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11 Must-Try Japanese Foods You've Never Heard of

Step outside your comfort zone and order one of these delicious alternatives to the California roll.
09/30/2014 02:15pm ET | Updated November 30, 2014
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Sure you know sushi, but there's a whole world of amazing, lesser-known Japanese foods that deserve a taste (and an Instagram post) too.

Next time you're in your favorite Japanese restaurant, or if you're lucky enough to make a trip to Tokyo, step outside your comfort zone and order one of these delicious alternatives to the California roll.

1. Tonkatsu
This delicious breaded and fried pork cutlet is a lunch staple in Tokyo, typically served over rice with a side of cabbage. You can eat it dry, or covered in a special thick sōsu sauce. A versatile cutlet, it is also the basis for the similar dish Katsudon, which adds egg and scallions to the equation, or can also be found in sandwiches and bento boxes. Photo Credit: Flickr/George Alexander Ishida Newman
2. Yakitori
The word yakitori literally means grilled chicken in Japanese, but you’ll find skewered veggies, and various kinds of beef, pork and seafood on the menu as well. Brushed with sauce and usually cooked on a very long open grill, there is something for everyone to love. Especially recommended: grilled steak, scallions, and the classic chicken varieties. Photo Credit: Flickr/wEnDy Photo Credit: Flickr/
3. Tsukemen Ramen
You may already be familiar with traditional ramen noodle soup, and while its lesser-known brother Tsukenmen ramen has all the same components, there’s a special twist. Also known as “dipping ramen,” its thick noodles are served on the side and at room temperature to keep them from cooking in the soup so they maintain perfect chewiness. The broth is also thicker, more like a stew, so it sticks to the noodles when you dip them before eating. If you’re already a ramen fan, this variation is a must try! Photo Credit: Charli James
4. Gyoza
Though historically Chinese cuisine, Japan has embraced these pan-fried dumplings and made them its own with a unique flavor palette. Most commonly filled with ground pork, shredded cabbage, and lots of chives and garlic, gyoza are a simple but flavorful package. Try your hand at making them at home too and get creative! In Tokyo gyoza shops you’ll find these dumplings filled with sausage, deep fried, or covered in curry as well. Photo Credit: Flickr/verygreen
5. Sukiyaki
Cooked and served at the table hot pot style, this delectable stew is a special occasion dish in Japan, usually eaten with a group of friends for birthdays or other celebrations. Beef sukiyaki is most common, with a variety of vegetables thrown in and enjoyed with glass noodles or rice. Cook everything in the soy and sugar sauce and then quickly dip in raw egg before eating. It’s traditionally a winter food, but with flavor this good, it could easily become one of your year-round favorites. Photo Credit: Flickr/katsuuu 44
6. Japanese Curry
Curry probably doesn’t spring to mind when you think of Japanese food, but this tasty dish is ubiquitous in Tokyo, and makes a great budget meal. Less spicy and a bit sweeter than its Indian counterpart, Japanese curry can be served with rice, nan bread, or over udon noodles. Built on a foundation of flour, oil and spices, the versatile stew is most often served with beef or a tonkatsu pork cutlet. Tip: If you’re in Tokyo, you can even grab a number of Muji brand curries in the local convenience stores. Photo Credit: Flickr/Bong Grit
7. Shabu Shabu
A sort of Japanese fondue, shabu shabu is extremely popular and a lighter choice than sukiyaki. Using a pot right on the table, slices of beef are quickly cooked in a simple, boiling broth and then dipped in a ponzu sauce and eaten directly. Mushrooms, seaweed, cabbage and onions are usually included as well, and rice served on the side. At the end you have a tasty soup that is traditionally enjoyed last. Photo Credit: Flickr/Leana~
8. Takoyaki
Also referred to as octopus balls, takoyaki is a Japanese snack food found all over Tokyo at street markets, bars and sporting events. Using a special pan, chunks of octopus are cooked in the center of wheat flour batter along with pickled ginger, onions and sometimes dried shrimp. Cover in mayo and spicy sauce and eat with a toothpick. If you fall in love, you can even buy an electric takoyaki maker so cooking at home is a snap. Photo Credit: Flickr/Su-Lin
9. Okonomiyaki
Don’t let looks be deceiving with this savory pancake. While not the most beautiful dish, the crispy on the outside, soft on the inside Okonomiyaki is Japan’s equivalent of a pizza or omelet. Meaning “grilled as you like it,” you can put almost anything inside, so it largely depends on your preference. In restaurants you'll often find it filled with bacon or seafood, and topped with fish flakes and mayo, but feel free to choose your favorite meats and vegetables and make it your own. Photo Credit: Flickr/Nicholas Boos
10. Chirashi
A sushi lover’s dream, Chirashi literally translates to “scattered” in Japanese, and is a bowl of vinegared sushi rice covered from edge to edge with delicious raw fish. Almost too beautiful to eat, this colorful dish includes favorites such as tuna, shrimp and salmon, and often roe and a spongy egg. A great choice if you’re over a la carte sushi, and usually a better bang for your buck too. Photo Credit: Flickr/Marshall Astor
11. Chankonabe
Also known as “sumo wrestler stew” this extremely hardy dish is eaten in vast quantities by sumo competitors to beef up before matches and is served to spectators at tournaments as well. With at least three kinds of protein (chicken, beef, tofu and sometimes seafood as well) and veggies, chankonabe is actually a healthy choice if not ordered in sumo portions. With the amount of eating sumo wrestlers have to do, it’s no surprise many go on to open their own restaurants that serve this dish. If you’re in Tokyo, try this stew in the Ryogoku district, where a number of chankonabe restaurants can be found around the sumo stadium. Photo Credit: Flickr/Roxanne Ready