What's in a name? Here's a guide to common Japanese foods available locally:
anpan: This sweet red-bean-filled bun is so popular in Japan there's a cartoon character named after it, Anpanman . Available at Japonaise Bakery and Cafe in Brookline and Porter Exchange.
ocha: green tea. Japanese use green tea to drink and to flavor many types of foods and treats, including ice cream and even noodles. Available at most Asian markets.
natto: There's a reason this is a rarity on the menus of Japanese restaurants in Boston. Many people would find it repulsive. But there's also a reason why Japanese markets carry a healthy stock in their freezers and fridges: Many people also think natto is delicious. Essentially natto is fermented soy beans. Before eating, stir thoroughly until gooey. Add to hot white rice. Available at Kotobukiya and some other Asian grocers.
pickled plums: This is a standard in Japan, usually placed on top of white rice, making the mound look something like vanilla ice cream with a cherry on top -- or the Japanese flag. But don't be fooled. Pickled plums are anything but sweet and their sour taste might make you pucker up at first. Available at several Asian grocers.
ramen: Japan has adopted this thin Chinese noodle. If you've only tried the dehydrated variety, you haven't really tried ramen.
rice: Many people make the mistake of thinking all rice is created equal. Not so. Japanese commonly favor short-grain white rice that can become pricey, depending on the variety. It's used to make wine (sake), treats (mochi), tea (genmai cha), and vinegar. Kotobukiya has a good selection of rice. So do Mirim and some other Asian markets.
shabu-shabu: A type of Japanese hot pot in which pieces of thinly sliced raw meats are dipped into a boiling pot of broth. In recent years, several shabu-shabu restaurants have opened in Boston, including Shabu-Zen and Kaze in Chinatown.
shokupan: Most people don't associate white bread with Japan, but many Japanese love this thick fluffy loaf of empty calories. Available at Japonaise Bakery and Cafe .
soba: A brown buckwheat noodle. It's commonly served cold and hot. Available in the form of dried noodles at most Asian grocers.
sushi: There are several types of sushi, and then there are several things incorrectly called sushi and served in so-called Japanese restaurants. Let's start with two popular types of sushi: Maki is rolled-up rice and strips of raw fish or other ingredients such as cucumber, inside a sheet of pressed seaweed called nori. Nigiri is a clump of rice with a fish slice or other food such as egg on top. Now, here's what's not real sushi: the Philadelphia roll, or anything else containing cream cheese or other types of cheeses. And did you know that the California roll is an American invention? Guess where it was created?
udon: This thick and hearty white flour noodle is taken quite seriously, especially in some areas of western Japan. It's served hot or cold. Available in the form of dried noodles at most Asian grocers.