Japanese cuisine is typically heavy on carbs and fat. Since I was going to be in Japan for a while, I wasn’t going to take a chance on not being able to find enough protein sources in Japan.
Fun fact: When I was packing for my multi-month trip to Japan, a third of my luggage space was taken up by…two 2-pound bags of chocolate whey protein and a bunch of Quest protein bars (my favorite is the chocolate chip cookie dough flavor). Thankfully, it turned out that protein wasn’t a problem, especially if you have access to a kitchen and know what to look for.
Who can forget this easy protein source and boring bodybuilder favorite? You can find chicken breasts in the meat section of the store. It typically has the skin still attached, but it’s easy to tear off.
If you’re lazy or don’t have access to a kitchen, all of the major convenience stores have pre-cooked, packaged chicken breasts, too. They run about 2USD for almost 4 ounces of chicken. Not a bad deal. Each package is about 20 grams of protein and 1.5 grams of fat. They’re at every convenience store chain, but I’ve found Lawsons, Family Marts, and 7-11s to have the “biggest” and tastiest-looking chicken breasts. Sunkus and Daily Yamazaki had meh chicken breasts.
For a quick meal, I usually go for these packaged chicken breasts and two onigiri (rice balls). Simple, fast, and incredible convenient for eating on-the-go.
More Chicken and Pork
Other than chicken breast, you’ll find other parts of the chicken–most typically thighs, wings, and even butt. Leaner pork cuts, such as the tenderloin, can be a bit harder to find, but occasionally indulging in the pork belly in shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot) is well-worth it!
Most Asian cultures do not waste any part of the animal. We’ll eat neck, liver, kidneys, intestines, ears–you name it, if it’s a part of the animal, it’s probably saved and served in some manner. I mean, even the bones are used in soup!
Throughout my time here, I’ve enjoyed chicken liver, chicken cartilage, chicken hearts, chicken gizzard, chicken asshole (not even joking), beef tongue, and beef intenstines (motsu). And I love them all. They’re all awesome sources of protein but can be moderately high in fat and cholesterol.
I’m a fan of the fact that the deli-style hams, bacon, and roast beef here are less salty than their counterparts in America. There are also sausages—which, by the way, have a bit more of a nice bite to them—of many types, but as expected of mashed and rolled up cases of leftover meats (this is why no one hires me to write menu descriptions), they’re not exactly figure-friendly. Still tasty as hell, though.
You can also find dried meat and seafood jerky in convenience stores.
For most people, Japanese food is almost synonymous with sushi, which is made from various seafoods and rice, natch. As Japan is the Land of Sushi, you can expect to find plenty of fish in local and commercial markets, even pre-cooked and pre-marinated ones in convenience stores (konbini). You can also get sardines in cans.
Fish like salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and mackerel have a higher fat content with a good amount of protein. Salmon filets (if they’re previously frozen) are really affordable at 1-2USD per 100 grams.Sashimi-grade fish is easily found in grocery stores, and I highly recommend getting a small pack of it and making Hawaiian style poke or just eating plain with sushi rice (called donburis).
Not into raw fish? You heathen (JOKES, luv u).
You can cook the fish in all sorts of ways. You know those cute little ovens in the kitchen? It’s specifically made for grilling fish. in the cute little ovens they have here. If you’re watching total fats, you’d probably want to moderate fish intake. What’s more, a lot of the sauces restaurants use to marinate the fish add a significant amount of yum, fats, and carbs.
Seafood and Other Fish Products
Seafood is huge in Japan. Unagi and anago (both eels), along with salmon roe, sea urchin, squid, mentaiko (flavored roe paste), oysters, and shrimp are all fairly good sources of protein, but you’d have to eat a ton of it which can get pretty darn pricey. Plus, the eels, for example, contain super high fat content–almost a 1:1 fat to protein ratio.
Meanwhile, “other” fish products isn’t exactly the most appetizing-sounding, but…you’ve probably had fish products if you’ve eaten the imitation crab found in California rolls.
Just think of how hot dogs and sausages are made from leftover and mashed-up bits of animals. Fish products are like that, except a lot tastier than I’m making them sound. Japanese fish products include fish cakes like naruto and kamaboko, and other morsels shaped into fish patties, cakes, balls, or whatever. They’re delicious in udon, soba, or ramen.
In convenience stores, you can buy dried squid, octopus, and sardines as snacks, which can be a decent source of protein.
Japanese eggs are incredible. No joke, every time I crack one open I’m in awe of the vibrant orange of the yolk and yell, “Oh my god, look at how sexy the yolk is!” Sexy is definitely the word to describe the yolk because I think a dripping, oozing egg yolk is, like, the epitome of food porn. The point is, you just can’t easily find the same eggs in America.
And of course, eggs are an excellent source of protein and moderate fat (if you include the yolk). And before you huff and puff with concerns about eggs skyrocketing your cholesterol, eggs are baller for healthy people. You might want to limit your intake if you have a family history of high cholesterol.
