Japanese Comfort Food: Food of the Heart, Food of the Home
Image source: https://www.sirogohan.com/recipe/misosiru/
Written by Kevin Kilcoyne
Comfort food is something universal. Wherever you go, you’re bound to find a dish that people love, that they feel is representative of who they are. In turn, these foods offer more than just sustenance, they offer a sense of belonging and of being and of life. For many, they represent a sense of home and identity, and are rooted in memories and experiences.
In this way, comfort food, or home cooking, is a window into the true cuisine of a culture because when the artifice of display and presentation are stripped away, one can see how people use real ingredients, and see the food eaten by people in their everyday lives. In that, you can experience what the regional food is really like.
More than Meets the Eye
While some comfort foods might be identified as “acquired tastes,” there are many traits these foods can share across borders and cultures. Think of warm, slow cooked stews or simmered soups, or something savory, crunchy, and grilled. Cultures around the world have dishes like this, and while the ingredients might change, they act similarly in many ways; aiming to give the diner a big warm hug. It is in these instances when food is cooked with love and attention, the experience can transcend the ingredients.
In this way, comfort food is proof that food doesn’t have to beautiful to be delicious. On the contrary, the everyday, mundane foods are what exemplify the cultural and political nature of cuisine. They tell a story and can be the tie that bonds people together. They are at once historical and contemporary, personal and social.
(On this topic, if you haven’t seen David Chang’s Netflix series Ugly Delicious, I highly recommend checking it out!)
Many comforting home cooked dishes don’t necessarily have the refined appearance of a fine sushi meal, or the multi-course presentations of upscale ryokan, traditional Japanese inns. Even still, it is often the simplicity of the preparations that make the food so comforting.
Like anywhere else in the world, home cooking and comfort food changes based on where you are in Japan. Local, seasonal produce and regional climates have historically influenced the creation of regional cuisines. For example, you might find more warm, steamy dishes in the northern regions of Hokkaido and Tohoku, while you’re more likely to find colder, chilled dishes in areas further south like Kyushu and Okinawa.
With modern conveniences, many of the popular local dishes have spread beyond their regional confines, like miso ramen or sanuki udon, and can be found nearly anywhere in Japan. Even still, however accessible these dishes might be, it is often believed that the best way to experience these comfort foods is in their place of origin.
In many ways, that is because the best chefs of home cooking and comfort food, are the grandmothers and older generations that have kept the traditions alive, holding the secrets of the recipes literally in their hands.
From generation to generation, traditions are passed down as the same warm memories are shared around dinner tables. And while there are plenty of local dishes that unless one has the opportunity to share a meal at a rural family table, may never get a chance to eat, there are also universal comfort foods that can be found at dinner tables throughout Japan. Here are a handful of dishes that might even be re-creatable in your own home:
Image source: https://www.sirogohan.com/recipe/yudouhu/
Yudōfu is as simple as its name suggests: hot tofu. To make this nutritious dish at its most basic level, all you need is some tofu and kombu. With these two ingredients you have the base for a delicious, warm, comforting meal. By making a simple kombu dashi (although other premade dashi stocks also work) you’re already halfway there. All that’s left is to cut and simmer some hearty cubes of tofu in the broth until warm and flavorful.
Once simmered, the tofu is usually served with an additional sauce made from shoyu, mirin, sake, and katsuobushi, although shichimi togarashi makes for a great accompaniment, as well as a variety of simmered vegetables.
Served alongside a bowl of rice—brown, white or mixed grain—yudōfu makes for a great one pot meal to comfort anyone like a warm belly-hug.
Image source: https://www.mapple.net/article/81540/
Possibly one of the more well-known dishes in Japanese cuisine, udon noodles are without a doubt a staple in Japanese home cooking comfort food. Their thick, slippery, mochi-mochi texture is in itself though to be comforting, gliding easily with each slurp.
In addition to being delicious on their own, udon make for a flexible centerpiece of any homecooked dish, giving way to an immense variety of preparations, from curry udon to nabeyaki udon— noodles simmered in a clay pot full of flavorful broth and various other ingredients.
