Any time you move someplace new there will be new customs, new traditions, and new foods that may seem strange because you’re not used to them. America has it’s own fair share of strange and unusual shit that to a foreigner would seem kind of fucked up like Ranch Dressing, Velveeta cheese, tripe, Sarah Palin, and Dane Cook.
Japanese food is for the most part delicious. There’s a lot more fried food that I’d expected, a lot of food served on a stick, and a lot of food that’s from centuries old traditions. Japan is also the country that loves eating raw sea creatures, gave us Godzilla and Pokemon, and is responsible for the lap pillow, which is a pillow in the form of the severed lower torso of a woman that is marketed to lonely sociopaths.
This is a list of eleven foods that have been strange for me to consume while living in Japan. There are perhaps odder foods that I haven’t tried like hachinoko, pig placenta juice, and various flavors of Kit Kat bars, but this is just a personal list I’ve experienced first hand.
11. Horumon (ホルモン)
Now to be fair, the entrails of pigs and cattle are eaten in many countries including America, which is why this only ranks at number 11 for me. In America it is soul food for some. In my family we didn’t even speak about it least we jar my mother’s nightmares about old German cuisine her mother used to make for her that included the brains and intestines of various barnyard critters.
If this was a story about the scary shit my mom has told me about we’d be here for much longer probably and I’d be further in debt to my therapist, but fortunately we’re focusing on Japan here.
Horumon has two possible meanings. First, it sounds like “hormone” and indeed it’s associated with building stamina. The 2nd possible origin of the word is the combining of the Japanese words horu which means “to throw away” and mon which is a form of mono which means “thing.” Yes, the name for this food literally means, “Shit we throw away.”
I’m told by my girl friend’s father that horumon is a new food. They only recently developed the technology to make the intestines of a cow edible enough to eat. I imagine this means they finally invented some sort of steam cleaner for animal innards. It’s prepared in a marinade of soy sauce, sugar, crushed red pepper, and other various spices. It’s one of the few foods that they bother marinating too.
Verdict: If pressed into a point where there is no other option I will eat this. I try to picture a starving orphan child somewhere with a distended belly to guilt me into not grimacing.
The texture is like chewing a piece of blubber that never tears, never gets smaller, and continues to send little bursts of fat into your taste buds until you swallow it whole. The marinade tastes just fine, but it’d be just as good if not better on some food that doesn’t require specialized technology to clean it up enough to be considered food.
If you visit Japan and love chewing on the digestive parts of animals that at some point are directly connected to cow anus then order some horumon. Be careful when you cook it over an open flame though, because so much fat drips from it while cooking you have to constantly deal with grease fires.
10. Chirimenjako (ちりめんじゃこ)
This is a sort of fish dish. And by fish dish I mean mass fish infanticide. The little fish fry that make up this dry chewy dish are typically sardine or anchovy fry, they’re dried and salted. Chirimen comes in varying consistencies ranging from soft and delicate to tough as leather. It’s eaten a variety ways; sometimes with spices, sometimes sweet, sometimes as bar food, sometimes with just soy sauce, sometimes mixed into other dishes without your knowledge.
It’s a little strange eating school lunch with your students and something gets stuck in your teeth. You pull it out and it’s half of what looks like a tiny fish. Upon further inspection of your food it’s apparent that what you thought were coconut shreds is actually hundreds of tiny white fish carcasses.
Verdict: A lot of gaijin don’t like chirimen, but I enjoy eating this in pretty much any form. My favorite is with a glass of cold beer with grated daikon radish mixed in. I like to imagine I’m a shark and hum the Jaws theme while diving headfirst into my bowl. I suggest you do the same.
Oh the carnage!
9. Awabi (あわび)
Abalone is considered quite the delicacy here. It’s strange prehistoric half shell structure makes me want to pretend I’m a prehistoric shark, but as a shellfish it’s not that strange despite looking like an alien vagina from the bottom up.
No, the reason awabi makes it this high on the list is how it’s prepared. There are multiple ways of eating it, as sushi, boiled in soy sauce, swished around in boiling soup, cooked with boiling rice… the method of preparation I’m singling out here is the yaki method or bbq method.
