You might know the rumor that you can’t find spicy food in Japan. Duck into a Tokyo Indian joint and even the “Ultra Spicy” curry with five peppers next to it on the menu is only as stimulating as a chicken nugget. Gyoza shop? Prepare yourself for “non-spicy” gyoza, prepared by using a garlic-less filling.
It’s normal to be surprised (and a little amused) by the soft-tonguedness of Japanese tastes when it comes to spicy food. In fact, plenty of Japanese people even ask the same questions you might be thinking: Why are there no spicy Japanese foods? Is there any truly Japanese spicy food? Where can I get spicy food in Japan?
Although it’s true that Westerners and Japanese people might have different definitions of “spicy”, there are still plenty of ways to experience tongue-tickling cuisine in Japan. Let’s take a look at the different meanings of spice in Japanese, some popular foods, and ways to enjoy Japanese cooking with a kick.
Tip: In a hurry? Scroll to the end for our list of the 11 most popular spicy foods in Japan!
What Is "Spicy" in Japanese?
The base kanji used to talk about “spicy” sensations is「辛」kara. From there, words like geki-kara (super spicy), piri-kara (tingly spicy, or "a little" spicy, like chili peppers), shibi-kara (numbing spicy, like mala flavor or Schezuan peppers), help explain spiciness for the Japanese palate.
To get an accurate definition of the real meaning of “kara”, you have to compare its many uses. In alcoholic beverages, karakuchi, “spicy mouth” refers to a dry wine or sake. Both red pepper tougarashi and sinus-tingling wasabi are considered karai (spicy), but the sensation is completely different. And then there’s garlic and onions, which are also described with karai!
Sometimes, karai is even used to describe notably non-spicy flavors, like tare sweet-savory sauce described as amakara, and salty dishes as shiokarai. In this case, kara distinguishes a flavor as not being mild or weak, more than expressing spiciness.
So, what more accurately describes the mouth-sensation of karai? Words like astringent and maybe acetic are much closer than “spicy.” These words describe mouth sensations that have somewhat of a prickling effect. From radish and wasabi that sting your nose, to the mouth burn of chili peppers, these flavors come from a variety of chemicals that stimulate the palate.
Interested in learning more about how Japan adds flavor to its cuisine? Hop over to our guide to Japanese spices and condiments for the full rundown.
5 Ways To Get Spicy in Japan (Or: How To Experience the Spectrum of Karai)
Work your way through this list to sample "spicy" in Japan:
- Dry karakuchi drinks
- Refreshing wasabi & ginger
- Numbing ma-la in Chinese-Japanese cuisine
- Sweat-inducing togarashi peppers and Korean cuisine
- Pop into a super-spicy ramen restaurant in Tokyo
Japan’s karakuchi beers and sake are gradually gaining popularity worldwide. In fact, Asahi Super Dry is the most popular Japanese beer, and it’s easy to see why. The refreshing spritz of this rice lager makes it perfect even for non-beer drinkers. For beer connoisseurs, the barely-there flavor of Super Dry offers the kind of clean finish that washes away heavy karaage.
On the more traditional end, the new generation of nihonshu Japanese sake drinkers have spurred a karakuchi sake trend. After WWII, in order to make sure there was enough booze to go around, brewers added sugar and diluted sake before distribution. The result was a sweet, sticky mouthfeel that has fallen out of favor as local breweries return to classical methods. Modern breweries have gone back to just using rice and water, resulting in more refreshing, cleaner sake.
You can taste and compare some of the best karakuchi and choukarakuchi (super dry) sake in your own home too—explore the byFood marketplace.
Karai for your nose
Wasabi is regarded as the most widely used spice in Japan. Mountain-dwelling wasabi (sawa-wasabi) grows in cool streams, and domestically both the roots and leaves are enjoyed for a sinus-tingling flavor.
A cousin of the horseradish, wasabi blends and green-dyed horseradish are common replacements at lower-end sushi shops. Natural, fresh wasabi root is described as floral and herbaceous, and less prickly than budget varieties. However, its quality doesn’t last long after harvesting, so the real thing is highly prized.