The capital of udon is Kagawa, a prefecture on the island of Shikoku just southwest of the Kansai region, and sanuki udon, a dish of udon served in a warm bouillon broth, topped with a raw egg and diced scallions, is the preferred preparation. Similar variations of this dish can be found throughout Kagawa, whose old name Sanuki gives the dish its name, though the toppings change by shop and family, and the name of the dish changes along with them.
In addition to these regional preparations, homes throughout Japan no doubt have their own favorites, including kitsune udon, a dish typically found in the Kansai region, consisting of udon in a warm broth, topped with aburaage, or thin pockets of deep-fried tofu, and scallions. There is also tanuki udon, a dish that is prepared differently depending on where you are in Japan, but which usually consists of a warm bowl of udon in broth and topped with tenkasu, or crumbs made from tempura batter.
There are also cold preparation of udon that no doubt come out when the days turn warmer, usually simply consisting of chilled udon noodles served either alongside a sweet soy sauce for dipping, or with a sauce poured over the top.
Arguably one of the most comforting Japanese comfort foods, nabe is also one of its most versatile. Nabe is more a style or preparation than an actual dish itself, being named for the earthen wear pot the meal is cooked in rather than its ingredients, making for innumerable variations based on region and home.
Nabe is essentially a hotpot dish consisting of a soup base and ingredients that are added to it, either prior to eating, or throughout the meal as diners replenish what they eat. There are of course codified nabe preparations, like ishikari nabe, a salmon-based stew, asuka nabe, a chicken and milk-based stew, and sukiyaki, a sweet soy-based broth in which thins strips of beef are dipped and simmered alongside plenty of vegetables, but there are also house specialties where families toss in whatever ingredients they like most. There is often a touch of obāchan magic involved as well, as nabe can be a great way to salvage leftovers or ingredients that would otherwise be tossed out.
Also falling into the category of nabe comfort food is a convenience store winter staple, oden. There are plenty of stalls and restaurants specializing in these simmered skewers of various ingredients, but they can also be found in people’s homes, the recipes for the broths varying from household to household as well as what they choose to simmer.
Okayu is essentially a rice porridge into which various toppings like chopped scallions, a raw egg, soy sauce, or umeboshi pickled plums are added. Simple and comforting, okayu can also be made using broth rather than water and can include added ingredients to simmer away as the rice cooks in the extra water or broth.
Similar to okayu, ochazuke is a dish in which hot tea is poured over rice atop which ingredients ranging from sashimi to wasabi are arranged, making something akin to a porridge, but not quite as thick.
Finally, another variation on okayu is zōsui, in which cooked rice and a beaten egg are added to the leftover broth of a nabe meal, making for a thick, hearty porridge.
Image source: https://www.hotpepper.jp/mesitsu/entry/kinniku/19-00006
A staple of ofukuro no aji, or Mom’s home cooking, nikujaga originated in the 1800’s as an attempt to emulate a Western-style stew. Typically made with beef in the Kansai region and pork in the Kanto region, nikujaga means meat and potatoes, the dish’s two main ingredients, which are simmered with onions, carrots and sometimes shirataki noodles. These ingredients are braised in a broth of dashi, soy sauce, sake, mirin, and sugar. Like most Japanese cuisine, the meat is added more for flavor than substance, and as a result the braising time is shorter compared to most Western meat-based stews, making it a go-to for suppers and bentos throughout Japan.
The simplicity of the dish and its warm, comforting traits make nikujaga one of the most popular of Japan’s nimono, or stewed/simmered, dishes.
Image source: https://daidokolog.pal-system.co.jp/recipe/5712
Another comforting nimoni dish, jubuni is traditionally made using duck, although chicken is a more popular and accessible alternative, and atsuage, fried thick tofu. Hailing from Kanazawa, jubuni is a simple, simmered dish that has a signature broth made by slowly incorporating slices of chicken, or duck, that have been battered in flour, into a stew of fried tofu, carrots, and shiitake mushrooms. The ingredients for the broth itself are on par with most Japanese broths, consisting of dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and sake, but it is that thick, sticky texture that sets it apart.
Typically served with a side of simmered greens and wasabi, jibuni is a simple home cooking staple full of comforting flavor that can now be readily found throughout dinner tables across Japan.
