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.
Live octopus ready to be eaten (photo by Alice Cai)
The first time I ordered odori ebi, dancing shrimp, in a Japanese restaurant, I was not too sure what to expect. The order came as four pieces of sushi topped with prawn that whipped their tails like they were trying to swim away. This had not been the first time I had dealt with freshly caught seafood as people outside of Japan also enjoy live boiled lobster and freshly chucked oysters. However, Japanese cuisine takes it one step further when it serves sea urchins, octopus and sashimi fish so fresh they still move. In reality, this so-called live seafood is still moving only because it is is animated by reflexes. These dishes will disgust many foreign diners, yet, they are a real treat in Japan and are served only in the best restaurants. Why do people in Japan come to enjoy their seafood so fresh that it is still moves?
Fresh raw and seared tataki (photo by author)
When I first came to Japan, I lived in a Tokyo shared house with a small kitchen which made cooking difficult. Most of my meals were either eaten out or bought already made at the local grocery store. Japan had a lot of interesting foods, and I wanted to try them all. Not being able yet to read Japanese, I one day bought what looked like seared tuna. The fish, which was in fact katsuo, was served with green onions and tasted quite fishy. In order to avoid this mistake, I made a point to tell tuna and katsuo apart from that day on. Years later, on a visit to Kochi, my friends reintroduced me to katsuo tataki. I tried it with some reticence but to my surprise it was delicious. Why was Kochi’s katsuo so delicious when Tokyo’s was not?
Japan loves eggs and has developed unique ways of eating them. Eggs are so pervasive in most people fridge that we pay them little notice. They have become part of the background, an almost boring necessity. In the digital age, there is no limit to what people might come up with like scrambling eggs in their shell . in Japan, due to Buddhist beliefs that proscribed the killing of animals, both meat and eggs became a staple relatively late in Japan. This singular historic and cultural context has informed the way eggs are prepared in Japan. The place that eggs occupy in Japanese cuisine is quite different than in Western cooking. Rather than being a binder that add richness to a confection, it is most often used as a main ingredient. Japanese breeds of hen and a diet rich in carotene also result in a very different egg with a thick shell and an intense orange yolk.