Japan

The Best Japanese foods to eat in Winter

Winter in Japan brings with it a whole host of seasonal dishes that often make for the ultimate comfort food. Having lived in the northern island of Hokkaido, I quickly learned that eating the right dishes were essential to surviving the long winter!

Here are just a few Japanese dishes that I recommend eating to keep warm in the cold season.

Nabe (鍋) – hotpot goodness perfect for winter in Japan

鍋 (なべ) itself means ‘cooking pot’, but is more generally used to refer to one pot dishes that are made in the pot, which are usually soups and stews – perfect for winter. These large pots are normally used to cook nabe dishes on top of a portable stove.

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Ishikari (Hokkaido) style nabe with ikura/ fish roe. Source: naotakem CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cooking nabe is often a very social event where a group of people gather around the table to eat. Everyone adds ingredients to the pot before enjoying their freshly cooked meal. If you have the chance to go to a nabe party, go – it is a great experience!

There are a few well-known types of nabe, including ちゃんこ鍋/ chankonabe (a hearty stew famously eaten by sumo), and 湯豆腐/ yudofu (a simple dish of tofu simmered in a konbu seaweed broth, usually served with ponzu sauce). Nabe also varies by region, such as the Ishikari (Hokkaido) style nabe featured above.

This post is going on focus on three of the most popular nabe dishes: sukiyaki, shabushabu and oden.

すき焼き Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki consists of thinly sliced beef and other vegetables, cooked in a broth made from a mix of soy sauce, sugar and mirin. Ingredients often used in sukiyaki are tofu, cabbage, mushrooms (shiitake, enoki) and spring onions.

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Source: Kapichu [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Once cooked, the beef can be dipped into raw egg just before eating. At the end, udon noodles or mochi can be added to soak up the remaining broth.

Being a winter dish, it often makes an appearance at 忘年会 (ぼうねんかい bounenkai/ end of year parties).

しゃぶしゃぶ Shabushabu

Shabushabu might just be my personal favourite, and it is not just because of the name! Shabushabu gets its name from an onomatopoeic term referring to the process of boiling the meat and vegetables which constitute the dish.

It is important that the meat used is sliced thinly – this allows it to cook in the boiling water in a matter of seconds. You can then dip the meat in a sauce before eating: popular sauces include ponzu and gomadare (sesame sauce).

Chef Mako Okano explains shabushabu in this great video which showcases the types of foods that tend to be used.

A lot of places offer shabushabu 食べ放題 (たべほうだい/tabehoudai – all you can eat) for 60 mins or more for a good price. This makes shabushabu an economic choice in the winter, even for large groups of people.

おでん Oden

Being both filling and warming, oden is the perfect winter food.

Oden is one of the oldest nabe dishes, as it’s origins can be traced back to the 18th century. It is a dish consisting of boiled eggs and vegetables simmered in a soy flavoured dashi broth. There are regional variations, but the most common ingredients are daikon radish, potatoes, chikuwa fishcakes and konnyaku noodles.

The above video takes you through some of the many things you can add to your oden dish!

Oden can be eaten at specialist oden restuarants and traditional yatai stalls, but nowadays can also be found at convenience stores, supermarkets and even vending machines.

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You can buy oden from a range of places, but it is hard to beat the traditional yatai food stall experience! Source: Keiichi Yasu [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Winter snacks to keep you warm

If you aren’t quite hungry enough for a whole meal, you often pick up other warm Japanese snacks at street stalls or convenience stores:

肉まん Nikuman

Nikuman are steamed pork buns – basically the Japanese version of Chinese baozi. The buns are made from a flour-based dough, and the filling is usually made with pork, spring onions and shiitake mushrooms. You can buy these cheaply from convenience stores, where they are kept nice and hot!

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These nikuman are a bit more expensive than what you would find at the convenience store! Source: Japanexperterna (CCBYSA) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The nikuman pictured above are more traditional, but convenience stores often do special types of nikuman, including ピザまん (pizza flavour nikuman),  カレーまん (curry nikuman). Each store has their own unique flavours, so it is well worth visiting a few different places to see the many varieties available!

焼き芋 Yakiimo

Sometimes the simplest foods are the best ones, and yakiimo is a great example of this. Yakiimo literally means ‘baked potatoes’. Imo are Japanese sweet potatoes, which have purple skin and are sweeter tasting than their Western counterparts.

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Source: Kanesue [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the colder months, there are usually street vendors and little food trucks that sell freshly baked yakiimo.

