Ugly Delicious1/4
NetflixUgly Delicious
Chef's Table2/4
Photo: Netflix
Salt Fat Acid Heat3/4
NetflixSalt Fat Acid Heat
Chef's Table4/4
Photo: NetflixChef's Table

The best documentaries about Japanese food

Learn about the history, flavours and techniques of Japanese cooking with Anthony Bourdain, David Chang, Niki Nakayama, Jiro Ono and more

By Jessica Thompson
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No matter how much you love Japanese food – and we love it a lot – it’s impossible to know everything that goes into making your meal, be it a bowl of nourishing ramen, a delicate morsel of sushi or an elaborate kaiseki dinner. There’s the personal story of the chef, the philosophy of plating, the history of the recipes, the cooking technique, and so much more. These documentaries, available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Vimeo, will take you behind the scenes of the wonderful food in Japan – and you'll come out with a better understanding and appreciation for your next Japanese dining experience.

RECOMMENDED: Best Japanese shows with English subtitles on Netflix

A feast for the eyes

Salt Fat Acid Heat
Photo: Netflix

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (Episode: Salt)

'Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat' is a four-part Netflix series exploring the fundamentals of cooking with chef Samin Nosrat. In the second episode, ‘Salt’, Nosrat travels to Japan to explore salt as a raw ingredient and seasoning in Japanese cuisine. Guided by Yuri Nomura of renowned Tokyo farm-to-table restaurant Eatrip, along with cookbook author and long-time Japan resident Nancy Hachisu, Nosrat visits a salt farm in Hiroshima and meets a master of organic miso and a fifth-generation soy sauce brewer.

Follow Nosrat’s journey and discover how Japanese salt is made from seaweed, that miso is for much more than just soup, and how real soy sauce can taste rich and caramel-like.

Chef's Table
Photo: Netflix

Chef’s Table (Episode: Niki Nakayama)

The Japanese word kuyashii describes the feeling when somebody puts you down and you have the burning desire to succeed to prove them wrong – it also describes Niki Nakayama’s motivation as a chef, as this episode of Chef's Table shows.

Born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents, Nakayama grew up in a family where the role of women was only to support men. Determined to prove her own independence and value, Nakayama worked at Takao, a renowned sushi restaurant in LA, then moved to Japan, where she became enamored by kaiseki cuisine. Now running her own Michelin-starred restaurant (n/naka) in Los Angeles, Nakayama serves her version of modern kaiseki cuisine – the food is meticulously creative, but it’s the journey that led to it all that’s truly eye-opening.

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The Birth of Sake

The Birth of Sake

This captivating documentary offers a rare look inside life as a sake brewery worker, told through a season at Tedorigawa, a 144-year old sake brewery in Ishikawa prefecture. Follow the process of making sake from start to finish, which is still done by hand at Tedorigawa, and get a deeper understanding of the complexities of what goes into creating Japan’s delicate national drink.

The gruelling work, harrowing hours, and harsh weather are balanced by scenes revealing the close bonds between the brewery workers, their home lives, and reverence for their craft. Directed by Erik Shirai – formerly a cinematographer on 'No Reservations' with Anthony Bourdain – the slow pace of The Birth of Sake makes this film poetic to watch.

A photo of Anthony Bourdain
Photo: fb.com/AnthonyBourdain

No Reservations (Episode: Tokyo)

'No Reservations', the late Anthony Bourdain’s 142-part series on cuisines around the world, is the starting point for so many food-obsessed travellers. If he had to stay in one city forever, Bourdain says Tokyo would be his pick, and in this episode, you can see that’s true.

It’s impossible not to share his joy as he hunts through Tokyo for a kitchen knife, revels in the technicoloured sensory overload of the Robot Restaurant, goes bar hopping in Shinjuku’s Omoide Yokochoand eats sushi, soba and chicken sashimi. Bourdain was beloved for his honest approach to food and charismatic, huskily delivered wit, and he’s in fine form in this 'No Reservations' Tokyo episode. Anthony Bourdain, we miss you. 

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Street Food Asia
Photo: Netflix

Street Food (Episode: Osaka)

Street food doesn’t loom quite as large in Japan as a lot of other countries in Asia, with most dining done indoors. But Osakans move to the beat of their own drum, and the emphasis on street food in the city’s culinary landscape reflects this.

