Food in Japan: Home Cooking and Eating Out (Veggie)

Food is an important part of culture all around the world, and “the Japanese are among the most enthusiastic and passionate of any race”. Every town has its local specialty, on every corner you can buy Japanese snacks or drinks. The traditional Japanese cuisine is based on white rice, fish, miso soup, sea weed and vegetables. Red meat was not eaten till the Meiji Revolution (1868), when Japan opened up its borders to western countries and the taboo on the consumption of “four-legged creatures” was abolished. Also, the traditional diet consisted barely of dairy products. Seasoning (soy sauce, mirin, vinegar, pepper, wasabi…) is indispensable. As a result, Japanese cuisine contains a lot of salt but is relatively healthy compared to Western (greasy) food.

Traditional Japanese meal (和食) –

This post is entirely devoted to my eating habits here as a student in Japan. Except for one big meat incident on my second day in Kobe, I managed to remain vegetarian (no meat, no fish). And it is actually easier than I expected. However, I have to admit I make an exception for dashi  出汁, fish stock, used as the basis in miso and noodle soup. There are restaurants with absolutely no vegetarian options, but most of the time there is at least one dish, or you can ask to leave the meat/fish out. This far, people have made so much effort when I request something veggie, that I have never fallen short on food.

I try to make a bentō 弁当(lunch box) as much as possible. When I do not feel like cooking, I enjoy Japanese or not so Japanese food at the countless restaurants here. Below, you will find a bunch of photos from both home cooking as well as restaurant food. Enjoy! Warning: do not read this if you are hungry.

Home Cooking (家庭料理 katei ryōri)

I usually cook with the same ingredients I used in Belgium like tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber (really small in Japan), in combination with Japanese ingredients like daikon, tsukemono (pickles) and Japanese mushrooms (shiitake, enokitake). I am not really good at cooking and I am on a student budget, so I like to keep things simple.


Rice – tōfu, umeboshi (dried plums), soy sprouts fried in soy sauce,  – salad: cucumber, Japanese pickles, lettuce, dressing.


A bit unclear and does not seem so tasty but actually is! Soba noodles with egg, daikon (Japanese radish) and broccoli


Miso soup with great burdock – rice, fried soy sprouts, egg – tomato, lettuce, daikon


When I crave for a Belgian sandwich (“belegd broodje”). Brown bread is nowhere to be found in Japan. Funny thing: cheese is wrapped per slice!

Bentō 弁当

Bentō is a packed lunch you can make yourself or buy at the supermarket. I bought every item of my bentō set on the picture below at the 100 yen-shop. Most bentōs are made with leftovers from dinner and put in the fridge. Because it is pretty time-consuming, making it in the morning has become quite impossible for me. Some people have a special small bag to bring their bentō to school or to work, but I usually wrap it in a colored piece of cloth. I also bought a two-layered bentō box that you can tightly close (a bit more expensive, but certainly worth the purchase).



The cute bentō stuff section in a regular shop.


Lettuce, fried tōfu, cucumber, mame (soybeans), egg and I think there are some shiitake hidden in there as well.


Cold pasta is also great for lunch. I use this sesame dressing a lot, it is delicious.


This is how I make onigiri. I use plastic triangle-shaped molds so my lunch does not get crushed  by school books. I sprinkle a vegetable and sesame seed mix on the rice and cover the sides with nori (seaweed). Sometimes I add a umiboshi.


My two-layered lunch box: first layer is rice with steamed vegetables, second layer is a salad. Between them is a compartment with chop sticks and a cold pack for during summer.

Eating Out (外食 gaishoku)


I guess you could not really call this eating out: kitsune udon (thick wheat noodles with fried tōfu and spring onion on top) from the university cafeteria.


Vegetarian curry rice with extra eggplant.


Okonomiyaki – Japanese pancake/pizza. I ordered one with mochi (sticky rice) and cheese. The chef was so kind to leave out the katsuobushi (bonito flakes) for me.


A Japanese set meal (定食 teishoku). Usually this means white rice, pickles, sometimes tōfu and a main dish, like nikomi udon this time: udon with fried tōfu and (without for me) meat.


At an izakaya 居酒屋, a Japanese “pub” with friends. Next to a “all-you-can-drink” 飲み放題 (nomihōdai) we enjoyed many dishes, starting with seasoned vegetables and pickles.


A speciality of Akashi: takoyaki (octopus dumplings) dipped in dashi. Because I got dumplings without octopus it tasted a bit like typically Belgian deep-fried dough balls (“oliebollen”).


Italian food is popular in Japan too. I have eaten some great pastas before and the pizza is, well, okay. Among Japanese restaurants, the cheapest place to get food is at a “family restaurant”. Prices are ridiculously low, and you mostly get free drinks. Of course the food is no haute cuisine but if you choose wisely, you can score some tasty things.


