In Japan, there is a unique food and beverage culture that includes a special system called “otōshi.” Otōshi refers to a type of dish served at restaurants that is not listed on the menu and is automatically provided before placing an order
In this article, we will explore the origins, purposes, and unique experiences of otōshi in Japanese restaurants.
- What is “otōshi”?
- Types and characteristics of otōshi
- Examples of Restaurants Where There May Be a Charge for ‘Otōshi
- Restaurants without an ‘Otōshi’ Charge
- The Origin of Otōshi
What is “otōshi”?
Otōshi is a dish served at Japanese restaurants before the main meal. It is typically prepared as a special service by the establishment and is not listed on the menu. It often features seasonal ingredients or unique creations by the chef.
Please note that there may be a per person charge for otōshi. This fee is set to maintain the quality of the dishes and services provided by the restaurant. Otōshi is a unique experience in Japanese restaurants, offering a special dish to enjoy before ordering your main meal.
As otōshi is served before placing an order, foreign customers who are not familiar with the system may find it confusing. In such cases, it is advisable to politely ask the staff for an explanation or observe the behavior of other customers to determine the appropriate response.
Purpose of otōshi
The purpose of otōshi is to allow customers to savor seasonal ingredients and experience the chef’s skills. Additionally, otōshi is served to provide customers with an enjoyable way to pass the time while waiting for their meal.
In Japanese restaurants, there is often a relatively long duration between placing an order and the actual serving of the dishes. By providing otōshi during this time, customers can satisfy their hunger and make the waiting period more comfortable and enjoyable.
Types and characteristics of otōshi
Otōshi is one of the unique experiences in Japanese restaurants. Here are several types and characteristics of otōshi that I would like to introduce.
- Seasonal Ingredients: Otōshi often features dishes made with seasonal ingredients, allowing you to enjoy the flavors of the season. For example, in spring, you may be served fresh simmered bamboo shoots (takenoko), while summer might offer chilled Chinese-style noodles (hiyashi chūka), and autumn may bring sweet simmered chestnuts (kuri no shibukawani).
- Small Plates: Otōshi is typically served as a single dish and presented in small plates. Despite the small portion size, these dishes are rich in flavor, enticing your appetite. Otōshi comes in various forms, including grilled items, deep-fried dishes, simmered preparations, and seasoned salads.
- Diverse Variations: The contents of otōshi vary among different establishments and regions. Specialty restaurants may offer otōshi that aligns with their theme or focuses on specific ingredients or dishes. Additionally, each region in Japan has its own local specialties and traditional cuisine, which may be incorporated into their otōshi offerings.
- Flavor Surprises: Since otōshi is not listed on the menu, it brings a sense of surprise for customers, not knowing what dish will be served. It can introduce new flavors and unexpected combinations, making the dining experience more exciting.
“Depending on the restaurant, please see examples of typical ‘otōshi’.”
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Examples of Restaurants Where There May Be a Charge for ‘Otōshi
Restaurants Offering Japanese Street Food Such as Izakaya and Yakitori
In such establishments, it is common for one or several dishes to be automatically served as an ‘otōshi’ charge, which is typically enjoyed by the customers.
Some High-End Japanese Cuisine Restaurants
In upscale Japanese cuisine restaurants, an ‘otōshi’ charge is set as a per-person fee, and it may include seasonal ingredients or special dishes being served.
Some Sushi Restaurants
In some sushi restaurants, there may be an ‘otōshi’ charge. In such cases, the ‘otōshi’ charge typically includes a per-person fee and may involve the serving of the restaurant’s original appetizers or special sushi.
Restaurants without an ‘Otōshi’ Charge
Family restaurants and cafes.
In general, there is no ‘otōshi’ charge at typical family restaurants and cafes. Usually, customers directly order from the menu and select dishes and drinks individually.
Fast food chain restaurants.
In fast food chain restaurants (e.g., McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, etc.), there is generally no ‘otōshi’ charge. It is common to order from set menus or à la carte menus in such establishments.
Chain restaurants for dining out.
It is not common for chain restaurants for dining out (e.g., Sukiya, Yoshinoya, Matsuya, etc.) to have an ‘otōshi’ charge. In such establishments, customers typically order their desired menu items and pay for them individually.
Absolutely, please enjoy the “otōshi” served before your meal and savor the unique dining experience that Japan has to offer.
The Origin of Otōshi
The origin of “otōshi” can be traced back to the Edo period in Japan. During that time, there was a custom in inns (hatago) and traditional restaurants to serve a small dish before the main meal, known as “otōshi,” to lodging guests and visitors.
This dish, known as “otōshi,” was primarily served as a side dish for alcoholic beverages. It was a small dish meant to entertain and provide something to eat during the waiting period for the main meal.
“Hatago”(旅籠) refers to traditional Japanese lodging facilities where travelers and visitors would stay and rest. They have existed since the Edo period and are characterized by buildings equipped with Japanese-style rooms, communal baths, dining areas, and other amenities.
“Otōshi” is indeed a unique system and cultural practice in Japan. It can be considered as a charge fee upon entering a restaurant. Small dishes are served automatically, but the price is clearly specified and paid.
On the other hand, there is no custom of tipping after the meal, so you don’t have to worry about overpaying or feeling obligated to tip.
Understanding these cultural differences, please enjoy your time in Japan!