A living awabi is put shell down on a metal grill that’s over a charcoal fire. The doomed creature quickly becomes uncomfortable, but out of water turning over isn’t an option. However, it tries really fucking hard. So we all sit around it while it writhes in the agony of being cooked alive. Meanwhile, as we watch we’re whispering, “Oishisou,” (you looking fucking delicious) and occasionally pouring soy sauce or sake or beer or butter over its smoking body.
Verdict: Meh. This is an expensive food. A full grown awabi that’s the size of my hand will run about 3-4000円 (around $40). It has very little flavor and its texture is rubbery. It doesn’t taste bad, but for a lot less cash and a lot more flavor you could opt for some clams or any number of delectable bivalves.
As far as animal cruelty you get your money’s worth. If there’s an expression sea creatures have for holy shit agony I’m pretty sure this is as good a show as any. The only thing that could possibly top this is a similar method I saw on TV used to cook an octopus. The octopus was held down with a pair of long chopsticks while it tried to escape. But this is a list of foods I’ve eaten 1st hand… if I catch an octopus then maybe I’ll come back and revise this list…
If you have friends who are Japanese and they invite you to a bbq then drop by the fish market and pick up an awabi as a gift. It’ll go over really well with them at least.
8. Torafugu (とらふぐ)
Not all pufferfish harbor enough deadly toxins that can kill 30 grown men, some have no toxins at all. So why do we eat the poisonous ones? Because why the hell not it seems. I’ve always been impressed with the bravery of early presidents of the Taste Me Club. (note: the adult Taste Me Club has nothing to do with the one you were coerced to join as a child, but much more fun for adults…). With all the different types of mushrooms, frogs, pinecones, and animal intestines the founding members of the Taste Me Club were short-lived badasses who probably needed a hand truck to cart around their massive balls.
There is a famous Japanese poem that translated reads:
I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.
Yes, apparently fugu was romanticized in Japanese literature as a poetic means of suicide. Death by pufferfish is caused by a deadly tetrodotoxin to which there is no real antidote if too much is consumed. It shuts down your body, but leaves you conscious as your friends gather around you to go through your pockets before the ambulance takes you to the hospital to die. The deadliest of the fugu is the torafugu, or tiger fugu, which is the most sought after species for some strange up reason. It’s believed that eating the blowfish will grant you good health, power, and virility providing you survive. (Kind of like combining Russian roulette and Viagra?)
Fugu has gotten a lot safer now to eat than in olden days. There are very few fatalities and for unlicensed people to prepare the fish is a crime. The strange thing is, as the fugu becomes safer to eat, it’s loosing some of its prestige in Japan. I think Japan needs to become heavily introduced to MMA or Halo as alternative ways to blow off steam.
Verdict: This is an expensive dish. We throw a fugu party every New Years and it runs around $100 a person. At yakiniku I pay extra to cook my own food. At the fugu party we pay extra to hope the dude that gutted our fish was having a good day and wasn’t trying to quit smoking cold turkey or had Parkinson’s…
This fish has very little taste. The sashimi is sliced very thin and is crunchy. The soup tastes like soup. The fried fugu tastes like a fried white fish.
After eating it I didn’t feel extra virile or extra healthy. I was able to command the allegiance of sentient sea creatures and convince hot women to go skinny dipping with me, but I could do that ever since I shook hands with Bob Ballard in 8th grade. It’s worth eating it once for the fear factor, though these days the only people you’d impress are people who aren’t Japanese, or poor Japanese who can’t afford to eat like a king.
7. Ika ikizukuri (イカ活き造り)
Ika is Japanese for “squid.” Ikizukuri means “prepared while living.” You do the math.
Okay, for those of you who still think that Obama is an illegal immigrant Muslim I’ll spell it out for you. This is a dish where you eat a freshly chopped up squid while its still shivering dismembered corpse watches you helplessly.
