Japan is popularly known for its highly sophisticated technology and has been the home for the ever-awesome manga comics and animés. But aside from the geeky-nerdy stuff, Japan offers a wide and boundless variety of gastronomically delightful dishes. Restaurants ranging from mobile food stands, centuries old ryotei, drinking places, to the favorite Japanese fast food chain shops; one will surely find something that will satisfy a growling tummy.
You have definitely tried sushi, sashimi, and all other raw Japanese dishes. But there’s a whole lot more to Japanese food than what you know. And if you like to think of yourself as a food adventurer, open-minded as you thought, wait until you try their odd food choices:
Nankotsu, in Japanese, means cartilage or cartilaginous parts of the chicken (and other animals) bones.
The Japanese eat them as such in yakitori (a Japanese type of skewered chicken) and are prepared the same way as kara-age (Japanese fried chicken). Usually taken from the chicken breast (the long, triangular shaped pieces of the breast meat) and from the knee area; Nankotsu is best enjoyed fried, or for someone who is health-conscious, grilled. It tastes great with a squeeze of lemon too.
Tasty but has subdued chicken flavor, biting into the Nankotsu is somehow like eating chicken bones. There’s a feel of crunch between the teeth, and the texture is strange. Nevertheless, it won’t taste much different from kara-age.
Nankotsu can be found in yakitori restaurants and izakayas (Japanese pubs).
- WASP CRACKERS
Eating insects in Japan is not a new story. But for someone coming from the other part of the globe, it might get a little gross.
Wasp crackers or jibachi senbei are rice crackers. But with wasps in it.
Made from a place called Omachi (120 miles northwest from Tokyo), a group called Omachi Jibachi Aikokai (Omachi digger wasps lover group) teamed up with a local biscuit maker. Elderly wasp hunters from the village (mostly in their 80’s) catch these insects from the forests, boil them in water, dry and mix them into the crackers, and then stamp them by the hot iron cracker cutters.
As for the taste you ask? Jibachi senbei is mostly described as a honeycomb crunch. SWEET!
Wasps are really common in Japan and are known to be a good source of protein. So the next time you need a boost, you know what to eat. Found in Japan’s local stores and selected gourmet shops, just think of the wasps as some chocolate chips you wish you had in your cookies.
Shiokara is salted and fermented seafood and is one of the most popular must-try Japanese food chinmi or “bizarre tastes”. Made from various marine animals (typically squid), it is often consumed as appetizers and served in very small portions as an accompaniment to food and drink.
Using small pieces of seafood, they are fermented (a good one usually takes six months) in the creature’s viscera with around 10% of salt. Yes, you read it right. The creature’s guts. Yikes! Ingredients such as shichimi (a blend of chili peppers), wasabi, mirin or grated yuzu peel are added for zest.
Shiokara has a salty and a slightly spicy taste, with a sticky texture and distinctive odor. Covering your nose yet? It might not seem very appealing at first sight but it’s a must-try with a variety of flavors to choose from: ika no shiokara (squid), shuto (tuna), ganzuke (crab), mefun (salmon), and uruka (sweetfish). Choose the one that suits you.
And because shiokara is very salty, bar owners will love you. The more you eat, the more you drink.
It’s not bad as it sounds (and looks), right?
If the wasp crackers are gross for you, then you haven’t eaten baby bees.
Hachinoko is a popular Japanese dessert made from baby bees and wasp larvae. After being harvested from their nests, they are cooked in a classic combination of soy sauce and sugar to sweeten them up and make the crisp texture taste all the better.
There really isn’t much of a way to make these baby bees’ innards look appealing. They look like and have the consistency of guts, but that’s something not to elaborate. What you think you’re eating is left to your imagination. However, they taste a lot better than they look. Though biting into it, you will get a mild crunch of what seems like the exoskeleton and a bit unsettling chewiness, hachinoko are sweet, rich, and starchy with a bit of smokey aftertaste. It is usually paired with some type of cracker to balance the very distinct flavor of the bees.
