Japanese food is good. I mean, really good. There aren’t many places in the world you can’t find a Japanese restaurant nowadays, and of course – the best of it is in Japan itself. While many Japanese foods are celebrated for their exquisite flavors and meticulous preparation, there are however certain delicacies that might challenge your palate somewhat….. We asked our students which Japanese foods they may have struggled with….
Natto: Fermented Soybeans
Natto, a staple in Japanese cuisine, is often a source of fascination and apprehension for foreigners, and this one that always comes up in conversation … “Can you eat Natto????”. Natto is a mix of fermented soybeans, and is known for its strong aroma, sticky texture, and distinct flavor profile. While some find the pungent smell and gooey consistency challenging, natto enthusiasts appreciate its health benefits and acquired taste. Rich in probiotics and nutrients, natto is a testament to Japan’s emphasis on nutritious, traditional foods.
Normally served with a light soy and mustard sauce and eaten out of a polystyrene container, most people actually come to quite enjoy the flavour, and you’ll often meet students in the Lexis common room slurping on a container before classes start! NHK tell us that natto is a coming ‘superfood’ – watch here to see if you agree.
Uni: Sea Urchin
Uni, or sea urchin, is a delicacy celebrated for its creamy texture and intense, briny flavor. While seafood lovers often relish its unique taste, newcomers might find the appearance and robust sea flavor unsettling. Served fresh and often used in sushi, uni is a testament to the passion for Japanese food that is fresh, high-quality ingredients from the sea, even if it requires an adventurous spirit to fully appreciate its nuances. This is one to try at the better restaurants – fresh, it’s quite yummy, but even just a little bit older it takes on a pretty strong flavour.
Fugu, or blowfish, is actually delicious – it’s just the whole dying thing that people object to. Fugu is a renowned delicacy in Japan, known for its subtle taste and potentially deadly poison. Chefs who prepare fugu undergo rigorous training to ensure the removal of toxic parts, making it safe to eat. Despite the meticulous precautions, the knowledge of its potentially fatal consequences can make even the bravest diners apprehensive. Fugu dining is a testament to Japan’s culinary mastery and adherence to strict safety standards…but you still have that half-moment of hesitation before it goes into you mouth!
Shirako: Cod Milt
Confession time. I can eat almost any Japanese food, and enjoy most of it. Here’s here I draw the line, though. Shirako, the sperm sac of male fish like cod or anglerfish, is a delicacy prized in Japanese cuisine. With a creamy, custard-like texture, it is often served grilled or in hot pots, and you’ll often find it in ryokan or other ‘traditional’ dining places. While it is cherished for its rich, delicate flavor, the concept of consuming reproductive organs can be disconcerting for many foreigners (including me). Try it once, but this one is a hard pass for me.
Basashi: Horse Meat
Basashi, thinly sliced raw horse meat, is a specialty in some regions of Japan (including Kobe). Served with soy sauce, garlic, and wasabi, it is a delicacy appreciated for its tender texture and subtle flavor. However, for many foreigners, the idea of consuming horse meat may evoke moral concerns or cultural sensitivities. In Japan, basashi is part of the culinary landscape and reflects the country’s historical reliance on horses for transportation and agriculture. You can find Basashi quite easily in Kobe – check out the izakaya between the school and Motomachi Station if you fancy trying it.
Hachinoko: Bee Larvae
Hachinoko, or bee larvae, is a unique dish in the world of Japanese food, appreciated for its crunchy texture and earthy flavor. Often marinated and served as a delicacy, it can be quite hard to find these days. This is another one that’s worth a try, but is probably not one you’ll actively seek out going forward!
Yuba: Tofu Skin
Yuba, or tofu skin, is a byproduct of soybean production, created by skimming the film that forms on the surface of boiling soy milk. It is a versatile ingredient, used in soups, stews, and salads, offering a delicate texture and mild flavor. While yuba is appreciated by many, its rubbery consistency and unique origin can be perplexing for those unaccustomed to this traditional Japanese ingredient.
Ikizukuri: Live Sashimi
Ikizukuri, a controversial practice in Japanese food, involves serving live seafood as sashimi. Diners can witness the preparation of the dish, often involving fish or seafood that is filleted while still alive. While this method is associated with the freshest possible seafood, it raises ethical concerns and discomfort for many individuals, particularly animal rights activists and those sensitive to animal welfare. Frankly, fish this fresh is absolutely delicious, but having the recently hacked up victim startin gat you while you eat it can be a bit off-putting!
Kujira: Whale Meat
This is the big one. Whale meat, known as kujira in the Japanese food world, has been a part of Japan’s culinary tradition for centuries. Despite international controversy surrounding whaling practices, certain regions in Japan continue to consume whale meat, considering it a cultural heritage. For foreigners, especially from countries where whaling is heavily criticized, the consumption of whale meat can provoke strong ethical and conservation-related objections (and a few tears once, when I served it up to a friend without first telling her what she was eating. It didn’t go down super well.
Whale meat is losing popularity quite rapidly as Japanese food now, and unsold stockpiles are apparently building up in warehouses around the country. Older Japanese report that they quite enjoy the heavy, liver-ish flavour of the meat, but it’s much less popular with younger people and can be difficult to find nowadays.
Shiokara: Fermented Seafood
Shiokara is a pungent, fermented seafood dish made by preserving small marine animals, such as squid or fish, in a mixture of salt, malted rice, and sake lees. The result is a highly concentrated, salty, and tangy delicacy enjoyed in small quantities as a condiment or appetizer. While it holds cultural significance and is beloved by some, the strong aroma and intense flavor can be an acquired taste for foreign palates. This is one that you’ll find quite often served in izakaya or other traditional eateries. It’s not too bad in small quantities!
Japanese food is a tapestry of diverse flavors, textures, and culinary techniques, reflecting the country’s rich history and cultural nuances. While certain dishes may challenge the comfort zones of foreigners, they are an integral part of Japan’s culinary heritage, illustrating the depth of the nation’s gastronomic traditions. Embracing these unconventional Japanese foods not only broadens culinary horizons but also fosters a deeper appreciation for the cultural intricacies that define Japan’s unique culinary landscape.
As travellers and japanese food enthusiasts, approaching these dishes with an open mind and respect for cultural differences allows for a richer and more meaningful culinary experience, transcending the boundaries of taste and opening the door to a world of culinary exploration. We hope you can try all of these during your time at Lexis Japan! Good luck!!