All I Needed to Know About Japanese Food, I Learned from Ranma ½

One of the great things about living in Vancouver is the sheer wealth of Japanese restaurants we have here. You can’t go a block without at least two sushi places ready to fill you with rice and raw fish. However, as anyone who has been to Japan will tell you, sushi is actually just one dish in a culture filled with cool and unusual tasties. In fact, when I was living in Japan, I probably only had sushi once every few months or so; the rest of the time I was gorging myself on the other treats the country had to offer.

Often, when my friends and I would go to a restaurant and I would order some mystical-sounding dish they’d never heard of before, they’d ask how on earth I knew about these dishes. “Oh,” I’d say with a lofty smile, “I like to research foreign cuisine so I can truly know a country,” and so on, until they all became suitably impressed with my Deep and Educated Personality.

It was either that, or tell them that I heard of them all through anime.

Watch enough anime set in modern Japan (or in Japanese-based fantasy realms) and chances are you’re eventually going to see characters sitting around and eating, preparing or talking about some wondrous delicacy that you’ve never seen or heard of. Ranma ½ was particularly noteworthy for doing this, seeing as several of the characters run their own restaurants, and the characters spent a lot of time eating, talking over food, etc. So for today, I thought I’d get our stomachs rumbling as I go through some popular food in anime and hopefully put some names to those weird brown skewers you’ve been pondering over.

RAMEN

What is it: A noodle broth that originated in China, ramen is usually topped with sliced pork, egg, seaweed, veggies, fish paste and other assorted items.

What does it look like: A really big bowl of soup with tons of veggies and bacon floating on top. Pay particular attention to the white and pink spiral fish cake. it’s very distinctive..

What anime does it appear in: What doesn’t it appear in? As per the title, it got some fame through Ranma ½, where Shampoo worked at her grandmother’s ramen delivery. But it is arguably Naruto and the titular character’s obsession with the dish that’s really made it famous.

OKONOMIYAKI

What is it: Sometimes described as Japanese pancake or Japanese pizza, okonomiyaki is a little bit of both. The base is made of batter mixed with shredded cabbage; this batter is then fried on a flat stove until it becomes pancake-like. It is then smothered, and I mean smothered, with meat, seafood, dried tuna (bonito) flakes, sweet sauce and mayonnaise. It is also the best thing mankind has ever created.

What does it look like: In anime, it usually appears as a sort of thick pancake with lots of “stuff” piled on top of it, smothered in thick dark sauce. Sometimes it appears as if two are stacked on top of each other; in other anime, they sometimes show the Hiroshima variant that has noodles on top as well.

What anime does it appear in: Again, we can thank Ranma ½ for bringing this food of the gods to our attention. Ukyo, one of Ranma’s fiancées, runs an okonomiyaki restaurant, and we get to see not only the food itself but also how it’s prepared, the spatulas used, etc.

ONIGIRI

What is it: A clump of steamed rice shaped in a triangular wedge and half covered with a slip of dried seaweed. Many might call this the “sandwich” of Japanese cuisine, in that it’s often eaten in similar situations (lunch, food on the go, etc) and can be eaten one handed. Most nigiri have something savory in the middle of the rice, like salmon or pickles. There is also a toasted variant.

What does it look like: In anime, it’s usually depicted as a vaguely triangular white “ball” with a large black or dark green square used to hold it (the seaweed).

What anime does it appear in: It made quite a few appearances in Sailor Moon, but it’s all over the place, especially in high school anime etc. It also made for a particularly heartbreaking scene in Spirited Away when Chihiro eats one after seeing the fate of her parents.

MOCHI

What is it: A very thick and gooey rice cake. The texture is not that far off from bubble gum, and it’s incredibly chewy and can take a while to get through. Mochi offers itself to a variety of different dishes and versions. One popular variant is to fill it with sweet red bean paste; another is to glaze it with a soy based syrup. One of the nicest deserts I ever had was actually mochi toasted over a flame.

What does it look like: Big white balls, mostly, about the size of a small fist.

What anime does it appear in: It sort of appears all over the place, with particular appearances in Fruits Basket and Pretear. You often see it in the background in many houses in anime set in modern Japan; this is because it is considered a traditional offering for the household shrine, particularly around New Year. Thus, it’s not uncommon to see several of this little white cakes stacked neatly before the shrine.

ODANGO

What is it: Very similar to mochi, odango is a dumpling made of rice flour and a somewhat chewy, moist texture. One of the most popular forms is kushi-dango, which consist of five small odango on a skewer and covered with a thick sweet sauce of sugar and soy.

What does it look like: Kushi-dango looks at first glance like a BBQ skewer of some sort, albeit without any veggies; instead, there are several small ball-shaped brown pieces on the skewer.

What anime does it appear in: Kushi-dango appears as a popular snack food in many different anime titles, usually as something the characters munch on absently while thinking to themselves etc. There’s also a somewhat famous reference to odango in Sailor Moon; Mamoru is amused by Usagi’s bun-headed hair style and nicknames her “dumpling head”… or in other words, “Odango atama”!

SUKIYAKI

What is it: Hot pot at its finest and a common dish at parties and get-togethers, sukiyaki is very simple: soak your choice of ingredients (such as beef, tofu, cabbage, mushroom, noodles etc) in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and mirin in an open and shallow iron pot. Put said iron pot on table, and let everyone help themselves as the items cook to perfection.

What does it look like: The open iron pot is usually a dead giveaway for sukiyaki in anime. The broth inside the pot is brown, and one can usually pick out several kinds of mushrooms (some squat and acorn shaped, others long and noodle-like) and blocks of tofu.

What anime does it appear in: Mahoromatic and Loveless both feature scenes with a hot pot, and it crops up all over the place (I’d say Ranma ½ features it, but that’s unfair as I’m pretty sure Ranma ½ has shown almost every Japanese dish known to mankind at some point). It’s a favorite dish for scenes where friends (or new allies) are sitting down to dinner together.

TAKOYAKI

What is it: Small chunks of octopus are deep fried in thick batter and formed into perfectly round little dumplings. They are then smothered (that magic word again) with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise and bonito flakes. Arguably the second greatest thing mankind has ever created.

What does it look like: Small round orbs of a light tan or brown color, often half-covered with a rich brown sauce. Some people mistake anime takoyaki for donut holes, and to be fair, it’s an understandable mistake, given that they’re about the same size and shape, and the sauce topping can look like chocolate depending on the shading.

What anime does it appear in: Pretty Cure has several scenes of the heroines sampling takoyaki from one of their friend’s vending stall (imagine my difficulty in dubbing the scene for a non-takoyaki loving audience!) Also, although it doesn’t always show the dish itself, keep an eye out during festival scenes; there is almost always at least one takoyaki stall, usually with a cute cartoony octopus drawn on the front.

NIKUMAN

What is it: Another import from China, this is a steamed meat bun made from flour-based dough and filled with pork or other meat. It tends to have a slightly sweet taste to it which counterbalances the savory ingredients.

What does it look like: … my friend once commented that they looked like a breast, complete with nipple. Unfortunately, I can no longer unsee this. And now neither can you.

What anime does it appear in: Again, a common dish in lots of anime, with noteworthy appearances in, you guessed it, Ranma ½ as well as Card Captor Sakura, Saiyuki and tons of others.

There are plenty more dishes to cover, but frankly, writing this article has made me hungry, and I have to have stuff to cover for future editions, right? In the meantime…

What other Japanese dishes do you know about through anime, or can recognize as you watch? Anything anime introduced to you? What’s your favorite Japanese dish?

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