried garlic head. Yes, you read “a whole deep fried garlic head”. Cooked on demand and brought to the table piping hot you will be surprised at how incredibly creamy and tasty such a simple dish can be…and how fast you are actually eating this quantity of garlic!
Now, it might be getting late or you might be starting to be full. Traditionally, in places like the izakayas the night is finished off with a rice or noodle dish. Ochazuke _ rice and served with some stock_ and yakisoba _ stir fried egg noodles_ are a classic. A warm and comfy choice for me would be a few steamed rice balls stuffed with minced meat. Dip it into some soy sauce and you’re good to go.
Still not sure what to order? Take your time, explore the menu, and try to talk to your neighbors or to check out what they’re having. In small places nothing is usually too big or too expensive so if you try something and don’t love it is fine. Just keep in mind that it is always fun to discover new dishes and that eating like an elderly can be a wise thing to try…
Photo: Emilie Mounsaveng