Eat If You Dare: A Tour Of Japan’s Culinary Weirdness
As readers of my previous posts will know, I am an avid foodie. I love food of all shapes, sizes, tastes and textures. As a long term resident of Japan, I’ve been extremely fortunate to try some truly magical cuisine in the 9 years since I first moved here. However, there have been times when some of the foods on offer here have tested even my tolerance for the strange, the unusual and the downright bizarre.
So here for you today, I present my top 10 of Japan’s strangest foods. Some of them are actually quite tasty, if you have the courage, or the ignorance, to eat them without considering the ingredients.
A word of warning though, please don’t read this if you’re feeling squeamish, or if you’ve just eaten your lunch!
With that warning out of the way, let’s begin our countdown.
10. Kurage (Raw Jellyfish)
Kurage enters our list at number 10. I was initially reluctant to include this, as I actually find it quite tasty. Like most sashimi (raw fish) dishes, kurage is served very simply, sliced into small pieces with a side of vegetables and a small dish of soy sauce.
The most intriguing thing about kurage is the texture. Contrary to how most of us envisage jellyfish should feel, kurage is actually quite crunchy. The texture falls somewhere between a cucumber and a potato chip. The flavor is also quite mild and certainly not as pungent as some other raw fish dishes in Japan like uni or ikura. To the uninitiated, kurage is definitely one of the more palatable dishes on this list.
9. Ikura (Salmon Roe)
I’m probably cheating a little here as the Japanese are certainly not the only nation to cultivate fish roe and use it in their cooking. However, ikura looks and tastes quite different from the caviar you will find in the more up-market European restaurants.
These large red bulbs could easily be mistaken for jelly beans on an initial viewing. Bite into one of these brightly-coloured orbs however and you’ll seen realize this is no confectionery. The salty fluidic consistency of the inside of ikura certainly takes a bit of getting used to, but the flavor is superb.
Often too rich to be eaten alone, Ikura is commonly used as a topping on sushi, where it can be found nestling on a bed of white rice, enveloped in a crispy wrapping of seaweed. It is highly recommended, especially if you’re a fan of caviar like me.
8. Basashi (raw horse meat)
Whether you consider the number 8 entry on our list unpalatable really depends on where you come from. There are plenty of other cultures around the world, chief among them the French, who have long embraced the benefits of eating horse meat. Indeed several studies have shown horse meat to be more nutritious, lower in calories and to contain less carcinogens than conventional beef. Yet for many westerners the concept of eating horse is still a bridge too far. And that is a great shame. Horse meat, whether it is served raw in the basashi style, with some soy sauce and mustard, or grilled over a flaming hot barbecue in the local yakiniku restaurant, is undoubtedly one of the most delicious foods you will sample in Japan.
7. Inago (grasshopper)
Considered something of a delicacy in Nagano and Yamagata prefectures, this is another dish often overlooked by foreign visitors simply because of what it is rather than how it tastes. Again, this is a thoroughly enjoyable dish. The popular deep fried inago is a fixture at festivals and events across the Chubu and Kansai regions of Japan. However for something a bit more authentic, I recommend you try “Inago No Tsukudani”
Inago No Tsukudani is popular in Gunma, Yamagata and Nagano Prefectures. Instead of deep frying the grasshopper, this more traditional dish stews the Inago in sweet soy sauce. The taste is somewhat reminiscent of teriyaki, but the distinctive crunch of the insects sets this dish aside from the its more widely known counterpart.
Like the names of many dishes in Japan, Torisashi comes about blending the names of two other better known Japanese dishes, in this case tori (chicken) and sashimi (raw fish).
As this name suggests torisashi is literally raw chicken. Thinly sliced, thoroughly cleaned and served with a soy sauce-based dip. I’ll be honest, I’ve tried it before and it didn’t really agree with me, but it’s certainly worth giving it a try, if for no reason other than the fact that health and safety laws mean you’ll probably never be allowed to try it in Europe or the US.
5. Uni (sea urchin roe)
Although colloquially known as sea urchin roe, the truth about uni is actually decidedly less appetizing. The edible portion of the sea urchin is not only the roe, but also the organ that produces them. Yes that’s true, when you eat uni you are actually eating fish genitals. But don’t let that put you off. Like so many of the other foods featured on this list, uni actually has a wonderful flavor, and an aroma like no other. Some are put off by its somewhat unusually creamy texture, but uni does not necessarily have to be eaten on its own. Like ikura it makes an excellent sushi topping and in some parts of Kyushu it is also served grilled. A number of Tokyo’s European restaurants have also, in recent times, taking to using uni in their fusion cuisine. Uni does indeed sit very well in a pasta, provided you can afford the eye-watering asking price of course.
4. Shirako (Cod sperm)
Possibly the most bizarre entry in this list. Shirako is certainly not for those with a weak stomach. This white, globular substance is the milt, or sperm sacs of an adult male cod.
The clue really is in the name, Shirako literally translates as white children. Often considered something of an acquired taste even for the Japanese themselves, this dish is served in a variety of ways sometimes grilled, sometimes even eaten raw. However, if you really want to sample this most unique food, probably the most galling of all the dishes in this list, then possibly the safest way would be as part of a nabe. Nabe is a Japanese hotpot, where a variety of meats and vegetables are heated together in a delicious broth. It certainly makes the likes of Shirako and Horumon (pig and cow entrails) much more edible.
3. Deep Fried Scorpion
Ok, this is more of a Chinese thing, but if you come to Osaka you will find the Scorpion prepared in a uniquely local style. Osaka people love their kushikatsu. Kushikatsu is various meats and vegetables on skewers deep fried in breadcrumbs and then dipped into a sweet tangy katsu sauce. There is one establishment in the south of the city where the likes of scorpions, grasshoppers and various other creepy crawlies can be enjoyed alongside the more conventional fare of pork, beef and chicken. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s definitely on the “to do list”.
2. Live baby Octopus
This somewhat disturbing culinary challenge is not only quite unpleasant to observe, it is also, in my opinion, rather cruel. I’ll admit this is a step too far even for me. Eating live baby octopus can also be fatal. Six people died last year after the reflex reaction of the Octopi suction cups caused them to become lodged in the victims’ throat. Definitely a contender for the annual Darwin award for the most belligerent way of passing on.
1. Funazushi (Rotten carp)
Before I get emails, no, the heading above isn’t a spelling mistake!
The subject of a famous appearance on the popular UK comedy travel show “An Idiot Abroad” many people become intrigued by this fragrant fish, after seeing the distress it caused the show’s hapless host Karl Pilkington. In all honesty Funazushi isn’t that bad. I certainly think that there are plenty of other dishes out there that smell and taste far worse. Nevertheless there aren’t many out there who would relish the chance to eat something that has been left to rot for so long that it actually starts to decompose into primordial slime.
And so our list is complete. How many of these will you try on your next trip to Japan?
One thing is for sure, whilst eating in Japan can often be a challenge, but it is seldom dull.