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Mar 4, 2011 06:22 AM

Learning about Japanese food

I am new-ish to Japan and my only previous experiences with Japanese food have been sushi in the US/UK (and then only really cheap and cheerful places in Hawaii and NYC and only one slighter nicer place, but nothing notable) and tempura (again, nothing even remotely notable). I didn't know anything about tonkatsu, kushiage or even yakitori before moving here so you can see I'm talking basics. I am currently studying Japanese, but am only a beginner so I'm looking for some English language sources available here in Tokyo to get me started.

For instance, I'd love to learn more about tofu, all the different kinds and how to serve it. Same with miso. And I've read a lot here about kaiseki. I had one kaiseki meal at a randomly chosen ryokan when we first came to Japan but have no basis for comparison or critique. In fact, this question springs from that experience. I've just joined Chowhound and have been reading over lots of old threads and in one someone had a bad kaiseki experience and others here could tell just by looking at the pictures of that meal that it wasn't good. That really struck me. I don't see what they are seeing and I'd like to know more background about all kinds of food here as I try them and work on getting to know them.

Anyway, apologies if this is a bit dorky. I get that there is no substitute for just getting out and about. I'm using the threads here to try lots of different things and places. I just thought it might also be interesting to read a bit more about the different types of food/cooking/serving in additional to getting out there and eating.

Hope this makes sense!

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  1. Elizabeth Andoh, who is American and a well-known Japanese cookbook author, offers classes on Japanese cuisine in Tokyo. You can also pick up her books. Shizuo Tsuji's "Japanese Cooking", while primarily a cookbook, provides a lot of insight into the cuisine. Many Japanese food manufacturers have English websites with information as well. Best advice is learn to read and understand Japanese so you can read menus, communicate with chefs, and read online Japanese sources.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Silverjay

      I'm keen to do cooking classes. I took them while living in India and it was a wonderful way to get to know the cuisine. Right now Japanese classes and studying take up every available moment it seems, but I'm looking forward to a cooking class maybe next year once the language study is further along and not as all-consuming. So, many thanks for that tip. I'll look for her books in the meantime and the cookbook you mention.

      Many thanks!

    2. I will use this opportunity to put in a plug for the new edition of What's What in Japanese Restaurants, which is a guide to specialty cuisines in Japan:

      The web page says the release date is June 1, but it's already available in Japan (via Amazon and at bookstores). You can see some sample chapters at

      1 Reply
      1. re: Robb S

        I just saw KI is going out of business in April.

      2. I think the best basic English language book on Japanese food is Richard Hosking's "A Dictionary of Japanese Food." It covers most Japanese foods, gives names in Japanese, and should be easy to find. For books on tofu and miso I recommend Bill Shurtleff's "The Book of Tofu" and "The Book of Miso." Each covers the history of the title food and has a lot of recipes. These, however, may be a bit hard to find in Japan.

        1 Reply
        1. re: edozanmai

          RobbS - what good timing! Thanks for the link to the index, it sounds like exactly what I'm looking for. I've ordered it on-line.

          edozanami -thanks very much. I found all the titles you mentioned. I'm heading to the US for a visit in 2 weeks so it was no problem to get some delivered there.

          I'm looking forward to beginning my "getting to know you" phase with Japanese cuisine and restaurants. Thanks for all the help here and on the Japan board in general.

        2. I'm planning my first trip to Japan for next month and am pretty clueless about Japanese food beyond the basics. I recently bought a book called "Food, Sake, Tokyo" by Yukari Sakamoto and have really enjoyed it. The detailed breakdown it gives on the various types of cuisines, etiquette, and where specifically (restaurants, markets, shops) to go has been really helpful.

          1 Reply
          1. As a side note, this may seem ridiculous to a lot of people, but for someone who can read some Japanese, or is studying kanji and has an interest in Japanese food, comic books can be a surprisingly good resource. To the OP, if you get to a level of proficiency reading kanji that allows you to work through a comic book, it's a great way to study Japanese food and learn kanji at the same time. Shota no sushi, aji ichimon me, and tsukiji uogashi sandaime are all great manga series that will teach you more about Japanese food than most Japanese people even know. When I was studying Japanese I greatly improved my Japanese reading skills by reading manga, and I learned more about Japanese food from those three manga series than from most of the Japanese cookbooks I've bought.

            PS: Buy the "Dictionary of Japanese Food," it's great, and the Tsuji book is great too.

            4 Replies
            1. re: la2tokyo

              What an intriguing suggestion. I just today took the final test in my beginner course. Though it is entirely in hirigana/katakana, I haven't really touched kanji yet. I think we add that in in the next level, so I'll keep this in mind. Sounds like a great way to inject some fun into studying and get a rest from old Minna no Nihongo. And who knew I could learn about food, too?! Would I find those series in any book store or does one need a manga specialty book store?

              1. re: tokyopix

                If you haven't started kanji it will be a while (probably at least another year of studying) before you would be able to move through one of those manga without getting too frustrated. Most big bookstores would have them. When you are ready, I would buy the first one in the set somewhere convenient, and then if you like it, find the rest at a used bookstore where you could save about half the price.

                1. re: tokyopix

                  It'll be a long time till you're reading the kinds of manga that la2tokyo mentioned, but in the meantime, you could do worse than to read the series Oishinbo, which has been published in English. (The full series hasn't been published, but they've pulled together parts of it on themes such as fish, rice, vegetables, etc.--it's surprisingly good and detailed.) See if you can find the Begin Japanology TV series online, too. :)

                  1. re: wintersweet

                    boo. I'm sad to hear it will be over a year with the kanji study, but I suspected as much. I will file these titles away then.

                    Wintersweet - thanks, I will check out both!

                    Many thanks for all the great info here. I'm much obliged.