Menus for most Japanese restaurants in the United States follow a format -- appetizer, soup, salad, dinner and dessert -- that is familiar to American patrons of establishments of all types, although several Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles and New York are pursuing the longtime Japanese tradition of specializing in a particular food.
In Japan such restaurants feature primarily one of the following: yakitori, noodles, unagi (eel), tempura, sushi, kaiseki (the typical formal Japanese dinner from the tea ceremony on), yakiniku (Korean grilled beef) or even fugu (blowfish). Many of these specialities can be found on menus here as appetizers, entrees or both.
Here is a breakdown of what to look for on a typical American-style Japanese menu, with definitions, descriptions and translations: Appetizers
Yakitori: As an appetizer, it is usually served on a skewer with vegetables. (yaki = broiled, tori = chicken)
Yudofu: A winter dish of boiled tofu, served with a soy-based sauce, shredded scallion and bonito flakes. (yu = warm water, dofu = tofu)
Hiyayakko or yakko-tofu: Chilled tofu eaten the same way as yudofu. (yakko = cold)
Oshitashi: Cold spinach, often marinated, with sesame seeds. (O = polite preface, shitashi = soaked in a sauce, usually soy, plus seasonings)
Age-dofu: Deep-fried tofu. (age = deep fried)
Kushizashi: Could be any food, including beef, chicken or pork. (kushizashi = sticking on a skewer)
(Note: Sushi, sashimi and tempura may be ordered as appetizers.) Soup, Side Dishes & Snacks
Miso or miso-shiru: Bean paste soup. (miso = fermented bean paste, shiru = soup)
Suimono: Clear broth soup. (sui = sip, mono = thing)
Chawan mushi: Egg custard soup filled with bits of chicken, shrimp, fish cake, spinach, bamboo shoots and shiitake, served in a tall custard cup. (cha = tea, wan = cup, mushi = steam)
Oshinko: Served in Japan with rice at end of meal, after a riceless entree; served here as a side dish. (oshinko = pickled vegetables, such as cucumber, radish, turnip, eggplant and hakusai, a Japanese cabbage)
Men-rui (udon, soba, somen): Noodle dishes usually eaten in Japan for lunch or a snack. Udon and soba usually are served in broth in a large bowl with assorted toppings such as tempura, chicken, egg and beef. Chopped scallions and hot pepper are traditional accompaniments. Chilled soba and somen are served with a soy-based sauce. (men = noodle, rui = things or dishes, udon = long white wheat noodle, soba = long black wheat noodle, somen = long extremely thin wheat noodle) Salads
Sunomono: Often cucumber, but could be anything in vinegar, including bean sprouts, daikon, shrimp and seaweed. (su = vinegar, no = of, mono = thing)
Kanisu: Crab in vinegar, often with cucumber. (kani = crab, su = vinegar) Traditional Dinners
Sushi (nigiri or nigirizushi, makizushi, chirashi or chirashizushi): Originally, sushi referred to preserving fish with salt and vinegar as pickling agents. In the 1600s the fermentation rate was increased by adding rice to the pickling liquid, and in some areas, a stone was used as a weight on top to keep the fish immersed. Sushi as we know it appeared during the Meiji era, or latter half of the 1800s. With the advent of industrialization in Japan, fresh fish could be transported and kept fresh. Vinegar was added instead to the cooked rice base and raw fish placed on top. The Kansai area in Japan is famous for a version of sushi, derived from the vinegar-and-stone tradition, in which rice and marinated fish are pressed in a box with a weight or wooden press and then cut. Here are three types of sushi, made from seasoned short grain or sticky Japanese rice:
Nigiri (nigirizushi) is ordered from the sushi bar and traditionlly sold in pairs. Each piece is a small shaped handful of seasoned rice topped first with a dab of wasabi (Japanese horseradish), then with a variety of tane (raw fish, shellfish, cooked shrimp, eel, vegetables or egg), which determines the sushi name (for example, maguro = tuna, ebi = shrimp). To eat sushi, dip in a bit of soy sauce mixed with wasabi (served fresh in Japan, but in the United States a reconstituted powder) to taste.
Makizushi is sushi rice and tane rolled in nori, a sheet of purified seaweed, and cut into slices. Makizushi may take the form of futo-maki, hoso-maki and temaki, which is rolled into a cone.
Chirashi (chirashizushi) is sushi rice mixed with and/or topped with finely chopped vegetables and cooked egg. Raw fish or cooked shrimp may be included.
(su = vinegar, ishi = stone, nigiri = to grab, from the verb nigiru, maki = roll, futo = large, hoso = small, te = hand, chirashi = spreading)
Sashimi: Raw sliced fish served with wasabi and shredded daikon. As an entree, sashimi usually includes three or four types of fish, although you may order a single type of sashimi (such as maguro), but it will probably be more expensive. Japanese menus are flexible if you know the right questions to ask, so for an appetizer ask for three or four slices of your favorite sashimi.
Tempura: Today, tempura refers to lightly fried food, usually fish, seafood, vegetables and chicken. It was incorporated into the Japanese culture in the early 16th century when Japan first traded extensively. Tempuro, from Portuguese, means "cooking." In Italy and Spain, tempura apparently referred to the cooking done on meatless days -- thus the original connotation of tempura as cooking fish and vegetables.
Teriyaki: Grilled beef, chicken, shrimp or salmon that glistens because of the sugar in mirin, a sweetened rice wine in the teriyaki sauce. (teri = shiny, yaki = broiled or grilled)
Negimaki: Scallions rolled inside thinly sliced beef, chicken or pork and saute'ed. (negi = scallion, maki = roll)
Tonkatsu: Fried pork cutlet. (ton = pork, katsu = cutlet)
Nabe mono (yosenabe, sukiyaki, shabu shabu): Foods cooked in broth, usually for the customer to see.
Yosenabe is usually fish, seafood, vegetables and noodles cooked in broth, but could include chicken. It is dipped in sauce after cooking.
Sukiyaki, which is always cooked in a heavy iron skillet, is a simple one-meat dish, often of beef, cooked with scallions, tofu, transparent noodles and soy-based sauce. Traditionally, it is dipped before eating into a bit of beaten raw egg.
Shabu shabu is beef that is partially cooked by repeated dipping into hot water seasoned with sake. Tofu, Chinese cabbage, scallions, fresh shiitake mushrooms and finally udon are added to the broth and cooked. It is dipped into a sesame seed or ponzu sauce before eating.
(nabe = pot, mono = thing, yose = together, nabe = pot, suki = to like, yaki = grill, shabu shabu = a back-and-forth motion)
Omakase: A chef's choice Japanese banquet of seven to 10 courses, including items not on the regular menu, that the chef will prepare with advance notice for $30 to $50 a person. Dessert
Yokan: Sweetened red bean jelly.
(Note: Honeydew or musk melons, as well as sherbet, are popular in Japanese restaurants in the United States.)