If you enjoyed killing the awabi while whispering to it that it looked delicious, here is the opportunity to level up. Let’s make it clear. The squid really looks like it’s still alive by the time it hits your table. (Though scientifically speaking it’s had all of it’s innards removed, I don’t know if squids can live without all that stuff.) Its skin is still attempting to change colors as either a last ditched attempt to camouflage itself or more likely the mixed up firing of its fucked up nervous system currently overloaded with the pain of being freshly gutted and diced up into a bite sized pieces. The legs of the squid still feature fully functioning suction cups that will grip the platter when you try to pick them up and continue to suck furiously after you pop it in your mouth while flipping off it’s still animated eyes with the double bird just because you want to be a douche. After you’ve eaten a fair amount of the body, the restaurant will often take the still moving remains away to be battered and fried.
Verdict. Often times I’ve wondered to myself if there was a food I could enjoy while eating it in front of the still conscious dying animal. Well problem sovled!
Overall raw squid is low on my list of raw foods to eat, but I generally make an exception here because it’s not expensive, maybe $15, and screw squid and other high functioning cephalopods. It’s very fresh, obviously, and is honestly the best way to eat raw squid. (As long as you don’t care about karma…)
6. Mentaiko (めんたい子)
This little delicacy comes to Japan from Korea and is famous in Fukuoka where I live. The name comes from the Korean word for pollock, “mentai,” and the Japanese word for child, “ko.” It’s pollock roe served to you while still in sitting in the ovaries of their long dead mother.
The most popular form of this is spicy mentaiko. The recipe differs depending on the preparer, but it involves marinating the egg filled ovaries in chili, sake, seaweed, yuzu or vinegar, maybe a special soup stock. It is eaten raw typically with rice or in onigiri, but is sometimes it’s cooked in the microwave, baked on top of bread, and tossed in pasta.
Verdict: If eating raw marinated fish eggs doesn’t sound like something you’d willingly do, then this might not be the dish for you. It’s not bad and when compared with eating white rice plain, then I’ll take the spicy fish egg topping everytime.
Quite a few of my friends will not eat this though. Something about the ovaries maybe, or the little popping sensation as you chew through thousands of aborted fish just seems too Japanese to them.
I recommend trying it though. They’re spicy with a lot of savory flavors that presently surprise you. And you can pretend you’re the shark version of Jack the Ripper.
5. Natto (なっとう)
This is a very Japanese food, indigenous to the country and if you know anything about Japanese food then you were probably waiting for this one to come up. It’s gained a lot of infamy in the gaijin circles, replacing earthworms as the go to “I dare you to eat this…” food.
A brief history lesson as conveyed to me by a very drunk oyaji (old man) in a small sunaku (Snack, a popular type of private bar where hot girls are paid to sit and talk to you and serve you alcohol). A long time ago some soldiers were boiling some soybeans to feed to their horses. They get attacked, so they packed up their beans in straw and ran away. A few days later they remember their horse food, so they unpack their straw packs to find that the beans have fermented and look rather strange and smell rather strange. Naturally they put the strange stuff in their mouth and being that it’s war and their last meal probably consisted of some frogs and grasshoppers they enjoy the flavor. Voila! From horse food to Japanese soul food natto was born!
The first time I tried natto I spit it out and told my Japanese girlfriend and her family they could all go to hell. It smells like the gooey stuff you find in the back of a high school gym locker that was probably once a yogurt cup and a jock strap. As far as consistency goes it’s like chewing on soft beans drenched in snot that’s had some time to congeal.
The second time I was offered natto was with my students as part of a school lunch. I tried eating it, but only got about half my cup down in the allotted time and the 15 year old girls gathered around and asked me how went on living without testicles.
The 3rd time I made the student next to me eat it.
The 4th time I was ravenously hungry because I had skipped dinner the night before as well as breakfast that morning for perfectly innocent reasons. I groaned when the natto came out, but I still scarfed it down like Oprah unleashed in a Krispy Kreme or really hungry African children thankful for any food at all. Ouch, my conscience…
Verdict: If you read my pleasant description and think that’s something you’d put in your mouth then I need to reevaluate my writing. I have heard people describing eating it is akin to eating a very pungent cheese. I don’t know what Swiss hole they crawled out of, but let me make this absolutely clear… Natto is nothing like any cheese you know of. To even associate something as fantastic as cheese with natto should earn that person a bitch slap every time they even pass the dairy section at the grocery store.
