When it comes to street foods, you might be accustomed to your local Halal cart, or maybe that hot dog stand on the corner. However, if you are willing to expand your cultural horizons even further, an entirely new world of food will open up for you. Japanese culture boasts some of the most creative and mouthwateringly delicious street foods imaginable. From the sweet to the savory, these are 10 popular Japanese street foods that’ll have you drooling over your keyboard.
Vegans and vegetarians aside, it’d be pretty hard to find someone who’ll pass up on a plate of fried chicken. A beloved comfort food in many cultures, fried chicken has been taken in some truly inventive directions, not the least of which being Karaage.
The name itself is attributed to the cooking methods where diced-up bits of meat, in this instance chicken, are marinated and then deep-fried until golden brown. Where Karaage diverges from typical fried chicken is through its marinade which is frequently a blend of soy sauce, sake, ginger, and garlic. This method ensures that, after the frying is complete, the inside of the chicken will not only be juicy and succulent but imbued with extra umami flavor as well. The exterior’s crispiness is usually attributed to the coating which can either be wheat flour or potato starch.
Even though chicken is the most popular option, the preparation can easily be applied to seafood and other types of meat as well. With its excellent combination of crunch and unparalleled taste, Karaage is a favorite of many Japanese citizens, serving as a home-cooked and street vendor staple.
9. Tako Tamago
Now of course eggs, whether they are fried, scrambled, or poached, are a staple of countless diets worldwide. However, the Tako Tamago takes the concept of a poached egg and takes it to its most visually dazzling and uniquely flavored conclusion. Tako Tamago is a unique little dish, even among other Japanese street foods, boasting a unique combination of elements.
A Tako Tamago contains a quail egg, an already diminutive egg, that has been put inside a tiny, bite-sized octopus. Its final appearance is quite the feast for the eyes before one even consumes it, with the egg almost serving as the brain of the octopus. However, the dish’s appeal doesn’t stop at its appearance, as the combination of the poached quail egg and the chewy octopus makes for a superb crossbreed of flavors.
Tako Tamago, much like many other Japanese street and vendor foods, is typically served on a skewer, making it a very portable dish despite its odd appearance. The dish is honestly a perfect little microcosm of Japanese street foods, as it boasts not only a dazzling visual gimmick but yummy flavors as well.
Before properly discussing Korokke, it’s important to understand the Western dish that influenced it, that being the Croquette. Croquettes originated in France and consist of a filling that is tossed in a special sauce, breaded, and then fried till the outside is crispy. This is quite fitting as the name Croquette even derives from the French word croquer which means “to crunch.”
Korokke takes the Croquette and puts a thoroughly Japanese spin on it with fillings like mashed potatoes, ground meat, or a mixture of vegetables. When everything is prepared properly, you’ll be treated to a perfectly balanced dish that boasts both a crispy outside and a creamy interior. This is only enhanced by the wide range of ways the filling can be customized with other ingredients, such as beef, pork, seafood, and even curry. It’s also very common to find Korokke paired with a side of tonkatsu sauce which only serves to heighten its flavor profile.
Oftentimes the Korokke can find itself sandwiched between two pieces of bread, turning it into a Korokke Pan, adding even more to the dish’s convenient nature. Its utility and delicious flavors have turned Korokke into a staple of Japanese street foods, as well as school lunches and bento boxes.
Everyone loves pancakes, but rest assured, an Okonomiyaki isn’t your run-of-the-mill pancake you’d get at IHOP or Cracker Barrel. As opposed to typical pancakes which are predicated on their sweetness, an Okonomiyaki is more of a savory affair.
Much like Takoyaki, one of the major appeals of Okonomiyaki is just how customizable it is, with its name even translating to “grilled as you like it.” Much like regular pancakes, the batter begins with flour but from there, this is where it truly becomes its own unique creation. This batter is then mixed with shredded cabbage, eggs, and a variety of other add-ons such as meat, seafood, and even cheese. If you’ve ever had an Okonomiyaki, then you know that the final product is an absolute symphony of different textures and flavors.
Another aspect leading to Okonomiyaki’s widespread success is the interactive element that goes hand-in-hand with it. It’s not uncommon for restaurants to prepare the Okonomiyaki right in front of the customer or even allow them to cook it themselves, very much like Korean barbeque. With all of this in mind, you can easily see how this customizable pancake broke out of Osaka and went worldwide.
A commonality among Japanese foods is that many of them could easily slot right into being casual street food or served at an actual restaurant. A perfect example of this is Yakitori, a very popular skewered chicken dish that’s usually prepared over hot charcoals.
The dish itself couldn’t be simpler, it’s diced chicken pieces marinated in a soy-based tare sauce, cooked, and then served on a skewer. This simple cooking method results in mouthwateringly tender and smoky meat complete with a delicious caramel-like glaze. However, Yakitori isn’t solely dependent on chicken as one can easily substitute other ingredients like vegetables, beef, or seafood.
Yakitori is a very recreational food and you’ll often see people enjoying it with a cold beer in their other hand. Often the best foods don’t need flashy theatrics or fanciful plating, as sometimes simplicity and good flavor are more than enough. Just imagine walking home on a cold day in Japan and having the aromas of the still-cooking skewers waft toward your nose. Much like many of the street foods on this list, not only has Yakitori exploded outside of Japan but it has transcended its original format as well. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to go to an indoor eating establishment and find it on the menu right alongside more complicated items.