Where to find fresh wasabi:
What to serve wasabi with:
- Cold-soba, mixed into the tsuyu dipping-sauce
- Roast Beef
- Gyutan (beef tongue)
Daikon is one of the most traditional, widely enjoyed vegetables in Japan. Dishes like boiled daikon, oden, and pickled radish don’t always remind us that they are indeed crunchy, spicy radishes, just like the ones available in the West. The white tip of a daikon root is said to be the spiciest, while the greener end near the leaves is sweeter.
The spice shrine in Kanazawa (the only one in Japan) is dedicated to a ginger-kami if that gives any hint of shouga’s importance in Japanese cuisine. Like wasabi, ginger is often served pickled, alongside sushi or sashimi. Shouga-yaki is a popular Chinese-Japanese dish of pork sauteed with ginger, spices, and soy sauce. During spring, a wild vegetable called myoga sprouts pink and yellow buds that taste like zesty ginger. Myoga are Japanese ginger plants, whose flowers and sprouts are eaten instead the roots.
Karashi (Japanese mustard)
A go-to partner for oden, tonkatsu and natto, Japanese mustard is written as “spicy child” for good reason. Unlike western yellow mustard, karashi isn’t diluted with vinegar or thickeners. A regional variation, jigarashi is famous in Fukui prefecture, where the whole mustard seed (hulls and all) is ground into a more nuanced version.
Piripiri karai (mouth hot)
For the same burn-your-mouth flavor we know and love, look no further than Japan’s togarashi. Although the word applies to many different varieties of pepper, in general, it refers to the chili.
They may have been introduced by Japanese soldiers returning from Taiwan or the Korean Peninsula at some point during the 16th and 17th centuries. Around the same time, many of Japan’s best-loved “spicy foods” were imported and popularized.
Japanese togarashi peppers, like other peppers, are eaten at different stages of maturity for different flavors. Red togarashi is the ripest, traditionally dried and ground into ichimi (one-flavor) powder or blended into shichimi mixed-spice with ingredients like ginger, sansho pepper, sesame, and more, for a more robust flavor with less spice. Green togarashi is the most spicy, and the youngest, still full of herbal bitterness that suits pickling and sauces.
How to eat togarashi:
Sprinkle red ichimi or shichimi powder over your favorite Japanese comfort foods, especially rice, noodles, or agemono (fried food). The slow, robust burn of roasted chilis adds depth and excitement even spice-sensitive Japanese love! Ra-yu chili oil, its liquid companion, is added to everything from gyoza dipping sauce to ramen. Ra-yu is one of the staples of Chinese-Japanese cuisine.
Enjoy green togarashi (aotogarashi) as yuzukoshou, a paste made using yuzu peel, salt, and raw chilis. It’s often added to clear broths like udon or served with certain kinds of sashimi that have a strong flavor (think katsuo). Many Western chefs have repurposed it as a marinade ingredient for chicken, shrimp, and fish.
Shibi karai (numbing hot)
Sansho is a shibi-karai herb found in many traditional wa-ryouri dishes. If there were to be a “spicy” Japanese food, we might say that it was sansho. However, rarely is a significant amount of sansho added to a dish. Since the whole plant can be used, one or two leaves are used as fragrant garnish in kaiseki dishes.
Since sansho is more fragrant than spicy, its powdered form is served with rich dishes like unagi eel. Shibi-karai food offers a numbing effect, like the ma-la spice of Szechuan cuisine or the milder sansho, both forms of prickly pear.
We mentioned above that amakara and shiokara are words used to refer to sweet and savory flavors or salty food, but since most Westerners wouldn’t call that spicy, we’ll leave it out of the seasonings list.
We also mentioned that ingredients like onion and garlic were considered karai, but since that just refers to the mouth-drying effect, we’ll leave them out too. Just be warned that you might go into a restaurant serving abura-soba (as a major example) and be challenged by the spice level, only to discover that it’s just how much garlic they add.