Now, the kicker is I will eat natto willingly. I don’t go out of my way for it except for that one time… but it’s passable as food for me and apparently is super healthy. I don’t really care about the health factors because apparently anything that tastes like crap is immediately healthy for you. Natto is an acquired taste, yes, but you should try some because it’s part of the Japanese experience. Yes, I wouldn’t eat it if it hadn’t been forced upon me on a regular basis my first year in Japan, but I did it and so can you!
4. Basashi (馬さし)
I realize that horses are beautiful and majestic creatures. They’re seen as work companions and friends to some (or part of the reason Scrubs Med School sucked so much). I have several friends who are into equestrian activities and will probably not speak to me for even discussing this, and to them I will apologize. I’m sorry Pam and Ann.
To be fair to me, when I ate it, I was told it was “pony” by my girl friend’s drunk uncle. And since when do we give a shit about ponies? They aren’t really useful for much besides toting Lembras bread for lazy hobbits and being what young girls fantasize about before they become interested in boy bands.
Ba means “horse” and sashi is a shortening for “sashimi.” This is eating raw horse. To be fair to Japan, realize that horse is consumed in much greater quantities by other godless countries like China (#1), Mexico (#2), Kazakhstan (#3, really no surprise after watching Borat), and Italy (#6, again no surprise).
Now, basashi refers to the red meat of the horse eaten raw. While it feels slightly like eating a dog to me (which I HAVEN’T done), it’s not totally unlike eating beef tartar, which I do guilt free. The reason horsies rank as high as number 4 on my list is because I’ve also been convinced to eat raw horse liver, like this:
Cow liver isn’t that great, and I’ve eaten that raw; it has a strange aftertaste to it. And raw chicken liver and raw fish liver aren’t too bad either. Horse liver, actually had less of an aftertaste than cow, but it was more difficult to eat simply because of the amount of blood there was left on my chopsticks afterwards.
Verdict: If you’re squeamish about eating horse, eating liver, or having blood on your eating utensils then for god’s sake don’t eat horse liver sashimi.
If you’re interested in any of those things they give it a try. It’s not an expensive food or difficult to find. Kumammoto prefecture is famous for its horse meat and sad little girls who like ponies.
3. Odori ebi (踊りエビ)
This can be translated as “dancing shrimp.” In the event that watching your awabi suffer horribly as you watched with anticipation, or if prying your squids tentacles off the platter as it clung on to the last bits of life by watching you consume it’s appendages, if that wasn’t enough to satiate your twisted desires that are just south of a full fledged dining sociopath, then this is the meal for you.
Let me paint you a picture. Perched on a rocky shore is an onsen (traditional Japanese bathing house). You wash your body while watching the waves break against the stones below. The air smells of salt. A light fall drizzle begins to fall, cold little pricks on your body still steaming from the hot bath. Toweling off you go to your room where tables have been set up for a wonderful meal. They bring out fresh red snapper sashimi, small sea snails cooked in a sweet soy sauce, crabs the size of your dinner plate and small little covered bowls. Curious you lift the cover off the bowl and are greeted with a pair of large shrimp resting in a light saline and sake solution.
Verdict: I’ve always enjoyed fishing. But having to literally kill my own food that periodically attempts to escape and prepare it myself isn’t something I look forward to when I sit down to eat. The shrimp were pretty spry still. Occasionally one would jump up out of the bowl and then try crawling off to hide underneath the empty discarded crab shells.
To prepare them you have to break them in half separating the tail from the thorax section. Rudimentary knowledge of shrimp anatomy is helpful here. Then you have to peal the shell off the tail before you are able to finally dip it in soy sauce and wasabi and enjoy it like the little monster you’ve become. If you’re fast enough you can even finish as the head is still trying to crawl to safety and like the squid earlier you and treat it to the double bird remix style.
