Cherry blossoms in spring, festivals and fireworks in the summer, red and gold autumn foliage in the fall, and illuminations and twinkling snow in the winter… Japan is a country that takes pride in and shows appreciation for all the seasons. This love of the changing of the world around us throughout the year extends also into the world of food!
Japan is known throughout the world as a country whose cuisine values and makes the most of the ingredients available according to the season. These foods and drinks are usually available all year around, but Japanese and non-Japanese people living here alike look forward to the humidity and heat of the summer months so that they can delight in these delicious treats to the soundtrack of the shrill of cicadas! Here is a quick list and description of the top twelve most popular summer foods in Japan – a little bit about them and how to enjoy them, too. Bon appetit! Or as we say in Japan, いただきます itadakimasu!
Chilled Somen Noodles
These thin white noodles are made of wheat flour and are served chilled in the summer to dip in soy sauce and dashi. Eating somen noodles is an excellent way to keep cool in the summer heat. Some restaurants that are increasingly popular offer nagashi-somen 流しそうめん, which literally translates to ‘flowing somen’. And that is exactly what it is! Long pieces of bamboo cut in half are joined together and ice-cold water is flushed down these flumes. Somen noodles are also added to the water. As the noodles flow past, you must use your chopsticks to grab them to dip into the sauce and then eat! This is a great way to have fun whilst getting your fill.
Kakigori Shaved Ice
You may have seen this extremely popular dessert, which is most commonly seen at summertime matsuri 祭, or festivals, sold from small food and drink stalls. This is by far the most Japanese and lovely way to enjoy kakigori shaved ice, sometimes known in English as a ‘frappe’. Simply choose a flavor from the many available, ranging from melon, lemon, and grape to matcha green tea, strawberry, and orange. The stall keeper will fill a paper cup until it towers and then drizzle the vibrant colored syrup on top. Classic flavors, however, include kuromitsu 黒蜜 black syrup, matcha green tea, with red bean and pounded mochi sticky rice, and condensed milk. Enjoy with a straw that usually has a small spoon on the end! Look out for the 氷 kanji character, meaning ‘ice’, which is usually displayed where kakigori shaved ice is being served.
In some more upmarket areas, or at permanent kakigori stores, you may be able to try fluffy kakigori, where the ice is shaved so thinly that it practically feels as if you are eating from a bowl of pure snow! A strange dichotomy in the piping hot Japanese summer.
Fun fact: kakigori is often available in ‘Hawaiian Blue’ flavor, a bright blue concoction that tastes fresh and tropical. Apparently, Hawaiian Blue has no set flavor – as long as it is vaguely tropical-tasting and bright blue, it can bear that name! For this reason, Blue Hawaii can be flavored anything from mango, pineapple, passion fruit, or a mix of multiple.
Watermelon will deck the fruit and vegetable aisles of supermarkets across Japan as soon as the spring is over. Although they can be fairly expensive, even a slice is worth it, as Japanese watermelon is sweet and so very juicy. Some people in Japan like to sprinkle a little bit of salt on their watermelon to bring out extra sweetness. It might sound strange at first, but I highly recommend this, too.
A traditional and culturally significant summertime activity is suikawari, which translates to ‘watermelon splitting’. Get a large watermelon, take it to the beach or outdoors somewhere, and use a large wooden stick to take turns wearing a blindfold and hitting it until it cracks open for everyone to enjoy. Kind of like a natural piñata! Depending where you are, you may even be able to find square watermelons, which have been carefully cultivated in square containers to reach this unusual shape. Other interesting watermelon varieties include seedless, and even yellow watermelon, which tastes very similar to the red kind and is just as refreshing and delicious in the summer sun.
Another festival treat, grilled ayu sweetfish 鮎 are a delicious savory snack in the summertime. At festivals or food stalls, they are usually pierced with a wooden skewer, covered in course salt, stuck into a pile of coals and grilled over embers or open fire for a burnt, hearty taste. The white flesh flakes of wonderfully to melt hungry mouths. Old school cool.
Hiyashi Chuka Chilled Chinese Noodles
This slightly unusual dish is originally from China but is now a firm favorite of summertime dishes in Japan. The name in Japanese is 冷やし中華, which literally means ‘chilled Chinese’. The dish consists of chilled ramen noodles topped with different items. Some of the most common and delicious topics include egg, strips of ham, cucumber, tomato, pickled ginger, and other summer vegetables, and drizzled with a sweet and flavorful sauce with a soy sauce and vinegar base. It’s very easy and cheap to make this at home too! Simply cut up whatever ingredients you want to include and get a packet of hiyashi chuka noodles from any supermarket nearby. Some people even like to serve the chewy textured noodles on top pof ice cubes for that extra cooling.
