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Japanese Food in the United States

After Italian, Chinese and Mexican, Japanese food is probably the most popular ethnic cuisine in the United States. Prior to about 1970 only a few big cities, and a few Japanese-American communities in Hawaii and California, had Japanese restaurants; the foods, and the manners and customs, attracted few mainstream American diners. The popularity of sushi would change all that. While Americanized sushi variations like the ever-popular California roll made the form popular, once introduced to sushi Americans began to crave the genuine article, even if it meant eating raw fish.

Americanized forms of Japanese food do exist. The California roll (using avocado instead of raw fish and turning the sushi inside out so the seaweed is on the inside) is one of them, though it is indeed elegant when produced by a trained sushi chef. The Japanese steakhouse and a number of westernized noodle concept restaurants may also be called a cultural hybrid. By and large, however, real Japanese food is available, and popular, at restaurants all over the United States. Restaurants will, naturally, avoid many Japanese foods that will never appeal to American taste: the pungent sticky fermented soy paste called natto is a perfect example, although even this is available in Japanese groceries.

Two more caveats apply to Japanese dining in the US. A real Japanese restaurant has a staff of Japanese chefs. Good Japanese cooking is subtle and takes a long time to master. Sushi chefs are particularly highly trained and are skilled at avoiding health issues when dealing with raw seafood. A number of pan-Asian restaurants offer Japanese food in combination with Chinese or Korean food. The Japanese dishes at these restaurants should be reliable if prepared by a genuine Japanese chef.

The Japanese alcoholic beverage sake (two syllables) is brewed from rice. Sakes of all quality levels are made in the United States and imported from Japan. The taste and raw character of cheap sake is often masked by serving it heated in a small flask called a tokkuri; the user pours the sake into tiny cups to drink. Junmal sake (the least expensive of the quality sakes: those made from rice alone with no added brewing alcohol or sugar) may be enjoyed warm in Japan, but the expensive ginjo or daiginjo sakes are best served chilled. The cloudy sake variety called nigori is commonly served in a square cup made of lacquered wood. Sake varies in alcohol content from 14 to about 18 percent.

Thirty years ago the typical Japanese restaurant served a little of everything. Now Japanese food is so popular that the market supports numerous specialty-eating concepts:

  • Sushi: All sushi contains some kind of sticky rice held together with sweet Japanese rice vinegar. The sushi chef expertly shapes the rice (a process that takes seconds to do and years to learn) and tops it with sliced raw fish, a cooked whole shrimp, fish roe, a slice of Japanese omelet (tamago), or a vegetable. The chef also prepares sushi rolls by rolling the fish or other ingredients in the rice with nori seaweed (the California roll puts the rice on the outside). The restaurant serves the sushi pieces and cut up pieces of roll on a wooden block with a dipping sauce. Toro (fatty tuna) is the most popular fish, but the topping can be anything from unagi (eel) to ikura (salmon eggs). The term sashimi refers to a plate of sliced raw fish or other seafood served on its own with a sauce, with neither rice nor seaweed. Because raw seafood is involved (as well as a great deal of precise knife work), both sushi and sashimi require reliable sources of the highest quality ingredients and highly skilled preparation.
  • Tempura: Seafood (large shrimp being typical) and vegetables are dipped into a thin flour batter and quickly deep-fried to a crispy lightness. The quick frying method (which some say the Japanese adopted from early Portuguese visitors) maximizes the flavor and nutritional values of the ingredients. The diner dips the tempura into a ginger soy sauce.
  • Tonkatsu: Reflecting western influence, a pork (or sometimes chicken) cutlet covered in the thick, crunchy Japanese breadcrumbs called panko then deep-fried. Served with a ketchup-like sauce or a curry sauce over white rice.
  • Shabu Shabu: The preferred eating method of Japanese sumo wrestlers, shabu shabu (“splash splash”) is simplicity itself; the chefs prepare thin slices of raw beef, chicken, shrimp, fish, or vegetables. Holding the ingredients with chopsticks, the diners themselves quickly cook the items by dipping them into a small vat of boiling water right at the table before enjoying them with ponzu (a soy sauce with both sweet and vinegar aspects) or sesame sauce.
  • Udon and Soba: Thick udon wheat noodles or the thinner buckwheat soba noodles are served in hot soups with many different ingredients or by themselves, cold, with garnishes and sauces.
  • Ramen: Squiggly yellow flour noodles served in a soup base and covered with bite-sized pieces of meats or vegetables. Ramen is available in American food markets in quick-cook form with packaged soup base or as a soup in a cup instant meal.
  • Teriyaki: Long popular in the United States and widely imitated in non-Japanese restaurants (and on home grills), teriyaki refers to a process of grilling chicken, beef, or fish in a sauce made from shoyu (soy sauce) and mirin (a very sweet rice wine used primarily for cooking).
  • Yakitori: small chunks of chicken, beef, or pork with vegetables grilled on short wooden skewers over a charcoal fire in a manner similar to shish kabob.
  • Donburi: A Japanese quick meal, a large bowl of rice topped with nearly any ingredient (donburi means “bowl”) and typically served in a dashi broth (made from the kelp called kombu and dried flakes of the tuna-like fish called bonito) with some addition of shoyu and mirin.
  • Bento Box: A real treat, bento boxes are used in Japan for take-out food but served commonly as eat-in meals in the United States. A lacquered wooden box, black on the outside and red on the inside, with compartments of various sizes filled with tempura, sushi, rice, salad, teriyaki, the Japanese dumplings called gyoza, or any of a variety of other dishes.
  • Sukiyaki: A mainstay family dish in Japan and long known in the United States, sukiyaki is a hearty one pot stew of thin slices of beef, vegetables, mushrooms, the transparent yam noodles called shirataki, and tofu (bean curd), cooked in dashi with shoyu and mirin at the table and suitable for a large family group.
  • Nabe: A style of one pot clay pot cooking, family style in the center of the table. Nabe may use many different types of ingredients, stocks, and garnishes. It is usually served with a ponzu sauce, a sesame sauce, or with a sauce or raw beaten egg which cooks as the hot ingredients are added to it.
  • Teppanyaki: the flat metal teppan grill is built into a table, the chef on one side, the customers sitting around. The chef, in a theatrical manner, with dazzling blade work, cuts and grills ingredients right in front of the diners. Teppanyaki restaurants like the well known Benihana chain are also called “Japanese steak houses” in the United States.
  • Yakiniku: The chef prepares bite-sized pieces of meats and vegetables which diners then prepare for themselves on grills built into their tables. Yakiniku may be referred to as “Korean barbecue” since the original technique came to Japan from Korea.