Indian food is great in Japan. I ordered a vegetarian set meal with a salad, naan, vegetable yoghurt, rice, tomato soup, some deep-fried thing stuffed with chickpeas (forgot the name), and two types of curry (one with various kinds of vegetables, the other with beans). I honestly ate too much that day.

There is a great vegetarian/vegan diner in Sannomiya, Kobe: Modernark Pharm Cafe.


wrap sandwiches, tofu burger, soup and pickles.


Curry rice with honey yoghurt, pickles and tofu burger.

Sweets (菓子 kashi)

You can find the same cookies and sweets they sell in western countries here as well (洋菓子 yōgashi) – although the chocolate doesn’t come close to Belgian chocolate, of course.


The Dōshima roll with fruit from famous shop Mon Chou Chou in Osaka.

Popcorn comes in various colors and flavors.

Popcorn comes in various colors and flavors.

I personally prefer traditional Japanese sweets (和菓子 wagashi), mostly made from mochi (sticky rice cake) and other natural ingredients, like anko (red bean paste). I would love to share some of my own photos, but unfortunately I forgot to take pictures before stuffing my face with them.


I simply cannot resist mitarashi dango: mochi dumpling with sweet soy sauce.


Daifukumochi (rice cake stuffed with sweet bean jam or matcha) has a soft texture and is delicious as 4 o’clock snack. It is not too sweet and very filling.


Less traditional is melon pan. This sweet bread has, except for its pastel color, nothing in common with melon. There are versions with extra butter or chocolate chunks.

Dorayaki - Doraemon's favorite snack - is bread filled with sweet bean paste.

Dorayaki – Doraemon’s favorite snack – is bread filled with sweet bean paste.

Matcha parfait with ice, cream, nuts, cookies, cornflakes, mochi and almonds

Matcha parfait with ice, cream, nuts, cookies, cornflakes, mochi and almonds

Gyōza, Jiaozi and Mandu

Schermafbeelding 2014-07-15 om 15.23.09Japanese food, except for sushi places (that are often not really Japanese) and one or two top class restaurants, is rarely being served in Belgium. A pity, because the Japanese cuisine is very rich and healthy. The basic component of a Japanese meal is a bowl of rice, served with side dishes like vegetables and fish. Meat only became common after the modernisation in 1868. 

For present-day Japanese, rice, soy sauce and fresh seafood are the ultimate symbols of ‘Japaneseness’, symbols more powerful than the cherry blossom or the national flag in that they satisfy visceral cravings.

Today, many non-traditional dishes are on the daily menu. Some of these popular dishes aren’t even Japanese, but imported and adapted to the Japanese taste. I’m talking about curry rice (recipe in this previous post), ramen and nikuman (or butaman in Kansai) etc. Among these, gyōza is one of my favorites. Gyōza are dough dumplings, usually filled with cabbage and minced pork, optionally in combination with sesame oil and garlic. The dumplings are steamed, boiled or fried and often served as a side dish. Gyōza are usually eaten dipped in soy sauce. gyoza-japaneseThe word gyōza 餃子 was derived from the pronunciation of the same word in Chinese Shandong dialect, jiaozi. After all, it is originally a Chinese dish. The difference between the Chinese and Japanese snack is that jiaozi have more variety in fillings, strong-flavored seasoning and thicker dumpling wrappers than gyōza. The Chinese dish became popular in Japan after the invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

More than a million Japanese who resided in Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria and other Chinese territories under Japan’s domination, not to mention hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fought on the continent, acquired a taste for foreign food and played a critical role in its popularization in post-war Japan. (…) Returnees from Manchuria found themselves jobless in the midst of devastation and food shortages, and many embarked in the making and selling of gyōza to their hungry customers.

In Korea as well, dumplings (mandu 만두 in Korean) are pretty popular. The filling is mostly the same as Japanese gyōza, although Korean people tend to serve it in combination with kimchi or, like in this picture, as a side dish with rice cakes (tteok ) and vegetables. 


– Cwiertka, Katarzyna Joanna. Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity, 2006.

– S. for teaching me how to make gyōza and L.B.R. for preparing those delicious Korean dishes, thank you!

Fancy Fugu

Not only as one of the most expensive dishes, but as one of the deadliest as well, fugu sashimi 河豚刺身 is renowned around the world. The Japanese has the following proverb to express their love for this delicacy:

fugu wa kuitashi inochi was oshishi

Literally translated as: “I want to eat fugu, but my life is dear”. Its English equivalent is “Honey is sweet, but the bee stings”.

