Easing Yourself into Japanese Food
Foreign food has been a part of my daily life for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Scotland, and living in England for a time, as part of a family where both my father and my mother were trained chefs, I had the good fortune to sample foods from all over the world at a very early age. Whilst most 6 year olds in my town were making do with sausages, beans and chips, I was enjoying the likes of lasagna, chicken curry and Mexican tacos on a daily basis.
As such, I have a pretty wide palette when it comes to food. I am willing to try pretty much anything you put down to me, with one simple proviso: I can’t eat something that is looking at me. So, if its fish, cut the head off first. If it’s a roast duck, I don’t want to see the poor thing’s face before I devour its succulent underbelly!
However, I realize of course that not everyone has the good fortune I enjoyed as a child.
Not everyone has access to such a wide range of foods prepared by two such culinary experts as my parents indeed are.
Many travellers to India complain of the legendary “Delhi Belly”, the condition whereby their stomach tends to hurt and their bowels become somewhat looser than before as they adjust to the spicy, savoury and often volatile nature of the ingredients in Indian cuisine.
New Year's Food 'Osechi' Photo by nAok0 on Flickr
However, India isn’t the only country where you may experience such things. Despite not being noted for especially spicy or indeed flavourful, Japanese food can occasionally provoke a bit of a belly ache and subsequent loosening of bowel functions for those who are accustomed to its unique culinary make-up.
So, considering this, you need to be careful in deciding which foods you indulge in during these furtive first few days in Japan.
With this in mind, I present today some suggested foods to help you avoid any embarrassing tummy troubles as your guts adjust to their new surroundings.
Fresh grilled Yakitori Photo by mamichan on Flickr
These little grilled chicken skewers are a great starting point, as they allow you to gradually work your way over to more radical taste sensations. Some of yakitori’s more simplistic varieties such as cheese-coated or honey-glazed wouldn’t look too out of place on a traditional American or British barbecue.
However, more exotic flavours such as ume-shiso (Japanese plum jam wrapped in scented leaf) or sasami (chicken which is still a little raw in the middle) offer an excellent transition into the wonderfully weirder side of Japanese cuisine.
Do you eat it or give it a hug? Photo by calltheambulance on Flickr
Probably best described as a dish that straddles that culinary gray area somewhere between a pancake and an omelette, okonomiyaki is a great way to sample multiple varieties of indigenous Japanese vegetables, meats and seasonings in a single sitting. And yet its grilled pancake exterior makes it extremely friendly to the conventional western palette. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Spanish omelette or scrambled eggs with mushrooms, chances are you will feel quite the same and secure in trying an okonomiyaki for the first time.
Laura Tomàs Avellana on Flickr
Not only is this dish very easily accessible, but it’s also extremely cheap. These “beef bowls” consisting of shredded seasoned beef served over a bed of white rice are the primary moneymaker of several of Japan’s indigenous fast food chains like Yoshinoya, Matsuya, Sukiya and so on.
Indeed if you’ve ever been to the likes of Hong Kong or the US before, chances are you may have sampled Yoshinoya already. I’m proud to say that, upon arrival in Japan for the first time, more than a decade ago, one of my earliest foodie memories is of devouring a delicious gyudon in one of Tokyo’s dozens of Yoshinoya restaurants.
pelican on Flickr
Hokke is a type of grilled mackerel that is coated in a sweet, slightly salty soy sauce-based glaze. It’s cooked fully, and the texture is the same to what most fish lovers in Europe and the US would expect. However, the flavour and the accompanying sensations are distinctly Japanese.
Best enjoyed with a little side serving of daikon (Japanese radish), Hokke is one of those dishes that is often overlooked by foreign visitors as it seldom appears on the English translation of restaurant and izakaya menus. Nonetheless, if you ask your Japanese friends to recommend a good, cooked seafood dish, chances are they will recommend a solid serving of Hokke!
5th Luna on Flickr
As far as inoffensive tastes that still capture a distinctly Japanese flavour, few widely available dishes are better than oden.
Have you ever been in a convenience store in Japan and wondered what all that food was that was sitting immersed in water near the front counter. Well that my friends, is what we call oden. It is a combination of meat, vegetables, tofu and even some fish based products all boiled in steaming hot water to give a very soft, easily digestible consistency.
Oden comes in a variety of flavours. Obvious go-to types for foreigners are things like chicken skewers, steamed hamburgers, and fresh vegetables. Later, when you are feeling a bit braver, perhaps you can move on to some of the delicious tofu parcels or the ever inoffensive flavour of the Japanese radish, otherwise known as daikon.
Then, later, for those who fancy themselves as oden connoisseurs, there is the likes of chikuwa. Now, none of my friends have thus far been able to coherently explain to me exactly what the constituent elements of chikuwa are. All I know is that it has a somewhat fishy flavour, a very rubbery almost squid-like texture and somewhat stale aftertaste. As I said, it’s definitely only one for the oden expert and not the casual tourist.
Despite what many so-called cooking shows, which are often skewed by ill-conceived stereotypes and editorial agendas, will tell you, Japanese food has so much more to it than just raw fish, live octopi and other assorted weirdness. Most of it isn’t that unusual at all, and with a bit of creativity and courage, you can find plenty of good food here to satisfy even the most uninformed palette.
Lee on Flickr