How to avoid food culture shock in Japan

Grilled chicken breast cartilage (photo by 挪威 企鵝)

Grilled chicken breast cartilage (photo by 挪威 企鵝)

Out the window, sparsely populated luscious green mountains and valleys streamed by giving the impression we had left Japan.

“Do you like meat,” asked Yasu my Japanese friend who was driving.

“I love meat. There isn’t much I can’t eat,” I boasted remembering my breakfast of smelly natto fermented soybeans.

We soon arrived at a small shop in the countryside. The shop, a Japanese owned Chinese restaurant, was a local institution serving the Kubokawa pork that was so famous in the region. We seated ourselves at a Japanese table so close to the ground I could barely fold my legs under it.

“Give us two full set menus and some of the raw as well,” ordered Yasu.

The waitress balanced a flat iron griddle on top of a portable gas burner. Although my mouth had been salivating at the idea of eating grilled pork chops, I froze when I saw the food coming out of the kitchen. The dark brown liver was sliced sashimi style and served over a salty citrus sauce. The honeycomb intestine was also served raw with a spicy sesame oil. On the grill, sizzled a sectioned heart, curly intestine and unidentifiable fat coated organ meat. Food culture shock is real. Here is what to expect when eating out in Japan.

1. The importance of textures

Food consistencies are important in Japanese cuisine. The Japanese language has dozens of onomatopoeia describing food texture. Some of the different descriptors include Nebaneba (slimy), betobeto (sticky) and puripuri (juicy). In Japanese cuisine, textures, just as flavors, are an important part of the gustative experience. A dish is good not only because of how it taste but also because of how it feels in the mouth. More simply put, some ingredients that could by other standards be considered tasteless are sought out in Japanese cuisine because they bring texture to a meal. I remember the first time I tried tororo a slimy graded mountain potato. I could not manage to eat it with chopsticks and instead had to slurp the white sludge out of the bowl. Okra is another interesting example of unusual texture. My mother, who is from the US South, only believes in fried okra, yet, it is most often enjoyed raw chopped in Japan. The vegetable pod is rich in mucilage a molecule giving it the sticky texture that Japanese people love so much. My personal favorites are Konnyaku jelly yam cakes. In simmered dishes, the rubbery cakes are infused in the broth they cook in and provide a contrast in texture with the softer stewed ingredients.

Delicious handmade udon with tororo (photo by author)

Delicious handmade udon with tororo, egg yolk and beef (photo by author)

2. Don’t let odd bits and ends go to waste

“Cross score the tough base of the bamboo shoot and then simmer. Deep fry the scales of the tai fish and use them as toppings. Don’t throw food away. It’s mottainai,” instructed me Odani sensei our Japanese cuisine instructor. The term mottainai signifies regret when things are wasted. In Japanese cuisine nothing goes to waste: fish bones are used for stock and rice bran is used to ferment vegetables. In order to minimize waste, Japanese cooks came up with new ways to use the previously discarded parts attributing valuable properties to them. Horumon, derived from the classic Greek word for stimulation, means offal cuisine in Japanese. Coincidently, it also sounds a lot like the word horumono which means discarded things in the Kansai dialect. Grilled or stewed stomach, intestine, liver used to be a male blue-collar fare. In recent years, it has become increasingly popular among women as it contains collagen purported to keep you looking young. In a similar manner, nankotsu or chicken cartilage is greatly enjoyed grilled and fried for two reasons: its crunchy texture and its richness in minerals and nutrients.

Crispy grilled fatty horumon (photo by Norio NAKAYAMA)

Crispy grilled fatty horumon (photo by Norio NAKAYAMA)

3. Smelly fermented products

Before refrigeration, fermentation played a large role in food conservation in some cases even increase the nutritional value of food. Fermentation around the world prompted the development of diet staples like wine, cheese and pickles. Fermentation has also played a dominant role in Japanese cuisine. Fermented foods like natto, umeboshi and shiokara are all smelly yet staples in the Japanese diet. The first item on the menu, Natto or fermented soybeans not only smells like old socks, it is remarkably hard to eat as long protein filaments stretch out when you pull the beans apart. The second, Umeboshi or fermented Japanese plums, is sought out for its many health properties. In rural communities, friends and family gather once a year to harvest ume plums while the fruit is still green. Purple perilla is added for taste and color and then fermented in salt as the plums cannot be eaten raw. Last, Shiokara or salt fermented fish or squid, is a dish that used to be hugely popular in pre-refrigeration days. The first time I tried shiokara, I had no idea what I was getting into. A Japanese family had invited me for dinner and, as is customary, the head of the household pulled me aside for some drinks at the end of the meal. While the women were cleaning up, the patriarch ushered me into the pantry where he produced a bottle of sake and an unmarked jar of red-brown goop. The salty, sweet and fishy substance made my tongue tingle and I understood then why he had served it with a full glass of sake.

Would you like some sticky natto? (photo by Party Lin)

Would you like some sticky natto? (photo by Party Lin)

4. Outlandish raw eating practices

Why is raw seafood like sushi and sashimi so prevalent in Japanese cuisine? A central tenet of Japanese cuisine is to maintain ingredient as close to their natural state emphasizing freshness and seasonality. It did not take much time for this belief system to be applied to the historically recent consumption of meat. Is it safe? Probably not entirely but aren’t we all taking a chance when we eat food we did not raise, handle or cook. By exercising good judgment and staying informed, we can certainly minimize the risk when eating raw meat. I tried basashi or horse sashimi for the first time in a sushi restaurant in Japan. Far from being my favorite, it remains luckily marginal in Japan as few horses are raised for such purpose. When I think of yukke, I think of the crowded soju drinking joints of Shin Okubo Tokyo’s Korea Town. Yukke, the adaptation of a Korean dish, is sort of like an Asian steak tartar flavored with soy sauce and sesame oil. Finally, tori no tataki, seared and thinly sliced chicken breast is by far my favorite. It is usually served with a side of ginger and soy sauce that brings out the umami and accentuate the delicate flavor of the chicken. Fear for one’s safety is a momentous obstacle, yet overcoming it will make you love the strangest foods even more.

Slightly seared chicken meat (photo by author)

Slightly seared chicken meat (photo by author)

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