Izakaya Dining: 6 Staple Dishes That You Should Order at a Japanese Pub



Izakaya Dining: 6 Staple Dishes That You Should Order at a Japanese Pub


It's time to clock out for the day, lessons are over, work is finished, and the streets start filling with people in Japan. Many of these people are probably heading to an izakaya.
Japanese Izakaya

An izakaya is a casual place where you can have drinks with friends and co-workers while enjoying all kinds of food. People from all walks of life frequent izakaya. You'll find college students having a party alongside suit-clad salarymen sipping drinks after work, young couples and even groups of energetic grandmas.
Japanese Izakaya
Izakaya put their signs and menus out on the street to attract people

Unlike Japanese restaurants who tend to specialize in one dish (sushi, ramen, etc.) an izakaya usually offers a wide choice of food. While every izakaya has it's own original dishes and specialties, there are certain staple 'izakaya foods' that you should definitely try. Here is my recommendation, followed by a little guide about izakaya drinks, too!


Must-try Izakaya food

First of all, you should know that in izakaya you share everything that is ordered. Everyone at the table will pick one or more items that they want and when the dishes arrive they are put at the center of the table. You use small plates called torizara to take the food you want and eat it. This way you get to try a bit of everything!

So you're sitting at your table, the staff has brought your otoshi appetizer and your first drink is on the way.  What do you order?
Four Tips for Navigating Dining at Izakaya ■Learn more about otoshi and izakaya manners on DiGJAPAN!
◇Four Tips for Navigating Dining at Izakaya   

Edamame | 枝豆
Edamame - Japanese Izakaya

For starters we have a plate of edamame, a true staple of Japanese finger food. Edamame are soy beans served in the pod. You can find these everywhere in Japan and they are no stranger to izakaya. In fact, many places will serve these as the otoshi so you don't even need to order them. Japanese people consider them the perfect beer snack. I like them because even if they contain some salt, they are still way healthier than chips.

Tip: bite or squeeze the pod to get the bean into your mouth. You don't eat the pod. Edamame usually come with an extra bowl for empty pods.

Eihire | エイヒレ
Eihire - Japanese Izakaya

While you are waiting for some of the bigger items to arrive, why not order another ready-to-eat snack? Eihire are grilled fish fins usually served with mayonnaise. They are up there with my favorite foods and they're always the first thing I get at an izakaya. The thinner pieces have a crisp texture, while the thicker pieces are satisfyingly chewy. Needless to say, they go great with a beer. These along with edamame are great to start your night and are easy to share and pass around the table.

Yakitori | 焼き鳥
Yakitori - Japanese Izakaya

Arguably the staple of izakaya food, yakitori are grilled pieces of chicken on a wooden skewer. They are a kind of kushi-yaki (grilled skewers). You can usually find a 'skewer' section on the menu and you can choose a combination of whatever you want. Meat skewers include just about every part of chicken, beef and pork. Grilled vegetable skewers are also popular. Most izakaya will have a recommended assorted set (like the one in the picture) and this is the best way to try a little bit of everything. When ordering yakitori, you might be asked if you want the seasoning to be shio (salt) or tare (a sweet-savory sauce). The yakitori in the picture are shio.

Tip: the 'proper' way to eat yakitori is directly from the skewer. However, it's ok to take the meat off the sticks and share the pieces among everyone, especially in cheaper chain restaurants. If you go to a more refined place that specializes in yakitori, taking the meat off the skewers might be considered rude.
Choose Your Chicken: a Beginner's Guide to Yakitori  ■Read more about yakitori on DiGJAPAN!
◇Choose Your Chicken: a Beginner's Guide to Yakitori   

Hokke | ほっけ
Hokke - Japanese Izakaya

After getting comfortable some of your bigger orders will start to arrive. This is hokke, an entire mackerel grilled and ready to eat. Enjoying hokke with a beer really makes me feel like I am enjoying an izakaya. It is a delicious choice and a nice break from cold sushi and sashimi. Just be on the lookout for bones!

Tip: using your chopsticks, you can lift off the spine before eating. If you grab it at the head extremity and lift, it will come right off. The white thing you can see on the plate is grated daikon radish. You can pour some soy sauce on top of it and use it as a topping.