Bottom line, I love shrimp, even certain types of raw shrimp, but this experience traumatized me. Not so much killing and dismembering shrimp, but the way my girlfriend did it with a cold distant look in her eyes as she told me what she would do to my manhood if I ever tried to leave her.
2. Namako (ナマコ)
There are two common names for this sea critter in the English language. One, would suggest that it could indeed be considered edible, the other would suggest it might be some type of aquatic garden pest. For the sake of shock value let’s do away with the name sea cucumber and from here on out we will refer to namako as sea slug…
Not a lot of people I know would pull one of these cuddly little guys out of the water and instantly think of popping it in their mouth. But indeed, in China they eat quite a bit of sea slug in a dried form, which I have never tried. In nature, sea slugs remain generally low on the list of things hungry sea creatures eat. Part of this is thanks to excellent camouflage; part of this is thanks to the fact that the skin of most is lightly poisonous and not tasty.
Of course in Japan we eat them raw.
This is a food that’s eaten as part of the traditional New Years food. It’s sliced into half centimeter thick slices and served in small bowls with vinegar, soy sauce, and crushed red pepper. It’s got a slight aftertaste and is slimy, soft, yet dense at the same time making it difficult to chew.
Verdict: Why did we become the default natural predator of some brainless sea creature that literally no one else wants to mess with? Just goes to show that nothing is safe from a hungry Japanese person.
When it was served to me I looked at it and thought to myself, this looks like a pile of cut up sea slug. I asked the Japanese people what it was and they told me namako, but aside from its Japanese name they didn’t really know much about the creature.
If you are unlucky enough to be offered this you can be polite, try a little nibble and then smile, cock your head to the side and when your host says, “amari?” just shyly smile and nod your head. They’ll laugh, you’ll laugh, and you won’t have to touch it again. Or you can be rude and tell them you don’t eat shit that looks like demon poop.
1. Shirako (白子)
Lets play a game.
Shira means “white.”
Ko, if you remember from mentaiko, means child or children.
What food could “white children” represent?
Figure it out?
You think you know?
Well, if you guessed sperm then you’re right! Congrats!!!?
Sperm from a cod fish, (hopefully the actual fish, not the former captain of the Jolly Roger and nemesis of Peter Pan), is readily available in most izakaya bars in Japan. Typically it’s eaten raw with some soy sauce and citrus.
I think as a westerner I’m sexist when it comes to what I’ll put in my mouth. I’ll eat chicken eggs, salmon eggs, pheasant eggs, pollock eggs… but tell me to put some sperm of anything in my mouth and I balk. Call it homophobic if you will, but eating seminal fluid doesn’t fit into my manly persona.
But wait Matt! Isn’t this a list of strange foods you’ve eaten in Japan?
Fuck… walked right into that one… Yes. I have eaten it. And Yes, I looked at it and asked the women I was with, “What is this?”
They replied, “Shirako.”
“What’s shirako?” I pressed.
They held a little conference amongst themselves and after much discussion they claimed, “We don’t know. It’s from a fish. Fish eggs.”
Hmmmm… I thought to myself. White fish eggs? When most of the fish eggs I’ve eaten have been of an orange or pink or blackish color? And the name… I understood that it meant “white children.” Still against my better judgement I ate some of the flavorless white goop. The girls broke out in a series of little giggles that sounded like sparrows.
“Do you like it?” they asked me grinning.
“Meh, not much flavor,” I answered honestly.
“Is it delicious?” they pressed.
At this point it was painfully obvious that I had just eaten a load of some fish’s jizz. Stupid little cute Japanese girls… I directed the conversation back at them. “Well, to make things clear this is the first time I’ve ever eaten it. But it looks like you ladies have more than a little experience swallowing this stuff?”
Okay. So if you are a woman, or if you like eating sperm, or if you are open minded, then shirako is something you should definitely try. If you’re cornered and have to try some on a dare or to impress your boss or something, then just loosen your jaw, think about Denise Richards in Wild Things and… gulp!
Runners up to this list:
Squid ink pasta