In restaurants or in markets, you’ll find eggs typically served in a sweet omelet form called tamago. It’s made with sugar and eggs, then skillfully cooked and folded into layers using a special pan. So. Good.
Ten eggs cost about 2-3USD on average. I can go through the 10 eggs in a day–mainly the egg whites–if I don’t have other protein sources. Yes, that does mean I discard the beautiful golden egg yolks and it pains me to do so.
The quality of the dairy here in Japan is quite good, especially in Hokkaido where they’re known for their milk.
You can find milk, cheese, and yogurt, most of which are full-fat products. Luckily, Japan is quite progressive in terms of healthy alternatives, so it’s possible to find low-fat or non-fat milk, like this one from 7-11.
There’s even fat-free Greek yogurt at certain convenience stores—mainly the Mini-Stops and 7-11s. The two non-fat Greek yogurt brands are Dannons’ oikos and AEON’s Top Select. They come in at about 1.50-2USD a pop. Greek yogurt will probably be the most expensive source of protein.
And more recently, I found this amazingly awesome creamy cottage cheese, which tastes like cream cheese. You can find it in the cheese section, and it’s about 4USD for 200 grams (one serving is 100 grams), but really you can eat the whole thing in a sitting. Not that it’s a bad thing; just check out the macros.
In a single serving, you’re getting almost 18 g protein, 4 g fat and 1.5 g carbs. If you’re familiar with counting macros, those are some crazy good macros.
Then there’s the typical soft cheeses like camembert cheeses and sliced cheese that you can simply melt on top of toast. Mmmm…
Beef is premium protein in Japan, perhaps due to the limited land available to grow the cute and fuzzy moo-ers. Not to mention, Japan is famous for their ultra high-grade, supposedly-beer-drinking-and-massage-receiving cows that are fated to become wagyu beef. Regardless, beef of any type is going to be on the pricier side compared to other proteins.
If you can afford to splurge on occasion, the beef here is like hnnnnnng, melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness because it’s so tender, buttery, and full of delicious, fatty goodness. It wouldn’t be surprising to get about 15-25 grams of fat per 85 grams of beef in most of the available cuts–but I’m just guesstimating here. In general, beef is a good source of protein, but keep in mind the premium beef here is just fattier. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s good to note if you’re not trying to break the fat bank.
A popular beef dish is hamburg steak, which is essentially an hamburger patty. Based on the marbling—again, I’m guess-timating here —they’re probably of the 70-80 percent lean variety. It’s an awesome option for Paleo dieters, that’s for sure.
There are a few more bizarre animal protein options like whale, horse, and bear meat. Whale meat used to be an important source of protein for the Japanese after World War II.
I’ve personally not tried whale or bear meat, but I’ve had horse sashimi (called basashi). If you didn’t tell me I was eating horse, I wouldn’t have known any better. Would I eat it again? Let’s just say, I wouldn’t actively seek it out.
Horse and whale meat tend to be pretty lean meats. As for bear…? Uh, I’m not so sure, but it’s probably not so easy to get anyway.
Soy products are a major staple in a lot of Asian countries. They’re good sources of vegetarian protein. You have the usual tofu, edamame beans, fried bean curd (inari sushi, for example), and soy milk, but in Japan, you also have something called natto, which is fermented soybeans.
For the uninitiated, natto is…quite…interesting. As far as I can tell, two major factors hold it back from being a widespread favorite: the texture is straight up slimy like snot. That description is actually quite accurate, too. Second, the taste is somewhere between something being slightly rancid (because of the fermentation) and motor oil. I’ve tried it, and those were my initial impressions.
Still, I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it either. Sometimes I will eat it with rice for breakfast.
Beans and Seaweed Stuff
Certain beans are a staple in some dishes, such as hijiki (a sort of plant-based mix). You can sometimes find red beans (azuki beans), mung beans, and white beans, which can be all decent sources of protein, too.
I’m a bit more vague with these items simply because I don’t eat them as often.
Hooooooo-boy, protein powder and supplements in general are more expensive per serving. Expect to pay nearly 20 USD for about 300 grams of protein, or about half a pound. Protein powder is sold at sporting goods and health stores, as well as in the gym shops (like the public gym in Sendagaya). You can also buy them on iHerb.com, which offers a greater selection of U.S. brands. On the plus side, there’s a green tea flavor…!
I’ve seen a couple of protein bars here, but I would ignore them unless you want a glorified candy bar. You’re better off eating a ready-to-eat chicken breast (also can be be bought from a convenience store) and chasing it with candy–it’d be the same thing.
All in all, your precious fitness gains are fine if you prepare most of your meals at home. Sure, it’s possible to get a good amount of protein from a few restaurant types like shabu shabu or yakiniku, but know that they’re a super expensive option and are also really, really easy for you to overeat in fat, and thus, calories.
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