Pizza may not be the first food that comes to mind when you think of Japan, but the classic Italian oven-baked dish of a flat dough base topped with sauce, cheese and other ingredients has a special place in Japanese cuisine. Foreign pizza chains came to Japan in the 1980s, but had to adapt to Japanese consumers’ unique tastes in order to break into the market. This meant adjusting presentation, with toppings arranged so that every slice had the exact same number of ingredients, and localising flavors, by using familiar ingredients and condiments such as seafood, shiso herb, mayonnaise, and katsuoboshi (dried bontio fish flakes).
Nowadays, pizza can be found almost everywhere in Japan. While some restaurants do offer more traditional Italian-style pizza or New York-style pizza, the pizza that most people in Japan are familiar with is a unique Japanese style of pizza—complete with some fairly uncommon pizza toppings. Here’s a selection of them:
Shirasu are baby sardines or anchovies, and a popular ingredient in Japanese cuisine. The tiny fish are very tender and can be eaten whole, either fresh or boiled and dried.
Try: Shirasu pizza with Japanese leek and yuzukosho (a condiment made from ground pepper and yuzu citrus); Shirasu pizza with fava beans and cherry tomatoes.
If baby anchovies seem too normal of a pizza topping and you’re looking for something even more bizarre, shirako may be the Japanese pizza topping for you. In English it’s known as “cod milt”, which is the polite term for cod fish sperm. Shirako is milky and white, with a lightly fishy flavor—even many Japanese people consider it an acquired taste.
Try: Shirako pizza with Japanese leek, Gorgonzola cheese and dried parsley.
Tsukudani kombu is a dish made by simmering kombu seaweed slowly in soy sauce and sweet mirin rice wine. The result is a thick, caramelised and slightly salty dish with a bold flavor.
Try: Tsukudani pizza with tuna sashimi, wasabi, mayonnaise and shiso leaf. Tsukudani pizza with clams, cheese and finely shredded nori seaweed.
Saba, or pickled mackerel fillet, is a popular fish in Japan that has a sophisticated taste. It’s often used in sushi and is just as delicious on pizza!
Try: Salted mackerel pizza with edamame, cheese, and bell pepper; Grilled saba pickled in olive oil with tomato base and cherry tomatoes.
Sakura ebi are tiny dried shrimp that get their name from their translucent pink color. They add a delicate crunch and a savory umami flavor to any dish.
Try: Sakura ebi pizza with asparagus and smoked cheese over a tomato base; Sakura ebi with mozzarella cheese, chili oil and basil.
Chashu is barbecued pork that’s based on Chinese char siu. It’s commonly found in chuka ryori (Japanese-style Chinese cooking) and as a topping for ramen.
Try: Chashu pork with miso sauce, cheese, and Japanese leek; Chashu pizza on a tomato sauce base, topped with a fried egg and shredded nori seaweed.
Mentaiko is a marinated cod roe or pollock roe. Frequently used in Japanese wafu (Japanese-style) pasta dishes, but you can also find it on pizzas in Japan.
Try: Mentaiko pizza with broccoli and Japanese mayonnaise; Mentaiko pizza with mozzarella cheese pizza and shiso chiffonade.
Miso is a fermented soybean paste that ranges in flavor from light and sweet to strong and salty. It can be enjoyed in anything from soup to dips and sauces and even desserts. For pizzas, miso can be mixed with other ingredients like sugar, garlic and oil to make a sauce, or can be used to marinate toppings.
Try: Miso sauce pizza with bacon, mushrooms, and cheese; Miso-marinated chicken pizza.
Goya, or bitter melon, is a summer squash that’s heavily featured in Okinawan cooking. The astringent flavor of bitter melon is an excellent balance to fatty, rich flavors.
Try: Goya pizza with bacon and cheese, and drizzled with soy sauce; Goya pizza with prosciutto ham, miso, and mozzarella.
Teriyaki chicken is chicken that has been grilled or broiled with soy sauce, sugar, and mirin rice wine for a sweet and salty flavor.
Try: Teriyaki chicken pizza with smoked cheese and basil; Teriyaki chicken pizza with cheese, onions, corn, mushrooms, and shredded nori seaweed.
Natto, or fermented soy beans, is a bit of an acquired taste—even among Japanese people. But what better way to get used to the flavor than to eat it on pizza smothered in melted cheese?
Try: Natto pizza with bacon and corn; Natto pizza with Japanese leek, cheese, and shredded nori seaweed.
Ikasumi, or squid ink, is used not only in Japanese cooking but also Italian, so this unusual Japanese topping may be more authentic than you think! It is generally blended with tomato pizza sauce to create a dramatic black sauce for pizza that has a slightly fishy flavor.
Try: Squid ink pizza with sliced squid and halloumi cheese; Squid ink pizza with sliced squid and grilled cherry tomatoes.
Japanese oysters are a superb delicacy whether they’re eaten raw, steamed, boiled, or fried, so why not throw them on pizza for a gourmet twist? If you’re a fan, you’ll be sure to enjoy a fresh baked pizza topped with oysters.
Try: Oyster pizza with a tomato sauce base, gruyere and parmesan cheese.