Image source: https://www.suyakame.com/SHOP/79211/list.html
There are few dishes in Japanese cuisine that are more iconic than miso soup. Served with most lunch sets and dinner platters at Japanese restaurants throughout the world, miso soup is a cornerstone of Japanese home cooking.
Misoshiru has a place at the kitchen table from breakfast to dinner, and as such, there are countless preparations for the simple soup, the ingredients dictated by the diner’s tastes.
There are miso soups using clams, others using aburaage, and others using mushrooms. Some prefer their miso soup with chicken or sweet potato, while others prefer theirs simply with tofu and wakame seaweed. It is the deep, umami richness provided by the miso and dashi base that make miso soup such a comforting, flavorful dish. And it is the flexibility inherent in the simplicity that make is such a home cooking staple, even if that staple comes in a prepackaged, powdered form.
Curry rice (カレーライス)
When one thinks of curry, it is quite possible that Japan would not come to mind, but in this they would be wrong. Japanese people love their curry. In fact, curry polls within the top ten and even top five of Japanese people’s favorite dishes and dishes they have the fondest memories of from when they were children. From the boxed blocks of curry roux lining supermarket shelves, to the fast food chains specializing in curry, there are few foods that Japanese find more comforting than curry.
Milder, sweeter, and thicker than curries from other cultures, Japanese curry is usually referred to as curry rice, as the thick stew is typically ladled atop an accompaniment of sticky rice.
While the meat used in Japanese curry can vary, from beef to chicken or even pork, the accompanying veggies are usually the same: carrots, potatoes and onions.
Sweetened by the addition of grated apple and even sometimes chocolate, there are plenty of brands of curry roux sold throughout Japan and each home has their favorites. It is a simple meal to prep with the help of the bouillon cubes, and one deep in flavor, richness, and satisfaction.
Image source: https://jafmate.jp/blog/car-life/190918-70.html
In Japan, when it comes to comfort foods, one needs not look further than rice.
Rice is ubiquitous in Japan, having a place at mealtime from morning to night. And although there is a plethora of ways to prepare rice, some more complicated, some extremely simple, one of the most beloved is the simple onigiri.
From umeboshi to tuna mayo, the fillings that go into onigiri are extensive and can meet the tastes of even the pickiest of diners. As simple as it might seem, many Japanese people agree that a well formed, well filled onigiri, whether made by a loving family member’s hands or mass produced at the local convenience store, is hard to beat.
Perhaps misleading by its simplicity, many would agree that there’s just something about a warm ball of rice with a salty, savory filling, all wrapped in a sheet of crispy seaweed that makes you feel good inside. And that’s not to mention the sense memories attached to the particular fillings and shapes of the onigiri that a loved one makes for them. It is the act of touch, the gentle shaping, that is an ingredient all on its own, imparting a flavor that can’t be replicated or matched.
Finding the Harmony in Simplicity
Image source: https://nowkore.net/archives/53596
As is the case with many things in traditional Japanese culture, simplicity seems to be key even in home cooking. Many of the dishes close to people’s hearts are the ones that embrace the wabi-sabi, the imperfections and sometimes the rough nature of home cooking. They are made just as much by the intent going into them as they are by their individual ingredients.
In the end, what is comforting about food is something deeply personal and individual, so I hope some of the foods on this list have inspired you to find comfort in Japanese home cooking and the harmony that these kinds of dishes can bring in a time when things are quite unharmonious.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.
“Hot Tofu (Yudofu) 湯豆腐.” https://www.justonecookbook.com/hot-tofu-yudofu/
“Kanazawa-style Simmered Chicken and Tofu (Jibuni). Yumiko. https://japan.recipetineats.com/kanazawa-style-simmered-chicken-and-tofu-jibuni/
“Udon Noodle Guide: Varieties and Where to Eat In Japan.” Nishino, Jasmine. https://matcha-jp.com/en/3552
“Survive Winter in Japan with this Japanese Comfort Food.” https://gurunavi.com/en/japanfoodie/2017/01/japanese-comfort-food.html?__ngt__=TT108551383000ac1e4a59ebs8oCCi8B_E9vXd69FebIJv