9 nostalgic Japanese foods

9 nostalgic Japanese foods

Dishes and snacks that bring back memories are among Japan’s fantastic staples
Nostalgic Japanese foods
Boom! Just one look and you're eight again. If you're Japanese, that is.

When you reflect on childhood, what brings back the fondest memories?

Friends? Of course.

Family? Hmm ... perhaps.

How about food? Absolutely.

Most kids may not be connoisseurs, but they’re never afraid to tell you what they like on the table.

And, when kids become adults, those same foods are the good-eating stuff memories are made of.

Here are a few classic Japanese dishes an entire country looks back on with delight.

Baby castella

A far cry from the pastry first brought to Japanese shores in the 16th century, this bite-size, bastardized version of a Portuguese cake is a perennial favorite with kids.

The aroma draws them in, but it’s the baking utensils that seal the deal.

The cooking apparatus (see top image) vaguely resembles muffin pans, each concave mold a receptacle for the aromatic dough.

Experienced merchants land each dollop of batter with the flair of a circus showman, while children stand transfixed until the delectable morsels spill out.

Where to get it: Yoyogi Park in Tokyo is always dependable, with several stands between Harajuku Station and the festival grounds entrance. 

Curry rice

Nostalgic Japanese foodsSpot the stealth vegetables.

Far from the tongue-torching spice levels of India and Southeast Asia, most Japanese curry fans prefer their roux mild or even sweet; often adding grated apples or honey.

Most commonly cooked with carrots and onions, Japanese curry is also utilized as a nutrient delivery system for vegetable-averse kids.

Add spinach. Add broccoli. Add anything -- curry fools even the most finicky eaters.

The dish is especially popular with working parents because it cooks fast, takes only one pot to prepare and allows them to clear the refrigerator of anything reaching an expiry date.

Where to get it: Fast-food versions work in a pinch, or try the Club of Famous Curry Diners, where you can try five different kinds, including spicier international versions -- 2-7-1, Yurakucho Itocia Plaza B1/F;  +81 (0) 3 3211 0616; open daily 11 a.m-11 p.m.

The best stuff, of course, is made at home. Japan’s most famous brand is Vermont Curry. Cook this with your favorite meat or vegetables and voila: instant yum.  


Nostalgic Japanese foodsIt just wouldn't be right without the ketchup.

It seems simple enough: fried rice sheathed in an omelet casing. What’s the big deal?

Perhaps the soft, bright exterior makes it more inviting to the younger set. Or perhaps it's the secret ingredient: ketchup.

Yes, kids’ favorite condiment is often mixed into the rice, and for added flair, many parents embellish it with a red smiley face across its golden center.

Where to get it: The Rakeru family-restaurant chain is reasonably priced and found throughout Tokyo.


Nostalgic Japanese foodsWhen is grilled fish not grilled fish? When it's a bean-filled cake, of course.

The name refers to grilled sea bream, but taiyaki holds a second (and sweeter) meaning in Japan.

It’s also the name of a popular pastry that resembles its namesake fish. Taiyaki are baked in molds like the baby castella, but with sweet bean paste or custard placed in the center. Surprisingly good.

Where to get it: A personal favorite is the Taiyaki Daruma stand in Aikihabara -- 1/F Sakai Suehiro Building, 6-14-2 Sotokanda Chiyoda ku; +81 (0) 3 5818 1103; open daily noon-8 p.m.

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Nostalgic Japanese foodsMmm ... crispy ice shavings covered in green stuff.

Shaved ice and sugar: what could be better on a sweltering August afternoon? Add some garishly bright food coloring, perhaps? Sold.

Behold, it’s kakigori, the quintessential summer snack. Similar to the Slurpee and Slush Puppie of the West, Japan’s version of frozen high-fructose goodness is consumed by spoon rather than straw.

This isn’t gelatinous goo oozing from a dispenser, however. Good kakigori is made by shaving large blocks of ice at the time of your order. The resulting ice is flaky, almost crispy.

Next step: add some color. The sticky-sweet syrup is prized, so popular spots usually let kids pump it over the ice themselves. Five out of five dentists would not approve.

There are more sophisticated versions of the dessert that add fruit, condensed milk or anko bean paste, but the under-10 crowd usually prefers the most psychedelic-tinted types since they pack the sweetest punch. Taste the rainbow indeed.

Where to get it: Most kakigori are consumed at sidewalk stands, but many restaurants sell it as well. Look for the red-and-blue sign emblazoned with the Japanese character for ice ().


Nostalgic Japanese foodsMemories on a stick -- dango-tastic.

Sticky, salty and sweet, dango occupy a wide range of flavors and textures. The most ubiquitous variety is the humble mitarashi dango, pictured here.

The savory sugar-and-soy coating is delicious, but don’t scarf them too quickly.

Every New-Year season, news stories cover the many people who choke on mochi, dango’s humble cousin. So take our advice: slow down and savor.

Where to get it: Mitarashi dango (also known simply as yaki dango) are found in specialty shops and convenience stores. Places like Kameya Yamoto (1-14-10 Higashi Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; +81 (0) 3 3866 3804; open 9 a.m.-6 p.m.) are great, but don’t discount the pre-packaged versions to satisfy smaller appetites.

Corn soup

Nostalgic Japanese foodsIt'll fill you up as soon as look at you.

More like corn-flavored butter sauce if you ask us, but kids lap it up like chocolate milk.

Restaurants serve it quickly to quell the hungry and impatient, but be careful: while creamy and satisfying, corn soup is also quite filling.

Look for child portions, or split a bowl between family members. Otherwise, don’t expect your brood to finish their entrées.

Where to get it: Much like dango, any kind will do. Even cartons sold at grocery stores are happily emptied.

Most “family restaurant” chains have it on their menu, or if you’re feeling adventurous, try the corn soup popsicle. No, we’re not making this up.

Yaki imo

Nostalgic Japanese foodsGrab it and go -- fresh yaki imo.

Snacks don’t get more basic than this.

Step one: bake a sweet potato.

Step two: eat it.

The delicate yellow interior of Japanese sweet potatoes is so satisfying when fresh from the oven, this is actually an incredibly popular winter snack.

Most people consider yaki imo a cold-weather food, something to warm both your belly and your hands as you shiver against the elements.

Where to get it: Step to the sidewalk and listen. Roving vendors play a sing-song version of the words “Yaki Imo” as they drive or pull their oven-loaded vehicles from place-to-place.

Hayashi rice

Nostalgic Japanese foodsSweet and satisfying hayashi rice has to be tried to be believed.

Like its cousin, curry rice, hayashi rice isn’t the most visually dazzling dish, but for most Japanese kids, there isn’t a spoon big enough to shovel it in.

The demi-glace base gives it the savory tang of gravy, while the soft strips of beef and slow-cooked vegetables give it the texture of stew.

Where curry rice hints at the spicy, hayashi rice is almost always sweet, and almost always satisfying.

Where to get it: A staple of both family restaurants and salaryman lunch spots alike, hayashi rice is rarely far away. But if you’d like to experience its peak form, head to Kurofune Tei in Ueno -- Kikuya Building 4/F, 2-13-13 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo; +81 (0) 3 3837 1617; open 11:30 a.m.-10:45 p.m.

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Writer, father and informavore, Jason likes working in, around and between Tokyo's creative forces.

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