Rei Shabu Cold Shabu Shabu
Shabu shabu hot pot is a ubiquitous and hearty meal in the winter. A steaming hot broth is served and people dip in raw meat and vegetables, swill it around until it is cooked and eat straight from the pot after dipping in sesame or tart sauce or raw egg. The summertime version, however, is chilled and known as 冷しゃぶ rei shabu, which means cold shabu-shabu. This dish is enjoyed not straight from the hot pot but after letting cool, and even chilling in the fridge. Popular meats and vegetables to use include very thinly sliced pieces of pork and beef, radish, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, green onions, and different local varieties of mushrooms.
This quintessentially Japanese soft drink is almost like a carbonated lemonade and has been around since 1872. It comes in a distinctive blue bottle made of glass, which is sealed with a marble. You need to use the plastic device at the top of the bottle to push the marble into the head of the bottle to open it and enjoy the cool drink. Although the original flavor is lemon-lime, recently other flavors have been introduced, from ‘normal’ flavors like cherry, mango, watermelon, and kiwi, to very different flavors like chocolate, chili oil, octopus, and even curry!
Yakitori Chicken Skewers
Yakitori is another scrumptious food to be enjoyed in the summer. It is essentially small pieces of chicken (or other meats and vegetables) on a wooden skewer, usually marinated in a sweet sticky sauce and eaten in an informal environment such as at an izakaya pub or bought from a food stall on the street or at a summer matsuri, or festival. These skewers are not limited to just chicken, and you can usually find meatball varieties drizzled in cheese, vegetable skewers, mochi pounded rice, and so much more.
Yakisoba is a delicious meal consisting of firm noodles stir fried with carrots, cabbage, onion, meat like pork or beef, maybe some shrimp or other seafood in a sticky brown sauce. It is customary to serve it with the bright pink and flavorful beni-shoga pickled ginger and sprinkled with powdered or strips of nori dried seaweed and katsuobushi dried bonito flakes. This is another summer festival favorite, where food stall keepers have a giant griddle on which they swish a mountain of yakisoba noodles to and fro to keep them hot and fresh in the balmy evening air.
Zaru Soba Cold Soba Noodles
Soba buckwheat noodles are served piping hot and in a savory broth in the winter, but in summer, they are served cold! Zaru soba comes served on small wooden slats for the water to drain into a container below, alongside a bowl of tsuyu broth. Mix in a little wasabi into the broth if you like, and use your chopsticks to dip noodles into the broth a little at a time before eating. At the end of the meal, a server usually brings over a teapot of the hot water that was used to initially cook the noodles in. They will pour this into the remainder of your broth to enjoy as a hot, slightly diluted soup. Zaru soba is a delicious choice for when you just want a light meal to cool you down.
Unagi freshwater eel is another scrumptious summertime dish that is usually served on rice as a don 丼, or rice bowl. In this format, the eel is called unagidon ウナギ丼, or simply unadon うな丼 for short. Thick strips of eel are grilled and coated in a sweet, sticky brown sauce before being placed on a wooden box or bowl of hot rice. Sprinkle over some shichimi 七味 or red seven spice and tuck in.
Unfortunately, all three species used for this dish are facing environmental trouble. Due to their popularity, they are not very sustainable and have been added to the list of ‘endangered’ animals by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment. For this reason, try it if you like as it is delicious, but try not to eat it too often if you can.
Edamame Soy Beans
These delicious and healthy soy beans are a favorite in Japan in any season, but particularly enjoyed in Japan as otsumami おつまみ, which is the word for small, light foods to enjoy alongside a chilled beer. Edamame can be served cold, too, and are sometimes coated lightly with salt. Squeeze on the individual buds with your thumb and forefinger until the inner bean pops out and straight into your mouth.
Nobody wants to spend hours making heavy food when the days are hot and humid like they can be in this country. The secret to all of these popular Japanese summertime dishes is that they are all light and refreshing, easy to prepare, and generally very healthy and nutritious. Whether you go out to a restaurant or elsewhere and buy these dishes or try your hand at making them at home whether with a special pack from the supermarket or entirely from scratch, you’re sure to not be disappointed.
So, has your appetite been sufficiently whet? Do you know which foods to try out to beat the heat of the Japanese summer in a traditional way? Have you tasted any of these before? How similar or different are they to summertime foods from your own country? Which of these popular summertime Japanese foods will you try out first? Enjoy!
Maia Hall // UK