There are Japanese foods beyond the usual sushi, sashimi, tempura, and ramen. In fact there are a wide variety of Japanese foods and most of them are unfamiliar to the Western traveller. This is inconvenient to the short term traveller because you can only eat so many meals in a day and few resources tell you what to look for when you really want to search for the truly unusual stuff. So here is a short list of some things you, or your friends, have probably never eaten.
Unagi is a kind of eel. In fact, this is the representative kind of eel in Japan. When people say “eel”, they usually mean unagi. This was what Dave Barry was talking about when he marveled at the statistic that the Japanese eat 100,000 tons of eel annually. “To give you an idea of how much that is,” he wrote, “if you were to place 100,000 tons of eel end to end, starting in San Francisco, your hands would be disgusting.”
Unagi is often grilled over a charcoal flame and seasoned with a sweet sauce made of a mix of soy sauce, syrup, and sake, then placed over hot rice.
Dojo is another kind of eel-like fish which is called “loach” in English. It is considerably smaller than an unagi and it used to be quite plentiful in the canals that once criss-crossed the city of Tokyo. Although little of it remains today, Tokyo was once a city with a network of waterways like Venice, and people and goods were transported on boats. In the old days of the shogun’s capital, dojo was the poor man’s eel. For this reason, dojo cuisine is often associated with Tokyo, even though the most famous producer is Shimane prefecture. More recently, dojo is farmed in Kyushu or imported from abroad and supplied to the centuries old specialized restaurants in Tokyo.
Famous seafood dish Hamo-otoshi. Photo by Ryosuke Hosoi on FlickrHamo is another kind of eel that is known in English as the “dagger-tooth pike conger” and it is rather vicious looking. In the old days, before refrigeration was invented, the only way to transport fish was to either have it heavily salted or dried or both. It was almost impossible to transport fresh fish from the sea to inland cities like Kyoto. Theoretically, you could put the fish in a tub of sea water and carry it over land, which was accomplished several times in history by exceptionally wealthy patrons, but was generally impractical. However, hamo was so hardy that they could survive the trip parceled in wet hay. Thus, hamo is associated with Kyoto as much as dojo is associated with Tokyo. There was one little wrinkle, however. Hamo is full of tiny bones that are very difficult to remove. To solve this problem, hamo cooks cut notches into the meat at very tight intervals effectively mashing the bones into edible fragments.
This toothy creature is known in English as “monkfish”, or “goosefish”, or sometimes “anglerfish”. It is usually made into a stew called “anko nabe”. Anko has a liver that tastes like a somewhat fishy version of foie gras. This liver is blended into the soup with miso paste and the meat of the fish is cooked in the soup along with an assortment of vegetables, mushrooms, and tofu. Since the liver tastes best in the winter, this is a favorite winter dish.
In English, namako is called “sea slug”. The name is well deserved. The creature actually looks like a banana-sized slug. It has long been used in China where it is usually dried and preserved, then rehydrated and stir fried. Japanese people prefer to cut it up fresh and eat it raw with some vinegar, soy sauce, and ground radish. If you think that sounds gross, imagine how it will sound to your parents back home.
Matsutake is a kind of mushroom, like shiitake, maitake, and enokitake. Matsutake literally means “pine mushroom” and it only grows in coniferous forests. These mushrooms are often very large. It is highly prized in Japan, but it actually does not have much of a taste. What it has is a distinct flavor and you eat them grilled, as an ingredient for a soup, or cooked in rice.
4. Suppon (Turtle Shell Stew)
The English name for suppon is “soft shelled turtle”. The gelatinous shell is actually so soft, you can boil it and eat it. This is also eaten as a stew called "suppon nabe". It is prized for its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. It is believed to invigorate men and extend life. It is generally very expensive and it is only served in specialized restaurants. Some people actually drink the turtle’s fresh blood, again for its invigorating qualities, before starting the main course. Now, that is a metal meal, if you are into that sort of thing.
3. Shishi nabe (Wild Boar Stew)
Chicken liver sashimi.
Beef liver sashimi.Rebasashi is short for “liver sashimi”. It is raw beef liver sliced sashimi style and eaten with vinegary soy sauce and ground garlic. Raw liver has the glycogen sweetness you associate with raw oysters, but without the fishiness. The reason I am pretty sure you have never eaten raw liver is because it has been illegal in Japan since 2012. Although nobody ever actually died because of raw beef liver, there were a string of food poisoning incidents involving contaminated imported beef. Some people complained that this was punishing non-offenders on the bases of unrelated incidents. Some restaurants defied the ban and were forcibly closed down by the authorities. Die hard fans still want to eat it though, and it is still being served in Japanese restaurants in South Korea and Hong Kong. Surprisingly, it is still legal to serve raw chicken liver which was not even a thing before there was a ban on raw beef liver, and by all rights should be even riskier. Chicken liver sashimi is currently available in specialized restaurants.
Topping the list, of course, is fugu. This fish was first widely introduced to the Western world by Peter Falk in a “Columbo” episode in 1978, naturally as an instrument of murder. Fugu has a poison called tetrodotoxin, along with other poisonous creatures like the blue-ringed octopus (yes, that is real) and the green egg crab (yes, that is a real name too). Tetrodotoxin is highly toxic and can kill a human being in very small amounts. Therefore, in order to serve fugu, you must have a license that takes many years of training to acquire, and it can only be served in registered establishments. Some fugu restaurants serve “shirako” which are fugu sperm sacs. It is a creamy dish that tastes like Béchamel sauce mixed with fume de poisson. It is actually quite good. But the thing that is really hard to find is fugu liver. Fugu liver is mixed as a condiment into the vinegar-soy sauce mix that is used for fugu sashimi. It is very rare because it is potentially lethal and therefore illegal to serve. There was an incident in which fugu liver was “accidentally” sold in Aichi prefecture and the authorities intervened to recall it. One package was eaten, but nobody was poisoned. It is generally said to be very tasty, but in order to find a place that will actually serve it, you will have to ask around. If you are very lucky you might find someone who will say something along the lines of “I might know a guy who might know a guy”. In any event, if you ever find fugu liver and live to tell the tale, DON’T. Fugu liver is very rare and the person who served you could lose his license (and other diners will miss out on it) if you post the story on Instagram or Facebook. Don’t Twitter. Don’t Snapchat. Be very very hush hush. If you cannot find fugu liver, then the liver of hage or kawahagi is a legal, and non-toxic, substitute.