12 unmissable foods you should seek out in the Japanese capital.
A salty-sweet centrepiece for sharing straight from the pot
Thin slices of tender beef, leafy vegetables, tofu and noodles simmer gently in a shallow iron pot, seasoned with a mouthwatering mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sweet rice wine and sake. Sitting in the middle of the table, its ingredients are plucked out with chopsticks, dipped in raw egg and devoured. A warming winter dish, it’s always on the menu at end-of-year parties.
Freshly battered mouthfuls, all too easy to eat
A satisfying bite – meat, vegetables, or fish are fried in a light, fluffy tempura batter and served up with a generous portion of white rice. Crisp and golden on the outside, each piece reveals a deliciously soft and tender centre. Offered in all kinds of varieties, prawn tempura, called ‘ebi-ten’, is a particular favourite among locals.
Elegantly constructed sushi pieces dating back centuries
Delicate raw fish is served up over sticky white rice, and eaten with a dash of soy and a pinch of fiery wasabi. Sold on the streets of ‘Edo’ – the 19th century Tokyo – this dish was originally a fast food because it spoiled so quickly. Nowadays, sushi is more of an artform, balancing sweet and salty flavours with a sharp vinegar tang.
Local tip: If you’re travelling on a budget but want to try sushi, head to a restaurant at lunchtime, when you’ll find it slightly cheaper.
A fish dish where stew meets omelette
Hearty chunks of loach – a plentiful local fish – shredded burdock and vegetables are simmered in a broth seasoned with light soy sauce and sake, and poured over with beaten eggs. A one-pot recipe, it’s prepared in a shallow dish and cooked until just the eggs are just set.
Overflowing bowls of sumo wrestler fuel
With no set recipe, this is a broth-based soup, brimming with meat, fish and vegetables, and laced with sake or sweet rice wine called ‘mirin’. A healthy yet protein-rich dish, sumos eat bowl after bowl, accompanied by beer and rice to boost calorie content and bulk up for battle. Served up in many restaurants, it always arrives in huge portions, so a willing appetite is a must.
Local tip: Try this at many restaurants around the sumo stables in the Ryōgoku district – often these are run by retired wrestlers who specialise in the dish.
Street-food chicken skewers in a range of savoury flavours.
A cheap-and-cheerful convenience food, these grilled spears are sold from stalls and carts on the street, or in speciality shops called ‘Yakitori-ya’. Usually salty or salty-sweet in taste, almost every part of the chicken is put to use and seasoned with sake, soy sauce, sweet rice wine or sugar. Some are also spiced with hot pepper or wasabi.
Local tip: Commuters grab one of these after work with an ice-cold beer, so you’ll find lots of these stands in the busy Shimbashi business district.
A versatile noodle base just waiting to be customised
Originally from China, this dish is adapted for Japanese tastes. Unlike typical ramen, these ‘oil noodles’ are served without a soup base. Soaked in a sauce made from soy and pork fat, endless topping combinations are on offer – braised pork, spring onions, garlic, seaweed, bamboo shoot, sesame, ginger, boiled egg and more. Drizzled with a final flourish of vinegar and chilli oil, the dish is complete.
A grilled comfort food relatively unknown outside Japan
Meat or fish and a variety fresh vegetables are finely diced and tipped straight onto the teppanyaki grill, before being smothered in a paste made from wheat flour and fish broth. The mixture is stirred and shredded over and over until it forms a delicious gooey scramble that’s grilled to golden brown. Not the most beautiful dish, it tastes far better than it looks.
Local tip: You’ll be given a mini spatula to eat this straight off the teppanyaki – pull a piece off and flatten it down so it sticks.
Fresh clam broth combines with rice for a lighter option
First eaten by fishermen from the Fukagawa region, fluffy white rice is served up with leeks and tasty fat clams in salty miso broth, topped with a scattering of green onions. A delicious and healthy delicacy, the dish is so beloved that it even made it to the top 100 Regional Specialties list.
Local tip: If you're watching your weight, this makes a great diet-friendly choice that'll leave you feeling full and satisfied.
A potent condiment to perk up plain rice
This side dish is named after Tsukudajima – its birthplace and the fishing hub of Edo-era Tokyo. Made from meat, fish, or seaweed simmered in soy sauce and sweet rice wine, it packs a punch of flavour. Only a spoonful is needed per whole bowlful of fluffy white rice, so it’s often preserved and stored for next time.
Don't put too much of this on your plate. Try a small amount first and only add more if you need it.
Plum liqueur – a versatile crowd-pleaser
A sweet-and-sour liqueur with a fruity aroma, made by steeping unripened ‘ume’ plums in alcohol and sugar. It’s sipped straight, shaken into creative cocktails, or poured with a splash of soda. It can also be served hot for a warming winter drink. With such a refreshing flavour, it slips down effortlessly, and is even enjoyed by people who don’t normally like alcohol.
Bite-size cakes in cute and quirky shapes
These little sponge snacks are made from a simple mix of flour, eggs and sugar, sometimes stuffed with a sweet centre like anko bean paste, custard cream, or chocolate. Baked in a special iron mould, they come in hundreds of shapes, from faces to fish, cats and children’s characters – even local attractions.