Since arriving in Japan, most of my collection of knowledge about foods, the thousand-and-one little things that I knew I liked, didn’t like, or wanted to try, well, it just about went out the window. Have you ever tried bamboo root? Fish roe? Fermented soybeans? Soy soup? Regular black soybeans? Seaweed? Ginger strips? Fried octopus? How about soy sauce on all of those things? With all those, of course, are dozens more familiar foods cut or fried into forms that you find unrecognizable by sight. My first week in the country, due to both culture shock and stress, I had a hard time making myself eat a whole lot. What I did eat was limited to what precious few familiar things I could find in small doses. Over the next couple of weeks, slowly, slowly, I began coming out of my safety zone with regards to food, and getting my appetite back. It takes courage to try something that you have absolutely no idea of what it is comprised, and, to your sensibilities, might as well be something from an alien planet. Couple that with the fact that you don’t know the name of anything, and you can only order something by pointing to it and saying “I want THAT”, and well, you can see my dilemma.
My first step out of the box was when my boss, Mr. Shiratsuchi, invited me over to his house for dinner, about a week after I’d been in Japan. It was towards the end of New Year’s week, and thus he and his wife had purchased a large variety platter of things, much like people do everywhere else. Unlike people everywhere else, their platter was filled entirely with Japanese food. Imagine seeing a large tray of food in which you can only recognize about thirty percent of the contents. The rest, I had to ask what they were. The dark brown items were pickled bamboo root, and the white pieces beside them were daicon, or radish. The wafers of yellow were fried (scrambled, like an omelet) egg slices. The white half-circle wafers with a pink edge were fish cakes. There were also round, translucent orange fish eggs, black soybeans, unshelled cooked prawns, and tempura, or fried shrimp and vegetables. Aside from the tray, each person was also given a bowl containing a broth of some sort and large strips of something that looked like tofu. We had tea to drink.
I stayed to the familiar for the most part, going for the ebi (shrimp/prawns) and the tempura first. I happily tried the fishcakes and the tamagoyaki (yellow fried egg strips). I even surprised myself and tried the bamboo root. It has the color of a cooked apple, the crunchiness and texture of an uncooked apple, and the stringiness and difficulty in chewing of celery. Not all that bad, actually, although I limited myself to trying just one. The contents of the bowl I was presented with were a different matter. I was told that this (the big white rectangles in my bowl, somewhat resembling bread) was mochi. I mustered my poor chopstick skills and tried a piece - not only did it taste odd, it stuck to my mouth like glue. The color, absurd stickiness, and soft, stretchy texture give one the rather strong impression of eating a block of glue, actually. I could barely down part of one piece without gagging, and I got strange looks the whole time I was trying (and nearly failing) to do it.
Both of my hosts seemed rather mortified that I was having trouble with the mochi. “But”, Mrs. Shiratsuchi tried to explain in halting and basic English, “Mochi is one of the most common and staple foods in Japan“. “Can you eat bread?” Yes, I offered, unsure of where this was going, I can eat bread. Five minutes later I was presented with a thick piece of Japanese style bread, which is what in America we’d call Texas-toast style, simply meaning it’s about an inch and a half thick. Wanting to be polite, I managed to put it away, even with my failing appetite.
Since that first experience, I’ve been encountering new Japanese foods all over the place, sometimes trying several completely new foods in one outing or one weekend. Most of them, I’ve liked, surprisingly enough, although I’ve encountered a few that I’ve disagreed with.
Luckily for me, the boss likes to take new teachers out occasionally to restaurants around town and show them the ropes. It wasn’t long after my first week that we went out to an udon restaurant called Sukiya. If you’re wondering what udon is, well, I was about to find out. The first thing about Sukiya that I really noticed was the hand-wash station in the entranceway, before you even enter the building. Seems they don’t want you going in with dirty hands. When asked, Sensei explained that some, though certainly not all, Japanese restaurants have this feature. The inside was roughly what you’d expect of a modern fast-food restaurant: clean, polished wood tables, the kitchen area, bench seats by the windows. Each table with customers had a pitcher of ice-tea, and sure enough, they brought us one after we sat down. That was your only option as far as what to drink - tea or water. There was no cola in sight. (Note: I used to call this “pop”. In the six weeks I’ve been here, I’ve found that the only word anyone recognizes is “cola”, and thusly started using it.). I was excited. This was my first real Japanese restaurant experience. The waiter took our orders - Sensei ordered udon for us both - and a few minutes later he returned with two large bowls. Udon turned out to be a very simple dish. It is comprised of strips of roast beef cooked with onions, and then dumped on top of a bowl of rice. You eat your niku (meat) off the top, and then eat the rice underneath. This one, I later found out, is a favorite of Sumo, or anyone who just likes a lot of meat. I ate what I could of mine, but given that this was still within my second week and I was having trouble finding my appetite, I left half of it. It was good though, there’s no doubting that. My chopstick skills, although still very clumsy at this time, were improving.