Not only are Japanese sweet potatoes delicious when baked, but they are also known for having many health benefits – I recommend trying them at least once!

焼き餅 Grilled Mochi

Mochi (rice cakes) are a popular snack all year round but is especially popular in the New Year period. They can be eaten in many forms, but a nice way to eat in winter is to grill it, which is known as yakimochi (meaning ‘grilled/ baked mochi’).

I became a little bit obsessed with yakimochi after I was first introduced to it. All you need to do is grill the mochi until it is toasted and has expanded. The gooey warmth of mochi when it is grilled makes it a lovely snack to warm you up in the winter!

I hope this post inspires you to try one of these dishes if you haven’t already. There are a lot of various Japanese ingredients mentioned in this post – if you want to learn more, I suggest checking out the following websites:

Japan Visitor’s Food Glossary

NHK World’s Japanese Food Glossary

Japanese Cooking 101

What is your favourite winter dish (Japanese or otherwise)? Please tell me in the comments!

5 Things I Learned from my Year Abroad

My year abroad experience in Japan was almost five years ago, and is sadly becoming a distant memory.

I still remember how excited I was to finally be going to Japan. My year abroad was something I had been looking forward to for a long time. I had never actually visited Japan before!

At the same time, I was so nervous to jump on a plane and fly across the world. What if Japan wasn’t what I expected it to be?

Fortunately, my year abroad was a positive experience for me and I am glad that I gave myself the opportunity to do it. A lot of things in my life have changed since then, but it is only now that I look back that I realise that it changed me in more ways than one. There are so many things that I learned on my year abroad experience that I am thankful for.

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Travelling Light = less stress!

This might seem like an odd thing to include, but this is a practical thing which still serves me well today. It is worth saying that I was (and still am) a hoarder!

Before going to Japan, the prospect of packing my most important belongings into a 23kg suitcase felt impossible. Some items I did need for Japan included makeup, painkillers, deodorant and comfortable shoes. Of course, I did want to prioritise some sentimental items, such as pictures of family and friends.

However I realised after a few months that after all of the time I spent trying to decide what I needed to take, there was a lot of stuff I didn’t use at all.

Every time I have been travelling since then, I think carefully about what items I really need to take and pack solely on that basis. Thanks to the year abroad, I am a much lighter traveller than I used to be.

It’s important to let go and embrace imperfections

I have always held myself to high standards, especially when it comes to learning. Learning a language requires you to let go of that need for perfectionism, because us learners do make mistakes. There’s no point in getting hung up on that time you used the wrong word, or couldn’t understand that conversation.

As long as you can make yourself understood (in the politest way possible), you are making progress. Whenever I struggled with obsessing over my failures, I tried to think of the time when people were clearly happy I could speak some Japanese, or was able to translate something for my friends.

Open yourself to new things

Of course, you are in your target country to learn about that country’s language and traditions. There are bound to be certain things that you encounter that are completely new to you, both good and bad.

Your year abroad experience inevitably gives you the opportunity to mix with people you would not have crossed path with overwise. Learning about other languages and cultures aside from Japan was a real highlight of my time abroad.

Embrace the opportunity to have new cultural experiences whenever you can!

A greater sense of self

People I met who had already gone on their year abroad told me that I would end up learning a great deal about myself as well as Japan. I never truly understood what was meant by this until I was a couple of months into my exchange programme.

It’s funny how much you think you know about your home country is easily tested when you get people asking things that you’d previously never given much thought, such as “Why is the UK flag known as the Union Jack?”.

I spent a lot of time worrying about how I would be treated in Japan. I am British born and bred, but my grandparents are from the Caribbean. So naturally, I stood out like a sore thumb in semi-rural Hokkaido!

Fortunately, I never had any discrimination issues whilst in Japan, but having dark skin and afro hair did mean a lot of pointing and staring. It did ultimately make myself feel much more comfortable in my own skin, as I learnt to embrace what made me different (as well as the many things I had in common with the people I met).

People come and go

The year abroad can only last so long. My fellow students were from a wide variety of countries and it was inevitable that most of these people I would never see again after the year had ended.

Whilst this is kind of sad, it reminds to you treasure things as they happen in the moment. You will always have those memories of the experiences you have from your time abroad.

Overall, I feel that the year abroad gave me the chance to appreciate the wider world, as well as the life I was fortunate to have back home. Whilst I do not live in Japan now, I would certainly go back on a longer-term basis should the right opportunity came along.

If you have the chance to work or study abroad (especially as a student), I fully recommend it!

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