11 Most Popular Spicy Foods in Japan (Go On, Try Them!)
About two thirds of the population report liking karai foods in general. Since Japan doesn’t really have any native spicy foods, what might be the most popular spicy menu items in Japan? All the major competitors are Chinese and Korean, with Thai-inspired cuisine and curry rounding out the list.
1. Mapo tofu
Even served in schools, the numbing Szechuan-spiced ground meat and tofu dish tops national surveys of popular spicy food in Japan. Mapo tofu, or mapodofu, features a thick gravy with a rich spice fragrance and numbing hotness. Minced vegetables, ground pork, and cubed tofu are simmered together in sauce and served over rice.
Kimuchi as Japan would call it, is described as rich and spicy. Kimchi hails from the Korean Peninsula and was likely introduced after Japan’s involvement in the area in the 1500s. Kimchi nabe is a thin soup that gets its flavor from the ingredients boiled in it, namely kimchi, of course. Other common ingredients include seafood, pork, and noodles. Kimchi itame is any form of stir-fry with kimchi as a base.
3. Dan-danmen (tan-tan men)
Dan-dan men, sometimes called brothless tan-tan men, is a Szechuan noodle topped with ground spicy ground meat (pork) sauce. While dan-dan noodles are traditional Chinese cuisine, tantan men, the soup version, was invented in Japan by a Chinese chef looking to adapt the dish to Japanese tastes. Dan-dan men are eaten by tossing the noodles with warm or cold dan-dan topping, a thick, spicy meat-sauce like a Chinese bolognese.
Back to Korean cuisine, kimchi jiggae, budae jiggae, and soondubu jiggae (or chige) are popular spicy stews found in Korean restaurants across Japan. Unlike kimchi nabe, the base of the jiggae stew is spicy thanks to Korean chili. In it, all kinds of ingredients can be boiled and enjoyed together. It is often served with a side of rice and various namul or small dishes, just like in Korea.
5. Spicy chicken
From RED karaage kun to spicy famichiki, karai fried chicken is popular in Japan just like overseas. Yanyeom chicken is soaked in a sweet and spicy Korean sauce, but the convenience store variety relies on togarashi in the batter.
6. Ma-la tan
Hot and numbing soup as we might call it in English, this Chinese soup is spicy from both chili oil and numbing Szechuan pepper. Ma-la tan is less rich and savory than mapo tofu or dan-dan men, which are thicker and fattier. Ma-la tan is a staple in Chinatowns and is often served with wide, flat or clear noodles. There are similar Korean versions of the dish as well.
7. Super spicy ramen
Geki-kara ramen is more of a novelty food than anything, and the way it’s made varies by store. In general, togarashi is added to the broth or ra-yu is floated on top. Topped with char-siu, red aji-tama, threads of dried pepper, or even spicy karaage, there are myriad ways to enjoy spicy ramen. Some of the most popular ramen spots in Tokyo even offer super-spicy versions of their best bowls.
8. Karashi renkon
An original Japanese invention, karashi renkon are slices of lotus root with karashi-miso sandwiched between them and then fried or sauteed. The original dish comes from Kumamoto Prefecture and is great at an izakaya, paired with similarly karakuchi sake or beer.
From Japanese curry to Thai green curry and Indian vindaloo, keema, “spice-curry”, et cetera, et cetera, the world of curry in Japan is characterized by its spice level. Box curries are available in ama-kuchi mild flavor, chuu-kara (middle-spicy), and oo-kara (big spicy?) to suit different tastes. With the relatively recent rise in spice-lovers, South Asian flavors are growing in popularity. Thanks to this, dishes like green curry are more widely available.
Finally, Why Are There No Spicy Japanese Foods, Though?
Historically, Japan has ample access to clean water, refrigerative capabilities, and fresh ingredients, thanks to its climate. The cultures where spicy food is most common tend to be hot, humid, or arid climates, where capsaicin was what kept preserved food safe by killing off fungus and microbes. They say necessity is the mother of invention, so there's only relative abundance and safety to blame for Japan's lack of spicy food!