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  • Gaby Doman

Summer Food to Try in Japan

Add these refreshing treats to your summer itinerary

Meat on sticks being grilled on a barbecue

Eating seasonally is one of the joys of Japanese food, with some dishes and ingredients disappearing completely until their season comes around again. Dining well in Japan is a more expansive experience than only eating at Michelin-starred restaurants. Sample traditional dishes at quaint family-run eateries, try street food at summer matsuris, eat the latest dessert crazes in trendy cafes and discover the local dishes that have been refined over generations. Explore the depth of Japan’s food scene with these summer eats.

People gathered around a bamboo chute holding whilst holding noodles between chopsticks

Nagashi somen

Somen are thin white noodles typically served over ice or in icy water. The most fun version is nagashi somen (flowing noodles). In summer, some outdoor restaurants (particularly in Kyoto) send thin noodles in icy cold water down a bamboo chute while diners try to catch them with their chopsticks before eating them with dipping sauce, toppings and sometimes tempura, too.

A big bowl of shaved ice topped with cream on a tray

Kakigori

Kakigori (flavoured shaved ice) is synonymous with summer in Japan. These light, refreshing treats can be surprisingly elaborate, piled with fruit, condensed milk, sweet red bean paste, syrup and mochi balls. Traditional flavours include matcha and sweet bean paste (anko), melon, lemon and shirokuma (made with condensed milk and topped with fruit, mochi, and jellies). Modern flavours can be much more experimental, including tiramisu, pumpkin cream, fig honey cheese and even tomato.

A pair of chopsticks picks up a piece of unagi eel from a atop a bowl of rice

Unagi

It’s traditional to eat unagi (eel) grilled with sweet soy sauce and served on rice at the start of the season. There’s even an Unagi Day (in 2023 it will be on July 20th), so the dish is inextricably linked with the summer season. Unagi is very nutritious and, since the Edo period, it has been thought to give you the strength needed to power through those steamy hot days.

skewered fish poke up from a charcoal grill

Ayu

This simple summer dish is a common sight at Japanese matsuri. These small freshwater fish are typically skewered on a stick and barbecued with salt. Their slightly sweet, refreshing flavour has been compared to watermelon or cucumber.

Chopsticks pick up food from a bowl of pork and bitter melon

Goya champuru

If anyone knows how to thrive in sunny climates, it’s Okinawans. Okinawa’s most famous summer food is goya champuru. Its star ingredient is goya (bitter melon), which is an acquired taste… that many never acquire. But, for those who appreciate its bitter refreshment, this is a nutritious summer dish of stir-fried tofu, eggs, pork belly and vegetables that make for a light, vitamin-packed meal. No wonder Okinawans are famous for their longevity.

Chopsticks cut a block of tofu topped with spring onions

Hiyayakko

Hiyayakko is a popular summer side dish or light meal. A piece of cold tofu is usually served with spring onions, sesame seeds, katsuobushi (skipjack fish flakes), grated ginger and soy sauce, but sometimes these toppings vary slightly. Some other toppings can include edamame, natto (fermented soybeans), avocado or tomato. The light, delicate-tasting dish makes a great accompaniment to balance a meal with lots of fried dishes.

Chopsticks pick up food from a salad bowl

Rei-shabu

Rei-shabu, also called cold pork shabu-shabu, is a summer spin on the popular winter dish, shabu-shabu. Boiled pork is cooled in ice water and then served with raw salad vegetables and sesame dressing for a refreshing summer salad.

A plate of carefully arranged cut vegetables, ham and omelette

Hiyashi chuka

These “Chinese-style” cold noodles feature sliced fresh veggies carefully assembled tipi-style in the bowl. Flavour comes from the addition of ginger, ham, slices of omelette and seafood, as well as sesame and soy sauce.

Two pieces of jelly dessert sit on a glass plate

Mizu yokan

Mizu yokan is a lightly sweet summer jelly made from agar, red bean paste and sugar. This refreshing treat is often served in teahouses alongside a cup of matcha tea.

Meat skewers cook on a charcoal barbecue

Yakitori

There’s never a bad time of year to eat yakitori (skewered, grilled chicken), but in summer it’s a popular snack at festivals for a quick and cheap energy fix. You can buy yakitori from festival stalls, izakaya or specialist restaurants. For the full Japanese experience, pair your yakitori with a chilled beer.

Chopsticks pick up noodles from a bowl of noodles, vegetables, meat and egg

Morioka reimen

This Iwate Prefecture speciality gives ramen a summery overhaul. Soba noodles, stewed beef or chicken and broth are topped with refreshing ingredients like cucumber, watermelon and kimchi. The dish was originally brought over in the 1950s by a migrant from what is now North Korea. He opened a restaurant and adjusted the flavours to suit the Japanese palate and now there are many iterations of Morioka reimen to try.

A close up of a dessert with cherry, bean paste and mochi

Anmitsu

This traditional dessert is particularly popular during summer, when it makes a refreshing and light way to finish a meal. Anmitsu is made of slices of fruits, such as peach, kiwi, orange and strawberries served with mochi balls, cubes of agar jelly, sweet bean paste, sugar syrup and sometimes a scoop of matcha ice cream.

Chopsticks dip noodles into a sauce

Zaru Soba and zaru udon

These dishes (made from buckwheat and wheat flour respectively) are made by boiling the noodles, soaking them in ice water and serving them on a bamboo plate with side dishes, such as tempura and grated yam.

A bowl of jelly noodles with seaweed strips on top

Tokoroten

These jelly-like noodles made from red seaweed have been popular since the Nara period (710 to 794). Their light flavour makes them versatile enough to pair with most sauces. They are often served with fish sauce, ponzu or sweet vinegar.



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