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Going Beyond Sushi: What foods to try at an Izakaya – Japanese style pub?

Going Beyond Sushi: What foods to try at an Izakaya – Japanese style pub?

Date published: 11 August 2019
Last updated: 9 August 2019

On those days when you just want to relax and have a drink, head down to an izakaya, a Japanese-style bar. This is where you can quietly enjoy drinks at the counter by yourself or have a noisy group drinking session with your buddies - it's entirely up to you! And since there's always an izakaya or two on almost any street in Japan, there's no need to worry about not having a proper place to hang out at night.

In recent years, Japanese izakaya chains have been gaining ground overseas as well. For example, in Asian countries like Taiwan, locals often visit izakaya with their Japanese colleagues after work. In most Western lands, however, the concept behind izakaya doesn't quite exist yet and locals there are more familiar with places such as a bar in the U.S. or brasserie in France. It's not surprising, therefore, that foreigners are quite intrigued by Japan's izakaya culture.

In this article, we've collected opinions from 20 foreigners staying in Japan about their favorite and not-so-favorite izakaya menu items. This will give you a good idea about what food is generally offered in most izakaya as well as some insight into what the bar culture is like in different countries.

"Karaage (fried food)" is the top pick of both foreigners and locals alike

"Karaage (fried food)" is the top pick of both foreigners and locals alike

The most popular item among standard izakaya fare is the well-known "Karaage", or deep-fried food. "Karaage" batter is deep-fried to crispy perfection, locking in tasty juices that will flow out with every bite. This dish is a hot item among local Japanese as well.

"You can't go wrong with 'Karaage' no matter where you go. We have a lot of izakaya chains in Hong Kong as well, so we're quite familiar with the menu items being offered in such restaurants."
--Hong Kong man in his 40s

"I love 'Karaage'! And 'Chicken Cartilage Karaage' too!"
--Taiwanese woman in her 30s

"I always order 'Karaage', because it's just that good. Sometimes I'll even order more than one portion!"
--Korean man in his 30s

Looks like "Karaage" is the go-to dish for most Asian customers of izakaya, possibly because the Asian palate is more or less similar to the Japanese one. Getting customers to order additional portions is the best proof of the dish's enduring and endearing popularity.

Westerners, on the other hand, go for "Potato Fries", also known as "French Fries"!

Westerners, on the other hand, go for "Potato Fries", also known as "French Fries"!

Continuing on the trend of popular deep-fried food, here's another hot favorite: "Potato Fries", or "French Fries"! This is a standard menu item for most izakaya as well, and very popular among customers from the United States and Europe.

"It's similar to the fries we have in France, so it makes me feel closer to home somewhat."
--French man in his 30s

"Japanese fries are so crispy, you can't help but get addicted! In my opinion, Kin no Kura izakaya serve the best-tasting fries in all of Japan!"
--American woman in her 20s

Preferences differ from country to country even for something as simple as deep-fried food. Local Japanese customers will often go, "Why not all?" and stack orders for all types of deep-fried food - a sight you're bound to come upon when you visit izakaya often enough!

"Grilled Fish" is often ordered as it is difficult to prepare at home

"Grilled Fish" is often ordered as it is difficult to prepare at home

Next on the list is "Grilled Fish". Many people find it hard to grill food themselves at home, so ordering a large "Grilled Fish" at the izakaya is also a precious chance for you to relish the unique taste of Japan.

"I don't really grill food at home. It's especially satisfying to come here and order a large mackerel."
--Chinese man in his 20s

"I like the grilled mackerel and shishamo (smelt) here. Especially the komochi shishamo (roe-filled smelt)!"
--American woman in her 30s

"Any type of fish tastes fantastic when grilled. I'll always order one!"
--Chinese man in his 30s

Step into any izakaya and the distinct aroma of charcoal-grilled fish is one of the first things you'll notice. The exotic taste of any izakaya's "Grilled Fish" is an attractive menu item for many foreign visitors.

What are some uncommon food items you would recommend?

What are some uncommon food items you would recommend?

Let's hear from a vocal minority what are some uncommon dishes they always go for at the izakaya!

