The Gastronomic Gathering
Note: From 2016 to 2019, we owned and operated an izakaya in the city of Nara called "LBK Craft". As of August 2023, if you Google "LBK Craft" or just click on our link here (Google LBK Craft) you can still find a number of websites and other social media for the izakaya we closed in September 2019. As once izakaya owners, we have a lot more to say about our favorite Japanese restaurant type, so let's get to it!
Immerse yourself in the vibrant heart of Japanese nightlife, and you will undoubtedly find yourself in an izakaya. These informal Japanese pubs, colloquially known as the people's parlors, are the lifeblood of Japan's bustling after-dark culture. Radiating with warmth, noise, and merriment, they create a captivating tableau of Japan's convivial spirit.
In izakayas, or 居酒屋 in kanji, translated as 'a place to drink while sitting,' you'll find a cross-section of Japanese society - from office workers shrugging off the demands of the day to friends catching up over drinks, all united by the universal language of food and drink. It's this eclectic mix of patrons that adds to the unique charm and intrigue of these establishments.
The moment you step into an izakaya, you'll be welcomed by a resounding 'Irasshaimase!' (Welcome!) from the staff, a testament to the warm hospitality these places are famous for. Izakayas exude an alluringly rustic charm, with dim lighting, wooden furnishings, and walls adorned with colorful menus. The atmosphere inside is nothing short of magical - a lively symphony of clinking glasses, friendly banter, and the intoxicating aroma of Japanese cuisine.
The beauty of izakaya culture lies in its unique, informal dining style. Unlike formal dining settings, Izakayas encourage shared plates and a variety of small dishes, often served in no particular order. The aim is to sample a bit of everything, creating a dining experience that teases the palate and encourages adventurous eating.
An izakaya menu is an eclectic array of Japan's most beloved dishes. The selection is vast, encompassing grilled skewers, sashimi, tempura, tofu dishes, seasonal vegetables, and much more. Each dish is meticulously prepared and beautifully presented, turning each bite into a gastronomic journey through the heart of Japanese cuisine.
Enumerating every possible dish you might come across at a traditional izakaya is quite an impossible task. However, let's dive into a representative menu that showcases the typical categories, as you would commonly see them listed in Japanese on most izakaya menus.
Appetizers (Zensai, 前菜, ぜんさい)
Edamame (枝豆, エダマメ) - Boiled Green Soybeans: A healthy and popular appetizer, served in their pods and seasoned with salt.
Tamagoyaki (玉子焼, たまごやき) - Rolled Omelette: A sweet and savory Japanese rolled omelette often enjoyed as a side dish or appetizer.
Pickles (Tsukemono, 漬物, つけもの)
Tsukemono (漬物, つけもの) - Pickled Vegetables: Traditional Japanese pickles served as a side dish or used as ingredients in other dishes.
Salads (Sarada, サラダ)
Wakame Sarada (わかめサラダ) - Seaweed Salad: A refreshing salad made with wakame seaweed and dressed with a tangy vinegar sauce.
Yasai Sarada (野菜サラダ, やさいさらだ) - Vegetable Salad: A fresh salad made with seasonal vegetables and a light dressing.
Fried Dishes (Agemono, 揚げ物, あげもの)
Gyoza (餃子, ぎょうざ) - Pan-Fried Dumplings: Crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, these dumplings are typically filled with ground pork and vegetables.
Tori no Karaage (鶏の唐揚げ, とりのからあげ) - Fried Chicken: Marinated bite-sized pieces of chicken, deep-fried to a golden brown crispness.
Grilled Dishes (Yakimono, 焼き物, やきもの)
Ika Yaki (イカ焼き, いかやき) - Grilled Squid: A popular Izakaya item, the squid is grilled to perfection, making it tender with a smoky flavor.
Yakitori (焼き鳥, やきとり) - Grilled Chicken Skewers: Skewered pieces of chicken are grilled over charcoal and seasoned with either salt or a sweet and savory sauce.
Yakizakana (焼き魚, やきざかな) - Grilled Fish: Grilled fish is a standard offering in izakaya, the selection of fish depends largely on the season.
Commonly you will find mackerel (Saba, サバ), Atka mackerel (Hokke, ホッケ), and grunt (Isaki, イサキ). Each fish is grilled and typically served with a side of daikon radish and a slice of lemon.
Sashimi (刺身, さしみ)
Maguro Sashimi (鮪刺身, まぐろさしみ) - Tuna Sashimi: Raw slices of fresh, high-quality tuna served with soy sauce and wasabi.
Shake Sashimi (鮭刺身, しゃけさしみ): Fresh slices of salmon served raw, offering a buttery and delicate flavor.
Moriawase (盛り合わせ, もりあわせ) - Assorted Sashimi: A mix of various types of sashimi, often including the freshest seafood available that day. This dish allows one to experience multiple flavors and textures, reflecting the chef's selection and the season's best offerings.
