Winter in Tokyo can offer some sunny days with beautiful blue skies, but it comes at a cost, with the average temperature hanging somewhere between 2 and 10 degrees Celsius. Well, you’ve been out exploring or maybe you were taking refuge in a museum for the morning, but it’s lunchtime in Tokyo and you’re hungry. Don’t stand out in the cold and wonder what to eat, read on for 8 Japanese foods that will warm you up during winter in Tokyo.
Be careful not to burn your mouth, a hot bowl of ramen will certainly fill you up and warm you up at the same time. Chinese-style wheat noodles, meat, vegetables, and a sheet of nori (seaweed) come together in a hearty broth. It's the perfect meal for colder weather. Basic broths, such as miso or tonkotsu pork are always a safe bet, and usually, you can add in some condiments like garlic and pepper to bring it to the next level. Warm udon or soba, of course, might do a similar job (ask for "atatakai," meaning “warm”), but a thick ramen broth, soft-boiled egg, and a fat slice of chashu pork really feels like a cozy hug. With a side of gyoza dumplings hot off the pan, you’ll be toasty in no time. Try a bowl of tantanmen, ramen with a spicy kick, if it’s especially cold out.
The term nabemono, or nabe, covers all kinds of hot pot-style foods, referring to soup-based meals made in a communal pot. When winter rolls around in Japan, it becomes time to whip out the nabe pot and eat together around the kotatsu (heated table). Warming for the belly and the heart, meat with vegetables and noodles cooked together in a hot broth is best shared with family or friends. Typically in restaurants, a large communal pot sits on a portable stove or one built into the table, and the nabe cooks in front of you and your dining companions while you chat. The longer your nabe cooks, the more intensely the flavors of the soup develop. Nabe has a really cozy image that goes hand in hand with cold weather in Japan.
Let’s look into two popular types of nabe, shabu-shabu and sukiyaki.
“Shabu-shabu” is an onomatopoeic word in Japanese for the "swish-swish" sound of dipping and flipping slices of meat in the boiling nabe broth. In this variation of hot pot, the meat comes in thin slices so they can be cooked quickly and then dipped into your choice of sauces. Some restaurants offer a pot with two or more sections so that you can have different types of soup. Bases range from miso and soy sauce to yuzu citrus, as well as other variants like spicy kimchi or creamy tofu milk. Adding in vegetables like green onions, kinoko (mushrooms), noodles, and tofu cubes makes for a healthy, tasty and toasty group dinner.
Another nabe variant, sukiyaki is a sweet-flavored nabemono that is cooked in a cast iron pot right at the table. Sukiyaki consists of meats, green vegetables, and different styles of tofu, simmered in a base soup made of soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. Udon or mochi rice cakes are often in the mix too, as well as clear glass noodles made from konnyaku root, called ito ("string") konnyaku. Daikon radish, to soak in the sauce, and a variety of kinoko mushrooms are also typically used in sukiyaki. Once it is ready, you are meant to eat the meat by dipping it in raw egg first!
Japan is more commonly known for its delicate flavors and subtle textures, but an unusual food that has developed into its own realm is Japanese curry. Often including hearty chunks of meat, carrots, and potatoes, it is really a perfect comfort food during the winter months. Homey and filling, curry rice often comes with your choice of katsu (a panko-coated cutlet) or agemono (deep-fried foods). Curry udon, a noodle alternative, also hits the spot on a cold day. To ramp up the heat, sprinkle some shichimi-togarashi on top (a chili pepper spice mix with seven ingredients).
For the hardcore curry addicts, the chain restaurant Coco-Curry has stores spread across the city and allows you to choose the spiciness level. Not just by Japan standards, even the low levels from one to three pack a punch. Level 10 is truly not for the faint of heart, but apparently, if you can conquer it, you can keep the spoon.
Bonus Tip: If you are on the run and need a hot snack, the chukaman, or warm steamed buns, sold at convenience stores are perfect for a little pick-me-up between meals. Nikuman (meat-filled steam buns) or kareman (curry-filled steam buns) are always tasty, but you can even get pizza flavored buns or sweet buns with anko (red bean paste) filling.
Bonus Tip: Try the oden at the konbini and you'll really feel like a Tokyo local.
Hang on, let’s just backtrack a moment. Convenience store oden? Are you sure?
Yes! If you’d like a hot snack on the go, try picking up some oden to-go. Usually, oden items are displayed in self-service stainless steel warmers near the registers. It’s warm and delicious, easy access, quite cheap and you just pay per piece. So, let’s track forwards, what is oden? Strongly associated with wintertime, oden is a soup-based traditional Japanese food. Inside a light dashi soup stock flavored with soy sauce, a variety of tofu, boiled eggs, and vegetables are submerged and infused by the umami broth flavors. You can find fish cakes of all shapes and sizes too, and you can choose which individual pieces you’d like to try. Get warmed up by the soup, while enjoying the different intriguing textures of the separate ingredients. Of course, home-cooked oden is the best way to have it, but you can find it at izakayas and specialty stores too.
Finally, if you feel like a little snack, grab some mochi. Mochi can be enjoyed any time of the year, but particularly during in the winter months, yakimochi is wonderful on a cold day at a temple or shrine. These pounded rice cakes are grilled usually over a charcoal fire, puffing as they warm. Starchy and filling, there is something about its gooey texture and winter that go hand in hand.
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