Nutritious as the wasp crackers, hachinoko is something you might wanna dig in.
- SHIROU NO ODORIGUI
Shirou no Odorigui or Dancing Icefish will probably tickle your mouth or gross you out.
Shirou are very small and transparent fish that are usually eaten alive. They dance in your mouth, or what the Japanese calls odorigui (dancing while being eaten). Hence, the name Shirou no Odorigui.
Usually, the dish is served with a cup of vinegar and an egg that is then mixed and drunk. Otherwise, it can be eaten with shochu (a type of Japanese wine).
So if your palate is itching for some adventure, might probably turn your mouth into an aquarium for some time, try it.
Cod sperm (or sometimes from a puffer fish). That’s what Shirako is.
Shirako translates into “white child (ren)”, and is in season in the winter. It looks like a huge piece of melting brain when removed from the cod fish. It is white, soft, squishy, and slippery. However, when cooked, it becomes firm, creamy, custard-like, and blossoms into somewhat like the chrysanthemum flower buds.
The most traditional dish is shirako-ponzu. Heated in hot or boiling water, it is served in a ponzu sauce with condiments such as chopped green onions and grated daikon radish. It can also be enjoyed as tempura, lightly dipped into salt seasoned with pickled plum.
Shirako is sweet and light with a hint of fishiness; you’ll know it’s from the rich Japanese sea.
The female equivalent called tarako or “cod child” in Japanese is eaten more commonly.
But why not try both?
- INAGO NO TSUKUDANI
Inago means “grasshopper” or “locust”, and that is what basically Inago no Tsukudani is made of.
The most popular way to serve inago is to prepare it using the tsukudani method. Hence, Inago no Tsukudani.
Prior to cooking, the inago are placed in a box or bag without food for a night to let remove the dirt inside the stomach. They are then boiled in water for several minutes, dried under the sun for a day or two, before they can be boiled again (this time in soy sauce and sugar). A usual ratio of 400 grams of sugar and 300 grams of soy sauce is used for every kilo of inago.
Inago tastes like chicken, only, crunchier with sweet and rich flavor. Although the dish isn’t commonly eaten in Japan nowadays, they can still be found at almost any department store, and occasionally as part of a meal at a Japanese household.
- BASASHI ICE
So you think you have tasted the weirdest ice cream flavors. How about Japan’s RAW HORSE MEAT ICE CREAM?
Introducing… BASASHI ICE!
Basashi is the raw, sliced horse meat, served in Japan. I can only imagine how a raw horse meat ice cream will taste like.
By the way, other awesome flavors include chicken ice cream, shark fin and noodle ice cream, whale flesh ice cream, goat ice cream, oyster ice cream, abalone ice cream, spinach ice cream, and lettuce and potato ice cream.
It will make you strong. Horumon or “the parts thrown away” is anything from grilled brains, genitals, and other pork or beef offal. Whew!
Grilled and flavored with a tare sauce (soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar) or just salt, Japanese believe that eating Horumon will build one’s stamina.
Again, that’s something that doesn’t need further elaboration. Let’s just leave that all to your imagination.
- UMEBOSHI CANDY
This one is a bonus. You might want to take a break from all those weird Japanese foods. Right? Well, this candy is a bit weird too. (At least it’s not gross.)
Umeboshi Candy or Umeboshi Ame is a pickled plum candy. Though it usually tastes sour, its exact flavor depends on the region. Some prefer it salty, others like it sour. Or the strange mix of salty and sour.
Umeboshi Ame can be found in bentos all over Japan.
There is so much more of the rich and wide variety of Japanese cuisine than what’s on the list. Whether weird, strange, gross, or not, a great deal of thought goes into every food served, and the simplicity of flavors connects you with and involves you deeply into the Japanese culture. As the saying goes, “You haven’t really experienced a culture until you’ve tasted it.”
So when you come to Japan, eat up! Explore, discover, and indulge into the sweet and unique experience.