Flash forward - I’ve been here for six weeks now. I’ve been around town, gone sightseeing, and most importantly, started to go and visit non-familiar restaurants on my own, with no guidance. I most definitely have my appetite back, and in spades. The third week was what really brought me back to myself in that regard. Rather than recount the full tale of each restaurant I visited, which would take many more words than I have time and patience for, I shall present a list of the rest of the foods I have tried up to this point, where I tried them, and what I thought of them. And so here we are:
Onigiri - My first night in Yonago, when I was still fresh off the plane, Sensei brought me two onigiri and a bottle of tea when he met me. I drank the tea, but left the onigiri, mainly due to the rather strong fish smell (the filling was salmon, I believe). I’ve not tried them since then, but perhaps now that my stomach has settled they’d be more appealing. My only experience with these before had been to see them in anime. I remembered them especially from Pokemon, for some reason, perhaps because in that instance the translators chose to call them “donuts”. While definitely not donuts, these, in a way, may be a kind of Japanese equivalent, although the link is rather tenuous: a starch-based covering over some type of filling, small and eaten by hand. Onigiri are made of rice, and are the white triangles with a black line round the middle that you often see in anime or other Japanese programs. Usually you’ll see them being eaten in bentos (boxed lunches) or for breakfast. They can have any kind of filling, from fruit to meat, and the rice is a wrapped with a black square of seaweed halfway round the middle to aid in holding the thing.
Ramen - True, this one has made its way to America, in the form of instant cup noodles. What I had sitting in front of me here, though, was a pair of chopsticks and a big, steaming ceramic bowl containing ramen in beef broth, half a hard-boiled egg, one small slice of roast pork, a handful of strips of bamboo root, and a liberal sprinkling of green onions. The first time (this was during my second week), I didn’t eat the bamboo root, although just recently I have gotten used to them and think of them like carrots. The rest, I found I really liked. And hey, who doesn’t like ramen? I still get this dish often while I’m out grocery shopping at SATY.
Okonamiyaki - This was the second thing that the boss took me out to a restaurant to try. We went to a small restaurant not 2 minutes walking distance from my apartment. Okonamiyaki looks somewhat like pizza in shape; that is, it is round and roughly half an inch thick, of similar diameter to a personal pan pizza, and cut into triangular pieces. What it consists of is some type of filling, usually meat mixed with vegetables, and wrapped in vegetables such as cabbage. It is covered with several sauces and toppings, and is easily recognizable by the pieces of topping, whose name I forget, but which resembles bits of paper-thin onion skin, that literally dance in the steam created by a freshly-cooked okonamiyaki. It makes the top of the dish seem as though it is moving about or crawling, which gives one a first impression of combined fear and fascination. It turned out to be very good, although the vegetable taste was more than I was used to. I wouldn’t mind eating it again, although I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.
Curry - Called “curry rice” by the Japanese (simply “curry” doesn’t get you understood), this was a dish that I knew of by reputation, but had never eaten in the States. Sensei took me out to a curry restaurant in the middle of my fourth week here. He ordered a hamburger-steak (hamburgers here are just the meat, without bread or cheese - served like a steak, with veggies - and sometimes have pieces of onion inside), and I ordered curry. What you get is a big pile of rice on one side of a plate and the brown curry sauce, which is a liquid mixture of spices and usually very tiny pieces of meat and/or veggies, on the other. Take a scoop of rice, mix it around in the curry sauce, and eat. Alternatively, scoop your curry sauce onto your rice and just mix them around a bit. I’m not usually one for spicy things, but this stuff was good! Eat much of it, and your mouth and lips start to get a bit of the burn or ache from too much spice, but this is usually mild and fixed with a glass of water or so. I enjoyed the curry enough that later on, during my trip to Sakai-Minato (by myself), I ordered “katsu curry rice” at a small restaurant there. “Katsu” is fried pork, and so “katsu curry rice” is just a slice of breaded, fried pork laid atop a plate of regular curry rice. It was delicious, and I plan not only on eating it, but making it one of my first choices for restaurants in the future.
Soba: This is the one I’ve tried most recently, and the fourth dish that Sensei has taken me out to try. Quite simply, soba (which is the Japanese word for “noodle”) is a pile of cold, brown noodles. Aside from perhaps a few pieces of seaweed for topping, that’s it. You’re supposed to dip them in a kind of vinegar/onion solution that makes them taste significantly better before eating, but if you’ve ever tried using chopsticks to dip noodles into anything, you realize that it can be quite some work. I think I had more noodles in the bowl of vinegar/onion solution than on my tray at one point. Without condiments, the taste is merely average, and the worse for being cold. The dip improves it, but it’s a hassle, and doesn’t improve it enough to be worth the trouble. Given the choice, I probably won’t eat soba very often in the future, if at all.
Others - There are several other dishes that I’ve tried that just took some screwing down of nerves and rolling up of sleeves because they weren’t in their familiar forms. As I’ve already mentioned, hamburgers here are served minus anything but the meat and some form of sauce. At SATY (the huge department store around here, where I go for most everything), I had the chance to try hamburger pilaf at one of the restaurants. It was quite good: hamburger with some kind of dark sauce (not soy), topped with mushrooms and sitting atop a pile of fried rice mixed with vegetables. I’ve tried fish that I didn’t know was fish until I ate it, and accidentally ordered a beer to go with it (a shame, that, since it cost me two dollars and I don’t drink). I’ve lots of pictures on my photo bucket account that adequately explain some of what I can’t quite put into words, but some days nearly every meal has been an adventure here.
Oh, and 50 bonus points if you know the inspiration for the title of this series of blogs about Japan that I've started (let me know in the comments!). The next one will be either about weather or teaching, not sure which. Probably weather.