My last offering on life in Japan focussed on the key issue of language and the subsequent troubles I had to be understood in a country where practical English ability is largely non-existent. This time I’ll share my experiences with another crucial aspect of daily life, food. Much like language, the local cuisine of a place can cause much head scratching and confusion.
You are obviously are introduced to different flavour combinations and more often then not ingredients you are familiar with have unfamiliar names. Aesthetically it is also very difficult to imagine and identify what it is you are about to eat purely by the unfamiliar form.
At the core root of any food issues has been the language issue. Even when told what something is an still have not understood what it is and if I had I probably would never have let this gastronomical oddity touch my lips. In just about every case I’m glad my ignorance allowed me to adventurous.
When I first arrived the availability of English menus was much scarcer than today and sometimes that can be a good thing. Some things literally can be lost in translation. I remember going to a yaki-tori (grilled chicken on sticks) restaurant with friends and as a pleasant surprise they offered us an English menu.
An English menu in a restaurant that is based around Japanese cuisine is like the Rosetta Stone, suddenly nothing is out of reach. However as is often the case, the translation is done in house and by non-native English speakers, or more accurately non-English speakers. This leads them to translate literally whilst not having any idea of other possible meanings and connotations connected to the word or phrasing used.
On this particular menu we had appetizing selections on offer such as “heart of cock” and “gizzard of cock”. Now both chicken hearts and chicken intestines taste much better than they sound but perhaps it’d be worth outsourcing those translations.
Some places will not try and convert the food names into their English meaning but just use the romaji – the roman alphabet – of the Japanese name. One time in a cafe I was given the sweets menu where I noticed “itchidiku” was an option. Not sure of many foreigners, especially men, who would feel comfortable ordering a serving of that even if they did like figs. The problem here was also the romaji was amiss which can often happen in Japan. The correct romaji should be “ichijiku.”
Then you have menus which are completely Japanese and the staff don’t have the English level required to explain exactly what is on them. One time I went with a Japanese friend to this little French-Japanese fusion place near my house. I had often walked past on my way to and from work but had been too intimidated by the menu board out front to try it out. This was despite often sharing small talk with the head chef and owner out front as he enjoyed a smoke break.
Anyway when my Japanese friend asked if I’d like to go, I jumped at the chance. I was soon to discover my friend also didn’t have the necessary skills to explain the menu items. When asked what I’d like I asked where on the black board was the meat. I was pointed to the appropriate section and feeling under pressure launched a Hail Mary pointing at just a random bunch of squiggles. Right then I should’ve been alerted by the surprise on the chef’s face.
A few moments later my dish was presented to me looking like a plate of mouthwatering beef. Relief that I somehow managed to choose something simple to identify and that looked delicious swept over me. That’s when the chef asked if it was ok in my country to eat “kujira” “kujira?” I thought. I knew beef was gyu niku or beefu but I hadn’t heard of kujira before. Perhaps this was a certain part of the cow like gyu tan (tongue), rōsu (loin), harami (meat around the diaphragm) etc. So I asked if this was ushi (cow). When given a negatory response my mind started swirling at the possibilities.
After a few failed attempts to explain with words and hand gestures the chef decided he would have to draw it. As this game of pictionary unfolded the truth suddenly became clear and was punctuated when the blowhole was attached to this mysterious creature’s rather simple sketch. I had ordered, eaten and – it was hard to admit – enjoyed whale. For those that haven’t tried it, it does taste like beef.
I have eaten it once since at a barbecue party at my friend’s father’s house but it is usually a seasonal menu item and not very common. But in a way I’m glad I unwittingly broke this taboo because there was no way I would’ve knowingly ordered it.
Another time I went to this great little restaurant on the second floor of the same street as the “whale place” where the man designed the menu daily based on availb,e fresh ingredients at market. It was one of the favourite places of one of my older students. She had just started studying English again after a long time so her level was lower intermediate which was to come into play on this night.
As she was familiar with the place, I let her take the lead with the ordering with my usual stipulation of “no natto!” Natto is the worst food I ‘ve ever encountered yet for some reason people here enjoy it. I literally can not fathom the point of eating it is. It’s a fermented soy bean that has the bouquet of feet and arse with a hint of rotten flesh. My mother and I witnessed this cute little girl of about 4 years of age eating some for breakfast at the hotel in Osaka where we were staying. It looked like she had cob webs hanging from her mouth to the bowl as she shoveled down these pungent beans of doom.
Anyway, back to the story. So my student puts in the orders and the dishes start arriving at regular pace and everything is making the taste buds sing. This guy can cook. The next dish arrives and it’s a ceramic bowl with what looks like a type of creamy gratin. I’m told this is shirako which meant nothing to me at the time but it looked good so I received my portion rather optimistically.
Then I took my first taste. The texture was super creamy and smooth with the star of the dish not being vegetable or meat, that I could tell. It seemed to be a cheese or tofu but it looked like a giant white lima bean. I thought I better do my due diligence so I asked my student and the chef but all I got back was something about fish. This was not like any fish I’d had before so my spider senses started tingling. My student pulled her electronic dictionary from her handbag and typed in shirako for translation.
The next part felt like slow motion as I took the device from her and the contents on the screen came into view to reveal I had just eaten fish testicles. My face turned as white as the fish balls that had previously been in my mouth.
To be fair though the taste wasn’t too bad but the texture coupled with the knowledge of what it was meant I wouldn’t put another testicle in my mouth.
Since being in Japan – apart from the aforementioned food – I’ve tried raw horse (basashi), raw chicken, the intestines of numerous animals including sea cucumber (namako), various other organs of pigs, cows and chickens, wasabi ice cream, green tea kit kats and much much more.
Overall it has been an remarkable culinary adventure in Japan. They don’t waste ingredients and they do manage to get the best out of everything they use although in some cases that’s still not very appealing.