Fugu 河豚 is Japanese for “puffer fish”, a species that contains the poisonous tetrodotoxin in its organs. Fugu is caught mainly in the Pacific Ocean, and is highly popular during winter, because the fish becomes fatter to endure the cold ocean water. The largest market for fugu in Japan is Shimonoseki, a city in the southwestern tip of Honshū. How it is prepared you  can see in the following BBC documentary.

After two or three years of apprenticeship, chefs are allowed to serve this dish. Not many pass the final test. Once in the possession of a certification, fugu chefs have to carefully remove 11 parts of the fish. And with carefully, I mean that one wrong cut can poison their clients. It is a matter of life and death.

One gram of tetrodotoxin can kill 500 people, and once consumed, there is no known antidote to save you from asphyxiation, paralysis and death (6.8%). Every year, between 20 and 40 people in Japan are suffering from fugu intoxication. But it must be said that only in exceptional cases poisoning happens in a restaurant. Most incidents involve fishermen who eat their fancy catch.

One famous case is the death of kabuki legend Bandō Mitsugorō VIII. He ordered no less than 4 portions of fugu liver to prove that he was safe for the poisoned stuff. But when he returned to his hotel room, he died after hours of paralysis and convulsions.

A recent case is the suspension of a chef at a two-Michelin star restaurant, who served fugu liver to a client. The client specifically asked for it. Sometimes Japanese obedience is a bit too much… The client survived, though.

Homer enjoys his poisoned dish.

Homer enjoys his poisoned dish.

Facts for Fun

– To safeguard his health, the Japanese Emperor is not allowed to eat fugu.


The Gap Travel Guide

The Land of Chocolate and Beer

What do Japanese think of Belgium? Curious about the answer on this question, we went to Bruges, a small but cosy place aka tourist attraction and asked some Japanese on holiday the following questions:

1. What is Belgium known for?

No one failed in giving the answer “chocolate” right away the moment they were asked. I also learned that the Belgian shop “Godiva” has a branch in Japan too and is pretty famous. In Bruges, half of the shops sell chocolate to tourists. It’s true, we Belgians take the chocolate for granted and see it as daily sweets, while it is something for special occasions in other countries. Valentine’s Day for example. If you have no idea how chocolate-minded Japanese spend this day, click here.

Belgium chocolateThe answer “chocolate” was quickly followed by “waffles”. There are different kinds (like Liège waffle and Brussels waffle), and you can even get one with chocolate on it. Most of the waffle shops sell waffles in winter and ice-cream in summer.

Beer gained a third place. And that’s a fact. There are more than 600 varieties of Belgian beer, brewed by approximately 178 breweries.

Belgian food in general is popular. A couple assured us that the mussels with french fries they had the evening before were very good. Our meals are indeed rather heavy, part of our ‘burgundian lifestyle’.

Surprisingly, French fries was only called once. Probably the name is part of the problem. If I have to think of a something typically Belgian, I would immediately say French fries. Apart from the fact that it’s not very healthy, we eat it very often. That’s because there are a lot of specialised snackbar-like “frituren” who stay open till very late and because it’s delicious of course. Somehow we can’t get tired of our fries.

After all the food, the Japanese tourists mentioned the attractions and buildings. Apparently Manneken Pis (shōbenkozō 小便小僧) is known from here to Tokyo (they have a replica in Hamamatsuchō Station). I am ashamed to admit that I have never seen it myself before… The city of Antwerp evokes a lot of memories: many Japanese have seen the anime “The dog of Flanders” (furandāsu no inu フランダースの犬). No wonder some people still think the city looks the same as in the good old days with Nello and Patrasche.

Except for 4 smart girls who remembered Magritte, no one could tell us the name of a famous Belgian person. I think if Belgians were asked about famous Japanese, they would come up with Haruki Murakami or perhaps Yoko Ono.

2. What did you expect before coming to Belgium? Did it meet your expectations?


All matching answers: “Belgium is small and cute (kawaii 可愛い). There are lots of beautiful, old buildings and lots of sweets and good food.” They didn’t seem to regret their trip, as it fully met their expectations.

3. Has something struck you as surprising or odd? Compared to Japan, did something unexpected happen?

“There was chocolate shaped as a dog.”
“There are two languages on the signboards (Dutch and French), who are cute too, by the way.”
“There are horses riding through the city!”
“Brussels is a filthy place.”
“People are friendly, tall and beautiful.”
“There are no ticket gates at the train station. You can ride for free.”
“The streets have cobblestones.”
“There are many individual stores and less chain stores.”

4. Up till now, what did you like most about Belgium?

“The chocolate shaped as a dog.”
“The horse carriage in Bruges.”
“The food.”
“Friendly people.”
“Bruges and other beautiful towns.”
“My friend who invited me over.”

Facts for Fun

– to get hungry: Godiva