Monday, January 12, 2009

Typical Japanese Lunch - The Ultimate Overview

I have noticed that there is rampant curiosity out on the web as to what is a 'Typical Japanese Lunch' or at least there are a phenomenal number of people googling that topic. I may have mentioned, I lived in Tokyo for a number of years (4+). During that time I had lunch (almost) every day.

I've posted a few reviews of specific restaurants/foods here, but I thought it might be helpful to give an overview (and then as I go to specific restaurants, I can refer back to this). First of all, lunch in Japan is pretty much like lunch in the US - you try to keep it under $10, it's nice to have some variety, but worst case - at least it's fast. One thing to keep in mind is that most Japanese restaurants serve only one thing (Sushi restaurants serve sushi, tempura restaurants serve tempura, you get the picture - though Noodle restaurants often serve Donburis, it's still a pretty narrow menu you'll be ordering from once you choose your restaurant.)

I worked at two different jobs in three different locations in Tokyo, so during that time, I got to try the restaurants surrounding both. At the end of the day, I think the representation was pretty good, so here goes:

I think most people start here, thinking that this is the typical Japanese lunch. To be honest, I probably ate it more often than my Japanese colleagues, and I don't think that I had it even once a week. Sushi is still a delicacy in Tokyo (it's not that it's not easy to find, it's just that it's too expensive for an 'everyday' lunch). When I did have sushi, it generally took one of two forms:
  • 'Pine' Sushi - Japan is very big on offering 'lunch sets'. It's a bargain price for something that would cost (at least!) double at dinner time. The sushi places though do it with a certain consistency and offer three different set menus at lunch - and while there is variety, in fact just knowing that there's a low, medium and high offering, you can pretty much zen navigate your meal in a new restaurant.
  • Take-out Sushi - This is pretty much as mediocre as the take-out sushi that one sees in the States. That said, there's one exception, I used to find this great Negi-Toro-Don near my office (Negi=Onion, Toro=Fatty Tuna, Don='On a bowl of rice' (it's short for Don-buri). This basically looks like a bowl with rice in it with a mound of raw tuna and some chopped up green onions. And yes, it's fantastic. Occasionally you can find this in the states as a roll, but I've never seen it as a lunch choice. Unfortunate, because we're missing out.

Japan is not known for being the strongest integrator of other cultures, but both Korean and Chinese food (next item) are pretty popular in Japan. Korean lunch places often have the little barbeque grills built right into the tables. They're pretty common - you generally don't have to walk very far to get lunch. The menu is pretty varied, but I usually stuck to one of two things:
  • Yaki-niku (Translated it means Barbequed-beef) - This is the Japanese version of Korean barbeque. It's available both cooked by the kitchen and cooked at the table (almost always better). I like both Bulgogi and Kalbi, but I like one better - this would be a great time for me to remember which one I like better, but I never do. I usually have to order both and then I remember. I think it's Kalbi, but I wouldn't swear to it. I have to say that as much as I like Korean Korean BBQ, I really like Japanese Korean BBQ just the tiniest bit better. (I think it's one of those 'which did you grow up with kinds of things') The Japanese version is a bit more orderly (weird word, but try them both and you'll know what I mean) and I really like the dipping sauce.
  • Bi-bim-ba (This is the Japanese spelling, the Korean version is Bi-bim-bop (I made the mistake of thinking that I knew all about Korean food based on what I had learned in Japan - it's a little like going to China and looking for chop suey)) - This is a bowl with a scoop of rice covered with a variety of different vegetables, meat, egg and hot sauce. The bowl is hot. When it shows up, you have to mix it all up and it finishes cooking right there in front of your eyes. And it tastes fabulous! So, with the drama and the taste, it clearly scores high on the lunch food survey.
  • Kimchi Stew - I never remember the name of this, but it's really good. It's a hearty, rich winter-type stew. Plenty of kimchi for flavor, plenty of pork for substance, and plenty of heat for the winter (insulation is definitely not a native Japanese word).

