9 Popular Japanese Street Foods
Street food has become widely popular throughout the world, eating from small stalls and vendors, sampling the country’s true local food.
Japan is famously known for its intricate and delicious cuisine making it a global hotspot for food lovers. Street food is key to Japan’s culinary world, as you can enjoy some of its most famous and most popular dishes. Local street vendors sell all sorts of Japanese delicacies, from small octopus balls (takoyaki) to fried noodles, from what is know as a yatai, or mobile stand.
Delving a little deeper into street food in Japan, it slightly differs from other countries around the world. While you might find food trucks and stalls scattered on the sides of streets, Japan’s food stalls are usually associated with festivals.
Throughout the year, Japan has a host of festivals celebrating different historic events as well as seasons. Alongside these festivals, various vendors set up their food stalls allowing people to enjoy the festive celebrations with some local cuisine. Regionally, street food is available all year round, such as in the Nakasu District of Fukuoka.
However, yatai was on the decline as people saw it as a nightlife culture. The Japanese government wanted to remove them to become more of an upmarket tourist destination. Unfortunately, the passing of laws meant that opening a yatai became more increasingly difficult.
In spite of this, as of late, a global shift in the perception of street food has seen an increase in popularity. In Japan, it is now seen as a way to enjoy classic Japanese dishes.
If you’re not accustomed to Japanese cuisine, fried octopus balls and such may seem a little bizarre, so let’s get into the key street food dishes of Japan.
Originating in Osaka, known as Japan’s culinary center, takoyaki are small fried dough balls filled with grilled octopus. A batter consisting of flour, eggs, and dashi (a core soup stock to Japan’s cuisine), is fried in circular molds. Small pieces of octopus are added to give a nice chewy texture to these bite-sized octopus balls. After coming out piping hot, they are topped with kewpie mayonnaise, a special takoyaki sauce, and finally dried green seaweed and bonito flakes.
Lately there are more and more variations of the takoyaki being created. Kimchi, green onion and mayonnaise, as well as cheese are just some examples of the versatile dish. Crisp on the outside, and hot and gooey on the inside, takoyaki is the perfect street food snack with a beer.
Specialized takoyaki restaurants can be found all over Japan, with prices ranging from about 400 to 600 yen for 8 pieces. During a festival, however, these delicious takoyaki are the perfect way to enjoy Japanese culture and cuisine!
Yakisoba is the ultimate street and festival food. No matter where you go, you will find yakisoba. Egg noodles are fried with a variety of vegetables, meat, and a savory yakisoba sauce. It is typically topped with pickled ginger (benishouga) and dried seaweed.
Often vendors top it with dried bonito flakes as well as a fried egg. What makes yakisoba so popular is the use of an iron teppan and the simplicity of the ingredients. The savory and umami-packed noodles make it the perfect dish to pair with a glass of cold beer.
Teppan is a flat metal hot plate that is widely used in Japanese restaurants. Teppanyaki is a Japanese-style cuisine that uses this hot plate to cook an assortment of foods. It was originally used to cook steaks but soon branched out to cook other ingredients such as yakisoba. The versatility of the teppan makes it a popular choice for street food vendors.
Following on with the teppan style of cooking, okonomiyaki is another hit amongst street food lovers. Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake made from flour, eggs, cabbage, and pork belly slices. Finally, it is topped with a variety of condiments, such as a special okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, dried seaweed, and bonito flakes. However, there are endless possibilities of ingredients available, ranging from prawns to kimchi.
In Japanese, okonomiyaki literally translates to okonomi (as you like it) and yaki (grill). In Hiroshima, there is a unique okonomiyaki that uses yakisoba noodles and is topped with a fried egg. The mix of sweetness, saltiness, and heartiness makes it a huge hit with Japanese locals.
Karaage is known as Japanese fried chicken, and people of all ages love this classic dish. You can find karaage at any izakaya (Japanese-style pub), supermarket, and convenience store making it readily available pretty much anywhere in Japan.
Boneless, skin-on, chicken thighs are marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sometimes ginger; however, there are many other seasonings that are used. It is then typically coated in potato starch but, again, each recipe has different variations on what type of flour is used.
The ingredients used give the karaage its distinct and unique flavor, while pairing perfectly with a slice of lemon and some mayonnaise. Each vendor has a different method of marination and frying, making each set of karaage unique and fun to try. Along with a glass of cold beer, karaage is the perfect street food dish.
Yakitori is a simple dish in terms of what it consists of – skewered chicken. However, the delicately grilled meat takes skill and years of practice to master. It is a classic food that can be found at izakayas, Japanese-style pubs, along with a nice cold beer. At some high-end places, chefs will source special breeds of chicken for their unique taste and texture.
Using the whole bird, none of the parts goes to waste with a wide selection of cartilage, liver, hearts, gizzards, and more. Yakitori is not limited to just chicken, but can include beef, pork, and vegetables as well. Typically, chefs grill over charcoal, adding a smoky, barbecue flavor that makes it even more delicious.
6. Grilled Sweetcorn
This simple classic is a huge hit among street food goers. Sweetcorn is simply grilled over charcoal adding a delicious smoky and barbecue flavor. While it is being grilled, a soy sauce and butter mix (a popular mix in Japan) is basted over the sweetcorn enhancing the sweetness of the corn, as well as adding a salty punch.
7. Baked Sweet Potato
As summer ends and winter sweeps in, sweet potato (or yaki imo) trucks come into season. Sweet potatoes are wrapped in foil and baked until sweet and tender, creating a sweet, almost candy-like taste.
The aroma and taste of the potato are savory as well as sweet leaving you wanting more after every bite. Food trucks commonly pass through the neighborhood streets blasting “yaki imo” repeatedly as people flock to get a piece of the sweet snack. Aside from the food trucks, some food stalls can be found near local supermarkets and at local festivals.
Another variation of the humble sweet potato is daigaku imo, which translates to “university potato.” During the 20th century, sweet potatoes were cheap and filling, making it a popular snack for university students to eat, gaining the name daigaku imo. Even today, they are still widely popular, especially in food stalls and festivals. Daigaku imo are bite-sized sweet potato pieces that are deep-fried, coated in a simple syrup, and finally topped with black sesame seeds.
Although originally being a French dessert, crepes are an essential part of Japan’s street food culture. In the streets of Harajuku, in Tokyo, food trucks started the boom of the crepe scene. Harajuku is best known as the fashion hub and the kawaii (cute) culture in Japan, which led to the growth of crepes. A standard crepe consists of whipped cream, various fruits, and sauces. The crepe scene, of course, is about the flavor, but also more importantly about which one looks the most kawaii.
Some popular unique Japanese flavors are red bean paste, mocha, and matcha. Seasonally, in spring, cherry blossom flavorings are popular, and in autumn, pumpkin and sweet potato are very popular.
Dango are small round balls formed from glutinous rice flour and water, which are then boiled until firm. Three or four dango are skewered and then topped with a variety of sweet and savory sauces or pastes.
The most popular type is mitarashi dango, which is covered in a sweet and salty soy sauce glaze. The contrasting flavor and textures make it widely popular. Other popular toppings are red bean paste and kinako (a roasted soybean flour). Furthermore, the dango itself can differ in flavors, including matcha and sakura.
Japanese street food plays a pivotal part in Japan’s culinary scene. Historically, it was a popular way for people to enjoy the local cuisine in the evening. While this is still present in today’s society, street food has become more associated with festivals and celebrations. Nonetheless, it is still one of the finest ways to enjoy some of Japan’s classic dishes.