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Japanese restaurant 101: From tempura to tofu, here's what to order as a beginner

Curious what to order at a Japanese restaurant? A chef and restaurant owner explains the menu. (Photos: Katsuya; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
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 cuisine may not have a firm grasp on where or how to get started.

If you're visiting — or taking a friend or family member to — a Japanese restaurant for the first time, it's good 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, the executive chef New York Japanese restaurant Katsuya, who describes Japanese cuisine as versatile, seasonal and subtle. "I would typically start off with vegetable dishes such as spinach ohitashi (boiled 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 in, 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 recognizable proteins, like tofu. "Any tofu dish like a hiyayakko (cold tofu cut in a large cubes with assorted condiments on the side) and sukui tofu (soft tofu in a warm soy milk broth)," recommends Yamaguchi.

Seasonal vegetables and mountain vegetables are also a staple in Japanese cuisine. "Order anything seasonal such as fiddlehead ferns, zenmaia (a mountain harvested-fern), renkon (lotus root), burdock root, yurine (Japanese turnips), kabocha (Japanese pumpkins) and mushrooms," he says.

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

Next, Yamaguchi says it's time to move onto proteins like chicken and fish. "A very popular staple of Japanese cuisine is fried chicken (chicken karaage)," says Yamaguchi. "The chicken (usually thigh meat) is marinated in ginger, garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, salt and pepper, then fried with a cornstarch and flour coating."

As fried chicken is recognizable to someone who's never had Japanese food before, karaage is a way of introducing them to a new cuisine while still offering them familiar fare.

The marinated black cod at Katsuya. (Photo: Katsuya)
The marinated black cod at Katsuya. (Photo: Katsuya)

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

"In fact, saikyo miso-marinated cod is a dish first eaten in the Muromachi period in Japan (1336-1568)," Yamaguchi adds. "It's a dish with a rich culture and history made extremely popular in the west by chef Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu restaurants fame. In this dish, the black cod is marinated with a saikyo miso — a sweet miso from the Kyoto region of Japan."

Start with something familiar, then build

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

Ramen is a great way to try a very popular Japanese dish. It's also a good way to close out your meal particularly if you are 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 try it out," Yamaguchi tells Yahoo Life. "Once you get accustomed to the flavor profiles you can always become more adventurous."

Ramen can be an excellent starter dish for those new to Japanese cuisine. (Photo: Katsyua)
Ramen can be an excellent starter dish for those new to Japanese cuisine. (Photo: Katsyua)

The history of Japanese cuisine

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

But overall, Japanese cuisine is based on 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, sauces and things to mask the original flavor."

"For a long time in Japan, people were not allowed to eat meat," he adds. "That's going back more than 1,000 years. But traditions die hard, and we're still a mostly non-red-meat-or-pork-eating society."

Ideda explains that, in the 1850s, when trade routes with the west began opening up, the Japanese emperor allowed the eating of meat. Japanese people became exposed to other countries and their eating habits, adopting some — like eating beef and more animal products.

"Our cuisine is still largely Japanese without too much influence," he says. "You see some French, Chinese and American, but not as much as in other countries."

How to eat at a Japanese restaurant

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

The crispy whole fish served at Umi Sushi and Oyster Bar. (Photo: Umi Sushi and Oyster Bar)
The 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's true for any new experience, regardless of how much time you've spent dining out. "I've been intimidated by large wine lists and menus featuring other cultures' foods," says Ideda. "We need to take it one step at a time."

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

5 best items to order as a beginner:

Still not sure what to order off 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, like bamboo or fiddlehead ferns in spring, mountain vegetables in fall and monkfish or monkfish liver in 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 the dashi (soup stock) and the quality of the miso (fermented soybean seasoning). If the restaurant is confident in their dashi, they will often offer a special miso soup like fish head miso, fish collar miso or blue crab miso.

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

Tempura: Yamaguchi recommends tempura (battered and deep-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, since tempura is one of the best methods to utilize them. It's also a good way to assess the chef's technique by looking at the thickness of the coating — traditional tempura coating should be very light on the batter.

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

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