To be honest, I didn't eat a ton of Chinese food while I was in Japan. But it's very popular as a cheap lunch option. I distinctly remember sweet&sour pork as an option and I feel like everything else felt reasonably American-Chinese standard too (so, not exactly the same, but not out of left-field either). The bottom line is that it's good, cheap food.


This may be the single most common lunch in all of Japan.
  • Soba - The king of Japanese noodles. The simple buckwheat noodle. If it is at all possible, eat it fresh. It's hard to find, but oh, so worth it. You can get tens or hundreds (maybe thousands) of different soba dishes (it really is like pasta - you can put any sauce you can imagine with the noodles). My favorite is Zaru Soba (cold soba with a dipping sauce - especially important to find good (preferably fresh) noodles)
  • Udon - These are the white flour noodles. They're more filling and I'm not such a huge fan. EXCEPT with Curry Udon. This is a magic winter dish. On those days that it's miserable and cold and you feel like you'll never be warm again - try the Curry Udon, instantly you're better (and full). It's a heavy lunch (maybe even better for dinner, but I digress)
  • Ramen - This is my least favorite, though the most globally popular of the three noodle types available in Japan. If friends insisted on going, I just ordered Miso Ramen. It's actually pretty good - but I wouldn't ever choose it as a destination.
This is pretty much anything over rice. You get a decent sized bowl of rice topped with some form of protein. My favorites are:

You'd think that corn pizza was just one line that you couldn't cross. But you'd be wrong. You stay in Japan long enough (and for me, I really think it was only a few weeks before I bit the bullet) and you'll have tried it. They have pizza chains (Shakey's was always my favorite) and ours had a little lunch buffet deal (all you can eat). And so one day you realize that pizza with corn on it isn't bad. And then one day you realize you always get corn pizza because it tastes good.
The Japanese are justifiably famous for their deep-fried pork cutlet lunch. In the good places (and why wouldn't you go to a good place), the breaded-fried outside isn't greasy, the inside is moist and tender and there's plenty of sauce. I don't know what the sauce is - it's tonkatsu sauce. It's delicious. I think that I started eating Tonkatsu for the sauce (growing up I was not a huge pork person), but gradually realized that the whole meal was fabulous (though the sauce really is really fabulous - think of it like Japanese ketchup, but better - and more brown).
Curry Rice
On a cold winter day, nothing is better than curry rice (or maybe curry udon, but I digress). It's warm, it's rich and it fills you right up. It's not an Indian curry taste, it's got some heat, but it's more about depth - it's more just meat-ness. It's delicious, but seriously, only eat it on days you're hungry.
When I lived in Japan, the most popular 'instant' curry brand was Vermont Curry - I can't even count the number of people who asked me if it really tasted like real Vermont Curry. Wow.
Tempura is one of the more widely-known Japanese foods (maybe second after sushi?). What's not so widely known is that in Japan there are really Tempura restaurants. You go in and you decide what kind of tempura you want - everyone's having deep fry on that day. But really, it's a good kind of deep fry - it's light, there are a lot of vegetables - really, it's fine. It's delicious. It is best to go to a Tempura-only place if at all possible because you do tend to get better dipping sauce (plus they have the grated daikon, etc. that make the sauce so much better). Usually in the tempura-only restaurants you're deciding noodle or rice, shrimp or vegetable only.

Japanese Lunch
This is sort of the 'Other' category
  • Shou-ga-yaki (Stir-fried ginger) - Stir-fries are good. This one has a nice ginger flavor and the pork is in strips like really fine bacon (when I've had it in the US, it's tended to be more chunks of pork, which just isn't as good).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info!

2:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very informative! :):P

10:05 PM  
Anonymous David Storm said...

Loved the A & B linches that I had in Japan in the early 70s

3:15 PM  

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