Oden. Donabe. Miso soup. Sushi. Yakiniku. All staples of Japanese eating. These dishes also have something else in common: their immense variety. Each dish can be prepared with a vast array of ingredients. But which ingredients are the most popular in Japan? Recently, a TV variety game show set out to answer just that question.
First, a brief guide to those who may not be familiar with some of these dishes.
If you’ve ever been to a Japanese convenience store or izakaya, you’ve likely seen oden (おでん) – a flurry of vegetables and fish-based products marinating for hours in a soy sauce base. (We discussed oden in a little more depth in our guide to uniquely Japanese food.)
Nabe (or donabe; 土鍋) is another form of hot pot cooked in an earthenware dish. Donabe can not only have a wide variety of ingredients but an amazing number of sauce bases. Sauce bases can be created from scratch or bought ready-made from Japanese grocery stores. (If you have a Japanese or Asian market in your area, chances are you can get them there. You may also be able to score a donabe!)
Miso soup (味噌汁; miso shiru) likely needs no introduction. Made from a ferment of beans, rice, and other ingredients, the dish is a staple of the Japanese diet.
Sushi (寿司) likewise needs little introduction. While this is a dish that has evolved greatly since the Edo era, for the purposes of this article, when we say “sushi”, we’re referring to nigiri-zushi – i.e., fish and sometimes other ingredients (like tamago-yaki) served on a bed of vinegared rice.
Finally, yakiniku (焼肉) basically means “grilled beef”. It’s Japan’s version of barbeque. At yakiniku restaurants, diners sit at a table with a barbeque pit situated in the middle. They then order their favorite cuts, cook ’em up, and dredge them in their dipping sauces of choice.
As I mentioned, these dishes have an amazing variety of ingredients. But what are the top choices? What cut of meat does everyone rate number one for yakiniku? What’s everyone’s favorite oden bite?
Last week, the TV Asahi show Things Only 30% of Japanese Know – Cream Stew’s Pride! Hall of Superiority (日本人の3割しか知らないこと くりぃむしちゅーのハナタカ!優越館; referred to herein as Hanataka) tackled this important subject. Hanataka is a weekly variety program on Asahi TV hosted by comedy duo Cream Stew. One member of the duo – Ueda Shinya – MCs the show with his co-host, TV Asahi announcer Yamamoto Yukino. The other member of Cream Stew, Arita Teppei, sits with the five-member celebrity panel.
In the first segment of the show, the panel is told some random tidbit of everyday knowledge. (For example, last week’s program asked questions such as the best methods for de-clumping dried sugar and straightening the bristles of a toothbrush.) The panel then has to guess whether 30% or more of Japanese people knew this little factoid. If the panel guesses a certain number of the questions right, they get to eat a high-end meal.
Basically, the show combines two extremely popular things in Japan: quiz shows and food porn. What’s not to like?
Oden Can You See…
Since the show runs for an hour and a half, they mix up the format from segment to segment. In their second segment last week, they challenged participants to guess which top ingredient survey respondents picked for each of the dishes discussed earlier. The show tells them what the 6th to 10th place entries were (presumably to narrow down the pool of choices) but keeps the top five secret. The guests start by shouting out their own preferred answers to see if they all agree. If they don’t (and they usually don’t), they debate until they reach group consensus.
The first one – oden – nearly turned into a verbal shouting match! The initial vote came out a 3-2 split between egg and daikon radish. Shibata Rie was rather insistent that daikon was the top answer.
In the end, Takahata flipped her vote, making it 3-2 in favor of daikon. And it’s a good thing too, because that was the top answer! But the panel had a reason to debate, as egg took a close second.
Nabe or Nothin’
Next up was nabe (hot pot). Here, there was also a clear favorite: three panelists voted at the outset for napa cabbage (白菜; hakusai). Shibata voted for onion, while Takahata put her weight behind chicken. But Shibata immediately changed her vote to cabbage to match Iura. This started a joke that lasted the entire episode about the two being sweet on each other.
In the end, the panel came around to cabbage – which was right on the nose! Onion came in at second place, with chicken trailing a distant fifth.
Ahhh, miso soup. Like most soups, the only rule about what to put in miso soup is that it should fit into one’s bowl. Given the tremendous variety of possibilities, I expected this one to be a little difficult.
Initially, our panel came out with three in favor of the obvious choice: tofu (豆腐; toufu). Indeed, tofu is perhaps the go-to ingredient for miso. But, once again, Shibata and Takahata stood out with their different choices: fried tofu (油揚げ; abura-age) and brown seaweed (ワカメ; wakame), respectively. Shibata, once again, instantly switched her vote to match Iura, making it four against one!
The panelists were pretty prescient on this one. Tofu did, indeed, take the top ranking. Wakame came in second, and abura-age occupied the third slot. 目星 (bulls-eye)!
Sushi Sells Seashells by the Sea ShoreEveryone agreed that, as adults, they don't often eat salmon sushi and that it's primarily a dish for kids. Click To Tweet
Now here’s a puzzler: what’s the most popular topping on sushi?
This started out as another split vote with two factions: Three in favor of chuutoro (中トロ; medium-fatty tuna) and two voting for maguro (マグロ; regular tuna). So basically, a fight between deliciousness on the one hand and…deliciousness on the other.
Arita expressed doubts about his own vote. Could the winning answer be…salmon?! Everyone agreed that, as adults, they don’t often eat salmon sushi and that it’s primarily a dish for kids. But Arita couldn’t seem to shake that funny feeling that they were about to be disgraced.
Arita was right. The panel was shocked when chuutoro came in second place. “It’s salmon!” they shouted. And indeed it was. The panel was now 3-1.
Harry Potter and the Queen of Yakiniku
Now it’s crunch time. The panelists had three questions right and one wrong. They need to nail this last one – yakiniku – in order to win their prize.But eventually, everyone agreed that beef tongue had the greatest cross-section appeal for yakiniku across age groups. Click To Tweet
So of course, the answers were all over the place. Two panelists answers kalbi (カルビ), or Korean-style marinated ribs. The other answers were sirloin (ロース; rousu), salty beef tongue (タン塩; tan-shio), and skirt steak (ハラミ; harami).
This time, it was Iura – who’d originally answered sirloin – who changed his vote to match Shibata. Judging by the expression on Shibata’s face, the change of heart was quite welcome.
The panel started wondering if they should answer kalbi. But eventually, everyone agreed that beef tongue had the greatest cross-section appeal across age groups.
This time, the panelist’s reasoning didn’t fail them. Beef tongue came out the top choice, with kalbi and skirt steak taking second and third positions, respectively.
With so much variety to choose from, it can be difficult going to a yakiniku shop or sushi joint and deciding what to order. Stick with the choices above, though, and you can at least guarantee that you’re eating the most popular choices on the menu.