Japanese culture is rife with sensational sweets and creative confections, many of them having lineages going back hundreds of years. One such treat is Taiyaki, a Japanese pastry with the unique visual distinction of being molded in the shape of a fish. The pastry’s fish name translates to “baked sea bream,” a fish regarded as a symbol of good fortune in Japanese culture.
Originating in Toyko during the Meiji period – a time of great economic, political, and social change – Taiyaki was created by a man named Seijiro Kanbei. The original, and most standard, version of Taiyaki is filled with sweet red bean paste, which is made from azuki beans and serves a popular filling in many Japanese treats. This, like many other Japanese snacks, can be altered or customized with various locations filling their Taiyaki with sweet potato, custard, chocolate, or even savory options like cheese and sausage.
This is all held together by the batter which, similarly to pancake or waffle batter, is poured into fish-shaped molds and cooked until it’s a savory golden brown. With its lovely flavors and its charming visual charm, Taiyaki has become a prime example of Japanese comfort food.
There are countless Japanese noodle dishes ranging from cheap street food to the most lavish of five-star cuisine. However, Yakisoba seems to hold a very special place in people’s hearts and it isn’t too hard to understand why.
Yakisoba is made by stir-frying the ingredients, which include ramen noodles, as well as vegetables like cabbage, carrots, and onions. This cooking method is where the dish derives its name, which is a translation of the term “grilled noodles.” Meat is also an optional ingredient as well, with many opting to add in bits of thinly sliced pork, beef, or seafood. What sets the dish apart is the special sauce the stir-fried ingredients are seasoned with, that being a savory-sweet Yakisoba sauce made from Worcestershire. Once everything is cooked to completion, the final product can be topped with bonito flakes, pickled ginger, and mayonnaise.
All this coalesces into a savory dish that, due to the inclusion of meats and seasonings, boasts a strong umami taste. Unami, when translated into English, means means “essence of deliciousness” and is common among meaty and savory Japanese dishes. Due to its portable nature, as well as its mix of textures and flavors, Yakisoba has attained a global fandom, becoming rapidly more widespread across several cultures.
One need only look at how often it pops up in the hands of anime characters to understand Onigiri’s immense popularity. For example, in One Piece when Roronoa Zoro is tied up in Axe Hand Morgan’s base, a little girl from the surrounding town brings him homemade Onigiri. When the deadliest swordsman in the East Blue can’t resist their deliciousness, then you know it’s a treat worth getting excited for.
The name translates to “rice ball,” and the dish has served as a pillar of Japanese cuisine for several decades now. The handheld snack starts with rice which receives a little seasoning via some salt or vinegar, as well as a sheet of nori, a crispy piece of seaweed. Once the base is prepared, the Onigiri receives its filling which is where its customizable nature comes into play. Simply put, the sky is the limit with Onigiri, with the fillings ranging from sweet to savory, and ranging in texture as well. This includes pickled plums, grilled salmon, kimchi, cheese, tuna mayo, and teriyaki chicken, each one offering something different to enjoy when packed into the rice.
Due to its diverse fillings, as well as its portable size, Onigiri is a staple of Japanese lunches, aiding with its constantly expanding worldwide appeal.
Dango’s name stems from the Japanese verb “dango,” which means to knead or form something into a ball. The sweet Japanese treat is a chewy little bite-sized dumpling made from glutinous rice flour and served on a stick in groups of three to five. Typically, the most popular filling for Dango is Anko, also known as red bean paste, a topping/filling in many Japanese desserts.
Due to the rice flour used in its preparation, Dango is typically white in its appearance but people often use things like fruits, herbs, and eggs, to alter its flavor and color. This is most relevant when it comes to Hanami Dango, a type of multicolored dango, which is typically sold and enjoyed during cherry blossom season in Japan. There is also Kuri Dango, a wonderful variant if you are a fan of nuts, with the Dango being covered in a sweet pureed chestnut paste. Additionally, there is Goma Dango, a version that is filled with Anko but is finished with a layer of sesame seeds before being fried to crispy perfection. It’s this combination of simplicity, variation, and inherent tradition that has kept Dango as a beloved Japanese treat for many decades.
Takoyaki is a favorite of many Japanese food connoisseurs, with its popularity extending beyond Osaka, Japan’s borders, and into the United States. Its name, Takoyaki, is a one-for-one translation of what it is, that being grilled/fried octopus, though other ingredients are often added in as well.
The cooking process begins with the Takoyaki’s batter, which is made from flour, egg, and dashi, the latter being a type of Japanese soup stock. This is mixed with diced octopus, pickled ginger, green onions, and any additional mix-ins the chef or customer desires. These mix-ins can include bits of sausage, cheese, mochi, corn, kimchi, and even other types of seafood like shrimp.
Once the batter and the mix-ins are prepared, it’s then poured into a very special cooking mold, built to create the Takoyaki’s circular shape. If prepared properly, the final product should be a perfectly circular bite-sized ball with a fluffy inside and a crispy outside. Once complete, the Takoyaki balls are often coated in a healthy layer of a special takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed flakes, and bonito flakes. With its combination of delectable textures and its inherently customizable nature, it’s not surprising Takoyaki has taken the culinary world by storm.