Moriawase (盛り合わせ, もりあわせ) does not exclusively apply to sashimi. In Japanese cuisine, "moriawase" is a commonly used term that essentially means "assortment" or "variety." It's a way to refer to a dish that offers a selection of different items.
This concept is not restricted to seafood alone. For instance, tempura moriawase would offer various tempura-fried items like shrimp, vegetables, and fish. A cheese moriawase would present a variety of cheeses.
Be on the lookout for the term "盛り合わせ" on a menu, and know that you will be getting an assortment of items in that genre.
Rice Dishes (Gohan-mono, ご飯物, ごはんもの)
Chirashi (ちらし) - Scattered Sushi: A bowl of sushi rice topped with a variety of fresh sashimi.
Katsu Don (カツ丼, かつどん) - Pork Cutlet Rice Bowl: A bowl of rice topped with a breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet, egg, and condiments.
Noodle Dishes (Menrui, 麺類, めんるい)
Tempura Udon (天ぷらうどん, てんぷらうどん) - Udon with Tempura: Thick, chewy udon noodles served in a savory broth with tempura prawns.
Yakisoba (焼きそば, やきそば) - Stir-Fried Noodles: A popular Japanese noodle stir-fry dish mixed with bite-sized pork and vegetables.
Tofu Dishes (Tofu Ryouri, 豆腐料理, とうふりょうり)
Agedashi Tofu (揚げ出し豆腐, あげだしとうふ) - Fried Tofu in Broth: Lightly fried tofu served in a hot dashi broth with garnish.
Hiya Yakko (冷奴, ひややっこ) - Chilled Tofu: Chilled silken tofu served with soy sauce, grated ginger, and scallions.
Skewers (Kushimono, 串物, くしもの)
Tebasaki (手羽先, てばさき) - Grilled Chicken Wings: Chicken wings seasoned with salt and pepper, grilled until crispy, often enjoyed with a cold beer.
Tsukune (つくね) - Chicken Meatballs: Minced chicken shaped into balls, skewered, and grilled. Usually served with a sweet and savory sauce and a raw egg yolk for dipping.
Drinks (Nomimono, 飲み物, のみもの)
Bīru (ビール, びーる) - Japanese beers:
Nama Bīru (生ビール, なまびーる) - Draft Beer
Bin Bīru (瓶ビール, びんびーる) - Bottled Beer
Light and refreshing Japanese beers are the perfect beverage to pair with Izakaya food.
Nihonshu (日本酒, にほんしゅ) - Sake: A traditional Japanese rice wine served either hot or cold.
Shochu (焼酎, しょうちゅう) - A distilled alcoholic beverage, typically stronger than sake, and can be enjoyed straight, on the rocks, or with a mixer.
All-You-Can-Drink, All-You-Can-Eat, and Chef's Choice Explained
Intensifying the essence of camaraderie that izakayas are known for is the 'Nomihoudai' (飲み放題) feature – a bottomless all-you-can-drink option that echoes the izakaya's core philosophy of indulgence and celebration.
Additionally, the 'Tabehoudai' (食べ放題) option often graces izakaya menus, signifying an all-you-can-eat adventure. This attractive offer enables you to explore a wide range of dishes at a set cost, ideal for those who crave a gastronomic exploration.
Bear in mind that these limitless features – 'Nomihoudai' and 'Tabehoudai' – aren't universally available across all izakayas. You might, however, encounter these options at various other food and beverage establishments or at entertainment venues like karaoke boxes. These offers sometimes come with conditions like a minimum party size or prior reservations.
Here is the Japanese to look out for on menus and signage around the establishment:
Reading: Nomihoudai / Tabehoudai, saitei san-meisama kara. You yoyaku.
Translation: All-you-can-drink / All-you-can-eat, available from a minimum party size of 3. Reservation required.
Chef's Choice (Omakase, お任せ)
'Omakase' (お任せ) - a widely embraced custom across multiple dining spaces in Japan, not confined to izakayas. This term translates to 'I leave it to you' and is a delightful tradition that entrusts the chef's expertise to guide your dining experience. When you choose 'omakase', you allow the chef to exercise their creativity, preparing a spread of dishes for a predetermined sum.
To initiate such a request, simply say, "Omakase de, _____ en de onegaishimasu" (お任せで、_____円でお願いします), inserting the amount of yen you wish to spend in the blank. Your chef will then serve you a variety of dishes within that budget, each bearing the mark of the izakaya's culinary brilliance.
Embarking on an izakaya adventure is a must-do for any traveler in Japan. It offers a chance to dip your toes into the vibrant local culture, connect with locals, and, most importantly, indulge in the delightful world of Japanese cuisine. So, next time you find yourself under the neon lights of a Japanese city, follow the sound of laughter and clinking glasses, and step into an izakaya – your gastronomic gathering awaits.
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