Summer will soon be drawing to a close here in Japan - and the reprieve of fall is just around the corner. Some of you might be breathing a big sigh of relief with that knowledge, since summers here are notoriously hot and humid. One thing that is brilliant about Japanese summers though are all the delicious food options that are available at this time of year. Here's a recap of some of the best - so get in fast and keep those tastebuds happy!
You'll often see Ayu, or sweetfish, served up as early as the start of cherry blossom season in spring right through the summer months - this is because it's seen as a quintessential festival food. If you're traveling in Japan and want to try Ayu, a festival is your best bet - but you'll also see people enjoying it at riverside barbecues where they literally catch and then grill the fish right there. When preparing the fish for grilling, they're rolled in salt - this adds flavor and helps to contrast the natural sweetness of the fish. You'll also often see Ayu skewered in such a way that it looks like they could be swimming, in a wavy pattern.
Unagior freshwater eel is also known as Japan's super power stamina food to get through the dog days of summer. You'll find it at many places, from high-end restaurants to inexpensive fast food chains like Sukiya - and even in bento boxes at convenience stores and supermarkets. Although the two main days for eating unagi have passed (July 25th and August 6th - more about that here!) you'll still find it stocked at those convenience stores and supermarkets through the end of the hottest months here.
Yes - this is a drink, and the article is about summer foods to try before fall is here - but it wouldn't be summer without ramune, and it's something you'll see at many festivals across Japan. Where does the name come from? It's a play on the word lemonade, actually! Ra-mu-ne...Lem-on-ade...sounds similar, right? Ramune comes in many different flavor varieties, with lemon lime being the original. Other flavors include the normal sounding (cola, orange, raspberry) to the somewhat indulgent (champagne, chocolate, vanilla) to the WTF (do curry, chili oil, or wasabi ramune flavors take your fancy at all?)
Ramune is such a Japanese icon that there have even been ramune Kit Kats, Tohato Caramel Corn and chu-hai varieties made in the original flavor.
When you think Japan, you likely think of a few staple foods - sushi and ramen being head of the list in most cases. But let's be honest - hot ramen on these long summer days doesn't always sound the most appealing, but Japan has a solution for that with somen. Cold noodles definitely sound more palatable, and the way they are often served at summer festivals is an experience in itself. Nagashi Somen is where the somen noodles are placed in a bamboo chute filled with cold running water, and then it's your job as the diner to grab them with your chopsticks directly from the chute. Entertainment and a meal? Winner!
If you're not nearby to any festivals serving up Nagashi Somen, you can always try the cold somen cup noodles that were released to coincide with summer - and there are even DIY Nagashi Somen machines at some of Japan's awesome electronic stores if you want to recreate the experience yourself!
You know those food dishes that are awesome because you've got so many different flavors and textures in each bite? That's Hiyashi Chuka to a tee! It's a cold ramen dish - again proving so much more preferable to hot ramen at this time of the year. You'll see it topped with all manner of delicious goodies that are cut into strips - from tamagoyaki (egg omelet) to cucumber, carrots, ham or chicken, and pickled ginger. It's a super tasty meal that is also a feast for the eyes with all those gorgeous colors. Best of all, you don't need to go to a restaurant if you want to give this a whirl, since you can find hiyashi chuka at just about every convenience store at this time of year. If you're in Japan right now or you'll be here shortly, head in and grab some before they stop stocking it on the shelves for an inexpensive summer meal!
You may have heard of the more well known shabu-shabu before, which is a popular wintertime dish - think of shabu-shabu like a hot pot dish where thinly sliced meat and veggies are boiled in water or broth and usually served alongside white rice. Like a piping hot bowl of ramen, the idea of a hot pot dish in summer doesn't really get the appetite going - but there's a solution to that in the form of rei shabu. The pork slices are still boiled, but once they're cooked they are cooled off in ice water. Think of it more like a cold pork salad! You'll often see it served up with cold somen noodles, some fresh veggies, and some kind of dipping sauce (miso is a popular and flavorful one).
It wouldn't be a summer in Japan without watermelon, and right now they're really at their peak so you can get some great deals on them. Don't worry about those fancy gift melons with prices that make your eyes water - the regular kind are just as tasty and at much more reasonable price points. If you do want to splurge on one of those square gift melons with some extra yen though, go for it - it would certainly make for some fun pictures and an interesting story to tell from your trip!
Japan is a country that is very focused on seasonal eating, and this is just a sample of some of the foods that help make summers here more bearable. Hopefully you'll get to try a few of them over the course of your travels before the season is up!
Happy Eating, and Enjoy Japan!
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