Taste the adventure: A guide to Japan's unusual delicacies
January 16, 2005
In Japan, hunger is a call to adventure — and that’s only a bit of an exaggeration.
While you can sample cuisine from all over the world without leaving Tokyo, Japanese food alone offers amazing variety and, perhaps, something of a challenge. Accept it, and you’ll be dining on creatures you’ve only heard about. Some of them might be raw, and one of them, the delicious blowfish, can even kill you.
Eating most Japanese food, though, isn’t like participating in an extreme sport or some gross-out reality show. Instead, it’s a tasty way to scrape the surface of Japan and its way of life. For example, the Japanese celebrate changes of season and, consequently, many meals are seasonal. Some dishes are also regional, and the desire to try something from a faraway prefecture gives many Japanese reason enough to take a trip.
All this might sound confusing. But a little information about Japanese staples can go a long way as you explore Tokyo and its vicinity. Once you’ve got them down, all that’s left is to try them for yourself and see where they lead. Your stomach can be a gateway to the Land of the Rising Sun. So be bold, be brave, and begin eating.
Sushi is probably Japan’s best known food. It’s thin slices of fresh, raw fish served on vinegared rice with a bit of wasabi (Japanese horseradish) in between. Sashimi is basically sushi without the rice.
When sushi is good, it’s really good. But be careful, because when it’s bad, it’s downright awful. So, before you try it, get a good recommendation on where to go.
Most people eat sushi with chopsticks, but it’s fine to use your hands. Don’t forget to dip it into a small dish of soy sauce.
First-timers may want to start with familiar fish like salmon (sake) or tuna (maguro). Some items, like eel (unagi) and conger eel (anago), come cooked and are quite good. Those wanting something different might try salmon eggs (ikura), or sea urchin (uni), which is kind of pasty.
One last item: If you’re not sure what to ask for, try a kaiten sushi-ya, a shop where sushi rides by customers on a conveyor belt. This way, you just take what interests you.
Like fried chicken? Tempura is sort of the Japanese version, with fish and vegetables substituted for bird. It is cooked in a batter and then deep fried.
If you’re thinking the idea of fried food and Japan’s reputation for having a healthy population don’t go together, you’re onto something. Not native to Japan, tempura was introduced to the country in the 16th century by the Portuguese.
But the Japanese have made tempura their own. It can come as both a main and side dish. Inside the crispy coating, you’ll find things like prawns, carrots, cauliflower, sweet potato, eggplant, and many other tasty foods. Most people dip it in soy sauce mixed with ginger and daikon (Japanese radish).
You can’t throw a stone 20 feet in Tokyo without breaking the window of a noodle joint. That’s a good thing. Another good thing is you can slurp loudly when you eat your noodles. It’s custom.
But to the food itself. Perhaps three of the most prominent noodles are udon, soba and ramen. They all come in broth, usually soy- or miso-based, so you’ll get both chopsticks and a spoon with your order. Udon and ramen are usually hot, while soba can be hot or chilled, depending on the season.
Udon are made of wheat, are off-white, and are fairly thick. Soba noodles are thin and brown. Ramen are thin and either brownish, transparent or off-white. All are tasty, healthy and cheap.
Bowls of noodles usually include vegetables and meat.
This dish is basically chicken seasoned with salt or dipped in a sugared soy- based sauce, then grilled and served on a stick. In addition to meat, you can also order things like chicken skin, heart and liver. Though they might not be standard fare in The States, these various parts taste pretty good, especially washed down with a cold beer.
In addition to chicken, yakitori also includes various grilled vegetables like leeks, onions, mushrooms and green peppers. Each order usually includes skewers.
This eel dish, popular in the summer, is said to help people endure heat and humidity. Eel restaurants get crowded on the midsummer Day of the Ox. In fact, unagi has more protein and fewer calories than beef and pork.
Eel also supposedly improves virility, a fact probably not mentioned as frequently in the tourist books. That may be because it is rich in vitamins A and E, which are linked to reproduction.
Unagi is usually filleted and served as a flat piece of charcoal-broiled meat on a bowl of rice. The inside is soft and the outside kind of chewy. It’s usually served in a sweet sauce.
Nabe, shabu shabu, sukiyaki
Shabu shabu and sukiyaki are types of nabe — pot and pan dishes.
Sukiyaki became popular during the Meiji Restoration when Buddhist prohibitions against eating meat lost their grip in Japan. Thin slices of beef and things like tofu, onions and mushrooms are placed in an oiled pan and browned. A sauce is then poured on top, and a short time later chrysanthemum leaves are added. You take your food from the pan and dip it into a beaten egg mixed with soy sauce just before you eat it.
Shabu shabu, similar to sukiyaki, is also a beef dish. It involves briefly boiling tofu and various vegetables in a communal pot of water, which takes on juices of various ingredients to become broth. Meat is dipped in for only a few seconds before eating.
Various nabe dishes are similar to shabu shabu, but include fish or chicken instead of beef. Fish and chicken are cooked longer.
Just recently, scientists in Japan claimed they could breed poison-free fugu, or blowfish. But what fun would that be?
The deadly fish is a real delicacy in Japan. One meal can cost up to $200 at the best restaurants. While an element of danger might make eating it appealing, the fact is that no one has died from eating fugu meat at a restaurant for about 60 years. Fugu chefs are specially trained and licensed. They use a surgeon’s skill to make sure the tasteless, odorless poison from the fugu’s ovaries and liver doesn’t make it to the dining table.
But just to be on the safe side, the Emperor and his family are not allowed to eat fugu. It’s a risk — and a pleasure — they will never know.
So here’s what you may well get: First comes sake flavored with toasted fugu fin. Next is the fugusashi, raw fugu meat often arranged in a floral pattern. It is dipped in soy sauce mixed with daikon and onion. It looks like mackerel sushi and has a smooth, subtle taste. Third is fuguchiri, a stew of cooked fugu and vegetables.
These are examples of regional dishes. Made from the film of boiled soy milk and containing more protein than beef and eel, yuba is the health food of Asia.
Yuba comes in many forms — for example, flat or rolled. You can get yuba in noodle dishes, nabe dishes, or as an appetizer with foods like smoked salmon.
Okonomiyaki is made in several styles, but the Hiroshima style may be the most famous. The dish is basically a pancake topped with things like cabbage, onions, bean sprouts, seafood, meat and noodles.
Japanese desserts like yokan usually have fewer calories than western-style sweets. With rice-flour, red beans and sugar their typical ingredients, they also have a different character.
A traditional dessert, yokan is a firm sort of jello made mostly from beans and sugar. The dessert is firm enough to stand on a plate.
This traditional Japanese dessert is served warm and is popular in winter months. Served in a bowl, the dessert is a thick, pasty red bean soup with a half-melted, sticky rice cake dropped right in.