Japan makes it easy to experience its culture with all five of your senses. Here’s your guide to must-eat regional dishes from across the country.
There are some destinations in Canada that have become linked with well-loved Canadian dishes. Think Montreal and smoked meat sandwiches, or the St. Lawrence Market here in Toronto and its legendary peameal bacon sandwiches.
So when I learned about the way that Japanese regions are often strongly associated with certain dishes, I thought I understood the association. I’d tell people I lived in Hokkaido, they’d respond with “I hear the seafood is amazing there,” and I’d agree. But I didn’t truly understand the depth of these connections until I set out to climb Mt. Rishiri, Japan’s northernmost mountain, which sits on an island off the tip of Hokkaido. I returned from this expedition eager to share my mountain-scaling accomplishment with my colleagues at the Board of Education in my town.
When I excitedly told my supervisor about the trip, the first words out of his mouth were, “but did you eat Rishiri uni?” Apparently the island is well known for the superior calibre of its sea urchin sashimi.
When I let him know that I was a little too busy climbing a mountain to worry about uni, he was crestfallen. It was like I’d told him that I’d been to Venice but had given the Grand Canal a pass. The vibe I got from him was very much “if you’re going to go to Rishiri and not eat the uni, then what’s the point in even going?”
In the hope that you will never have to repeat my mistakes, here’s a primer of some of Japan’s most famous regional dishes. From Sapporo ramen to Okinawa’s rafute pork belly, we’ve managed to hit all of Japan’s edible isles, and we’ve even included some suggestions for where to find these dishes in Toronto. Itadakimasu (let’s eat)!
Here’s a little taste of some of the best-known regional foods from across Japan
1) Sapporo ramen
This variation takes the stick-toyour-ribs, comfort-food aspects that ramen is already known for and dials them up to max (allegedly to keep people warm through the blustery Hokkaido winters!). Sapporo-style ramen popularized the rich miso base, but it’s also easily spotted by the inclusion of ingredients like sweet corn, beansprouts, fresh seafood or a big gob of Hokkaido butter.
This Akita Prefecture staple is made from fresh-cooked rice pounded into a consistency similar to mochi. Traditionally, it is then moulded around thick cedar skewers and roasted over an open flame. The finished, cylindrical product is usually served with sweet miso or added to nabe or oden, playing a role that is part dumpling and part noodle. The name is a reference to its shape, which looks like the cotton wrapped around the tip of a spear.
A variation on the Osaka-born dish okonomiyaki, monja-yaki is a similar savoury pancake filled with finely chopped ingredients. However, it differs in that more fish stock or water is added to the batter, making it far runnier. Though this might look a little less appealing when slopped onto the grill, the finished dish is worth it, offering a deliciously gooey consistency.
If you didn’t think that tonkatsu could get any tastier, then you owe it to yourself to try this Nagoya take on that Japanese staple. Though it uses the same deepfried pork cutlet as a traditional tonkatsu, the typical sweet tonkatsu sauce is swapped out for a topping made of dark red hacho miso paste. This variation imparts a much bolder, richer flavour to the dish and sometimes takes some getting used to.
This alternate take on nigiri sushi has deep historical roots, with references to it having been found as early as the Heian era. It is a version of oshizushi—sushi where the fish and rice are pressed together—where the rice is traditionally topped with salt-pickled trout. At first glance, its thin, round profile could make you think that it was the dish that inspired the Western invention of sushi pizza.
Having once had to sell takoyaki at the annual Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre summer festival, I flippantly dubbed it “the Timbit of the sea.” Though these battered balls may resemble little donuts, their savoury filling contains a deal more octopus. Another way to describe them would be as okonomiyaki bites, as they use similar batter, sauces and ingredients. However, they end up crispier on the outside and a little gooey on the inside.
This regional variation on ramen is for those who want broth that’s thick enough to stand on. Pork bones are cooked at a very high heat to release bone marrow into the soup, resulting in a rich, white broth. To complement this flavourful broth, similarly strong-flavoured toppings are added, like wood-ear mushrooms and spicy mustard greens. If you’re already salivating, be sure to check out our restaurant recommendations in this article for where to find this gem in Toronto.
Sometimes referred to as fugusashi, tessa is blowfish sashimi. This rare delicacy from Yamaguchi Prefecture has achieved infamous status because it is illegal to prepare tessa in Japan without a special license. If prepared incorrectly, this fish can be deadly—as famously depicted by Homer in that memorable episode of The Simpsons.
In case you’ve gotten your Japanese noodles all tangled up, udon is the thickest of the bunch, typically made from wheat flour. This Shikoku take on my favourite noodle is known for its square shape and flat edges, and it has spread like wildfire across Japan. Fun fact: the name “Sanuki” is taken from the original name for the prefecture of Kagawa, from whence these noodles originate.
Hailing from Nagasaki, this thick, stew-like dish combines pork,
chicken, vegetables and seafood in its complex broth. Chanpon uses special ramen noodles as the noodles are in fact boiled in the broth, not in a separate pot, making this a convenient, one-pot dish. The ingredients and flavours of the dish are usually influenced by seasonal availability or the tweaks that chefs in different regions introduce.
If you’re the kind of person who rolls up on a ramen restaurant and orders the pork blaster, this Okinawan delicacy is for you. It is a thick, juicy cut of pork belly cooked with black sugar, soy sauce and an Okinawan liquor called Awamori. It will give you the same melt-in-your-mouth experience as the best cuts of chashu pork from your local ramen restaurant.
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Torontonians can sample regional Japanese dishes at these local establishments
Misoya specializes in misobased ramens, offering your choice of two types of miso: Silver Shiro from Tokyo or Gold Kome from Hokkaido for the authentic Sapporo ramen experience!
646 Queen St. W., Toronto
If you’ve never before tried okonomiyaki, the Okonomi House offers you the chance to have your first experience—complete with mysteriously dancing bonito fish flakes!
23 Charles St. W., Toronto
You can find a few of the dishes listed here at MeNami, but the restaurant is most famous for its Sanuki-udon noodles, served up warm, cold or on the side for dipping.
5469 Yonge St., North York
This North York ramen restaurant is the go-to place for Hakata ramen in Toronto, offering many unique takes on this Fukuoka staple. Slurp up some of its thick and rich tonkotsu broth today!
5321 Yonge St., North York
225 Queen St. W., Toronto