Tamagoyaki | 卵焼き
Tamagoyaki - Japanese Izakaya

Simple and yet delicious, tamagoyaki is a fluffy Japanese-style omelet made by rolling together several layers of cooked egg. It's a great dish that comes in pre-cut slices ready to end up on your plate. This, too, can be enjoyed with soy sauce and grated daikon radish. Some izakaya will offer different variations of it, for example topped with cheese, mayonnaise or mentaiko (pollock roe).

Motsu Nikomi | もつ煮込み
Motsu nikomi - Japanese Izakaya

We have already enjoyed a bunch of items on the menu. Some familiar, some new but now are you ready to step out of your comfort zone a little bit? Motsu nikomi is boiled intestines from pork, beef or chicken and another very common item to see in izakaya. The slowly cooked stew is very rich and makes the intestines very tender. A masterfully made motsu nikomi will melt in your mouth. The stew also contains vegetables or tofu.

Tip: to eat motsu nikomi and other soup-based dishes you use a deep plate with a raised edge called tonsui. Use the spoon to take some food and  sauce and enjoy!

Found Something 'Different'? Don't Be Afraid to Try!

This was just a very small selection of the kind of food that you can find at an izakaya. Don't be afraid to order things that look interesting and you'll be rewarded with a multitude of flavors and textures! Many izakaya also offer some fun Japanese takes on Western cuisine. Don't be surprised to see things like mochi pizza or seaweed-topped fries.
Roast beef parfait - Japanese Izakaya

This is one of my latest finds: a roast beef parfait. No, this is not a dessert. That is actual roast beef with crackers and cream cheese as the 'ice cream'. Underneath is a layer of potato salad and onions. Despite how it looks and sounds it was very delicious, although it left me craving for some real ice cream.

Finding the Perfect Companion, Drinks at an Izakaya

We all know sake, the Japanese 'rice wine' served in tiny cups. But what else do people drink at an izakaya? The selection is quite wide and you might not be familiar with many of the drinks, so here’s a quick guide on what drinks izakaya offer.
Drinks at a Japanese izakaya

Beer is of course one of the most popular choices, especially as the first drink of the night. Highballs (whisky mixed with soda) are also always on the menu . Another staple of izakaya drinks are chuhai and sours. They are basically the same thing, some places might use one name or the other. The base is a spirit, often shochu, and they come in all kinds of flavors. The most common are lemon, grapefruit and other citrus fruits but you can find anything from oolong tea to mango and pineapple. The white drink in the picture is a Calpis sour, made from a sweet and milky beverage.

Another drink that I recommend trying is umeshu, a liquor made from Japanese plums. It usually comes on the rocks or mixed with soda and it has a sweet, sour taste.

Many of the Izakaya with a larger menu also offer cocktails like gin and tonic, and wine. You might find some unique cocktail made with Japanese ingredients as well!

If you're not a drinker, no problem! All izakaya also have a selection of soft drinks like coke, juices and tea.
Hoppy set - Japanese Izakaya

If you're in Tokyo, you can try a curious drink called Hoppy set. It consists of a glass half filled with shochu and a bottle of Hoppy, a beer-flavored almost non-alcoholic drink. By mixing the two you will obtain an alcoholic beverage that tastes like beer, while not containing any. It's been around since the 1950s when beer was scarce, but it recently gained a retro popularity as a 'healthier' alternative to beer. Once you order a Hoppy set, you can have just your glass refilled by ordering naka, and your bottle replaced by ordering soto.

Start Your Izakaya Adventure Now!

Food at a Japanese Izakaya

There are countless izakaya all over the country. They tend to be concentrated around train stations, but you'll find them scattered in residential areas, too. Depending on the place, they can be cheerful and quite loud, or more classy and elegant. The prices also vary from laughably cheap to incredibly expensive. Whatever your style and budget is, you're sure to find the perfect izakaya for you.

Some izakaya menus can be like books with pages and pages of items to choose from. I hope this article has made you eager to try some and to not be afraid to explore! 

About the author
Laura is an Italian living and working in Tokyo. She loves exploring hidden and unknown places, taking pictures and listening to Punk Rock music. When she’s not busy doing the above, she might enjoy a craft beer or play the sanshin (an Okinawan instrument similar to a shamisen).


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