"I love most of the food at the izakaya, but I'd personally recommend the 'Plum Crystal (shark cartilage with plum pulp)' dish."
--Chinese woman in her 20s

"You've gotta try 'Edamame (young soy beans)' because they're perfect with beer, and healthy to boot!"
--German woman in her 20s

"I kind of like 'Potato Salad' and 'Vegetable Sticks'. I'm really glad the izakaya in Japan offer a lot of vegetable-only dishes, so vegetarians can also enjoy a good meal here."
--Canadian woman in her 20s

"Give your taste buds a treat with some crispy 'Fried Gyoza Dumplings' in any izakaya!"
--French woman in her 20s

"The 'Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers)' they serve contain all sorts of different chicken parts, and I find that enjoyable. Great dish to order when drinking with large groups!"
--American man in his 20s

All food items mentioned are considered standard fare in an izakaya. As a Japanese, it's heartening to know that Japan's cuisine is so well-received by people of all nations!

And the title of most disliked izakaya dish of all times according to foreigners goes to...

And the title of most disliked izakaya dish of all times according to foreigners goes to...

Now, for something completely different: A list of the most disliked izakaya dishes of all times according to our international friends! And on the very top of that list is none other than 'Sashimi (raw fish)'!

"No matter how fresh they say it is, I just can't stand the fishy smell!"
--Taiwanese woman in her 30s

"I can swallow tuna sashimi somehow, but I don't go out of my way to order it because it's not my cup of tea."
--French man in his 30s

"I mean, I like sushi, but I wouldn't go to an izakaya with the sole purpose of eating sashimi. It's not very tasty, anyway?"
--American woman in her 20s

The word "sashimi" has become rather well-known overseas in recent years, and many overseas friends are starting to accept this uniquely Japanese dish. However, the fact that it's basically raw fish is a mental barrier that has caused many to turn their noses up at it. It's certainly a little surprising to see the aversion most foreigners have for sashimi, considering how well-received sushi is overseas.

Scathing comments about the "Salad" offered in izakaya restaurants

Scathing comments about the "Salad" offered in izakaya restaurants

"Izakaya 'Salad'? The vegetables aren't that fresh and the dressing isn't very healthy at all, so it gets a no-go from me."
--German woman in her 20s

"I have to say the vegetables are of poor quality, and the dressing doesn't taste nice either. It's just a bowl of tomatoes and lettuce - I wouldn't call that 'Salad' myself, personally. I could probably whip up a better-tasting one at home myself!"
--American woman in her 30s

Certainly words you would expect to hear from the health-conscious familiar with organic diets! Still, more and more izakaya bars are starting to use great-tasting vegetables as a selling point nowadays, so perhaps they might change their minds after visiting one of these izakaya?

What's your unpopular opinion about the food items you dislike?

What's your unpopular opinion about the food items you dislike?

"I don't like 'Yakitori' because I'm vegetarian."
--Canadian woman in her 20s

"Ordering 'Pickled Vegetables' at an izakaya seems like such a waste. I don't really like pickled food in the first place anyway."
--Taiwanese woman in her 30s

Naturally, "Yakitori" is out of the question for vegetarians. Hopefully, our vegetarian friends can definitely find something to enjoy among the vegetable dishes being offered! Also, it would seem like pickled food is an acquired taste, so it's understandable that foreigners unfamiliar with this type of food may not exactly fancy it.

Foreigners don't go for shime, or end dish?

Foreigners don't go for shime, or end dish?

In the course of our investigation, we asked our international friends what sort of end dish they usually ordered after their drinks, but the surprising answer was, "Nothing." Most people view the izakaya as a place for drinks, so ordering a chazuke (tea on rice) or ramen as an end dish is not a thought that often crosses their minds.

Through our survey this time, we've clearly sussed out some differences in food culture between Japan and various other countries. With the staggering amount of variety in the food menu offered by an izakaya, however, it's still a place where all can enjoy visiting. When deciding where to go for food in a group with some international friends, consider adding an izakaya as one of your options!

Writer: Igarashi Masaru

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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