In this episode of the Netflix series about street eats, you’ll visit the outdoor and standing seafood restaurant Toyo Izakaya – where the energetic owner is as much a performer as a chef – along with takoyaki (octopus balls) stand Umai-ya and okonomiyaki (savory pancake) stand Fue. Plus, you’ll meet a spirited cast of local Osaka chefs along the way.  

Washoku

Washoku: Beyond Sushi

In 2013, washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) was designated by Unesco as part of Japan’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. It joins just two other cuisines to receive such an accolade: French and Mexican. While sushi may be the poster child of washoku, this documentary is determined to leave you with a greater impression of traditional Japanese cuisine through interviews with famous chefs and industry figures like Nobu Matsuhisa, owner-chef of Nobu restaurants, and ramen master Shige Nakamura.

'Washoku: Beyond Sushi' not only covers the different ingredients and types of traditional Japanese cuisine, it also acquaints you with the principles and philosophies that underlie Japanese food, including religion, nature and a focus on umami. 

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Jiro Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

An unremarkable subway station in Ginza is home to a particularly remarkable sushi restaurant: Jiro Sukiyabashi, the first sushi restaurant in the world to receive three Michelin stars, whose list of diners includes David Beckham, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Barack Obama.

'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' is a sentimental portrait of owner-chef Jiro Ono, who opened the 10-seater restaurant in 1965. The documentary also provides an insight into Japanese shokunin (artisan) culture. As the 85-year-old Jiro puts it, 'even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I have achieved perfection. But I feel ecstatic all day – I love making sushi. That’s the spirit of the shokunin.' 

Ramen Heads

Ramen Heads

If you consider yourself a ramen head, you’ve probably heard of – and maybe even eaten at – Tomita Ramen in Matsudo. It’s headed by legendary noodle chef Osamu Tomita, who is at the centre of this 2017 film documenting his exacting process in creating the perfect bowl of noodles. Woven through the story is the history of ramen in Japan and the show takes a look at several other top ramen shops, revealing the philosophies and flavours of each, along with tips on getting ramen just right.

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Kakehashi

Kakehashi

Tokyo born and raised chef Nobuo Fukuda always felt out of place growing up in Japanese society. At age 20, Fukuda moved to Arizona to take a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen. Over the next few decades, Fukuda opened several successful Japanese restaurants in the US and even received a prestigious James Beard Award for his cooking.

When Fukuda was born, his father wrote that he wanted his son to be kakehashi, or ‘a bridge between Japan and other cultures’. Over the course of Kakehashi’, you can see Fukuda slowly become – and realise he is becoming – that bridge. More than a portrait of a chef, it’s a look at how food can change cultures and people. 

Ugly Delicious
Photo: Netflix

Ugly Delicious (Episode: Pizza)

You might think that an episode set in Japan would focus on noodles or fish, but in the very first episode of 'Ugly Delicious', host David Chang (chef and owner of the Momufuku restaurant group) goes to Japan hunting for pizza. Along with food writer Peter Meehan, Chang embarks on a journey extending from pizza purists in Brooklyn to chefs in Japan who are both re-creating classic Naples-style pizza and putting their own spin on it.

If you’re familiar with pizza in Tokyo, you’ll recognise the restaurants Savoy in Roppongi and Serinkan in Nakameguro. It’s a timely reminder that Japanese culinary prowess extends beyond traditional Japanese cuisine. 

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The Final Table
Photo: Netflix

The Final Table (Episode: Japan)

Not technically a documentary, 'The Final Table's Japan episode features all the fanfare you would expect from a cooking competition. By episode 8 in the series, it’s down to just a handful of accomplished chefs.

The challenge? One hour to create a three-dish kaiseki meal that displays seasonality and a progression of flavors. That includes a hassan course – an array of small bites that sets the tone for a meal – agemono, a deep-fried course, and mukozuke, sliced seasonal sashimi. The atmosphere heats up even more when the guest chef and judge is announced: it’s Yoshihiro Narisawa, owner and chef of two-Michelin star restaurant Narisawa in Tokyo. 

More to watch

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Kiki's Delivery Service
Photo: IMDb – Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

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