When it comes to food, Japan always scores high – both in refined dishes and tasty street foods and the so-called B-Gourmet. From the ancestral sushi to the all-popular ramen, Japan is a foodie paradise. However, hidden in the dark, there are some foods, each stranger than each other, that you have probably never experienced.
Whether you want to challenge yourself and try them, or you just want to know what to avoid, here are some Japanese foods that are on the weirder side.
Natto (fermented soybeans) is one of those foods dividing people, even within Japan. Either you like it, or hate it. Those who love natto say it increases their appetite for the rest of the meal. Those who dislike it describe this dish as the stinkiest, foulest food they have ever experienced.
In fact, for most of us, the strong smell of emanating ammonia would instinctively be perceived as expired food, therefore as dangerous.
And when you pass this first smelly “obstacle”, you will have to deal with natto’s unusual soapy texture and sliminess. It definitely both looks and smells rotten and many people cannot even stand being in the room where natto is eaten.
But, despite of this, natto remains a breakfast staple of many Japanese people and it is dubbed a super healthy dish.
mayeb we should not judge the book by its cover.
Have you ever wondered what does seminal fluid of fish tastes like? Well, stop wondering, because you can taste it yourself in Japan. Yes, you read that right, shirako (“milt” in English, and literally “white children” in Japanese) refers to the male genitalia of fish when they contain sperm. Particularly the fish sperm of cod, angler fish, salmon, squid or puffer fish. You could eat shirako either cooked or raw.
Another slimy creature from the sea, the namako or sea cucumber has made many people gag and regret trying it. People who happily eat raw octopus or sea urchin have easily dived into namako, only to be unpleasantly surprised.
The taste is described as bland without any fixings, yet also very fishy when raw, but the bigger issue is the slippery and slimy texture. Sea cucumber is eaten both raw and cooked, and it is known as difficult to prepare and make tasty. However, it still managed to be seen as delicacy in Asia and some people believe it has health benefits and aphrodisiac powers.
Let’s veer into creepy crawly territory. Although not widespread today, Japan has a history (and a bit of a present) of eating insects, especially in the Nagano and Gifu areas. One of the most popular bugs to eat even today is inago or locusts, in a dish pictured above and called ‘inago no tsukudani’ which is basically locusts stir fried in soy sauce and sugar. People who have eaten it say they only taste like soy, but still there are not many people that would crunch a whole bug in their mouths.
Locusts can still be found in izakayas and some restaurants today.
Hachinoko literally translates to ‘bee children’, but ‘hachi’ also stands for wasps. In Nagano and Gifu areas but also in the rest of Japan, they eat the larvae of a type of wasp. They are eaten both cooked and raw, mixed in rice, as a snack that goes well with beer etc. As with all insects, this dish is very off-putting for people, but also sad as the insect consumed is practically a baby.
One last cringey bug dish before we move on to bigger animals. Zazamushi stands for various larvae, especially stone-fly larvae. As the other insects on this list, they are stir fried, flavoured with spices and eaten as snacks. They can still be found and eaten around the country, especially in the countryside.
This one is already well known. Served as sashimi or chirinabe (hot pot with fish and vegetables), the fugu is a fish which is, contrary to most foods in this article, known as being delicious. Its texture is gelatinous, it doesn’t smell fishy, and it contains the most “umami” among fish.
“How is it a challenge to eat this finest fish then?” you could wonder. Health security reasons. Indeed, if not correctly prepared, this puffer fish could “just” kill you. The liver is said to be the best part, but unfortunately you won’t officially (in restaurants) be able to savor it anymore in Japan. Serving this organ was banned in 1984. To reassure you, thanks to the strict Japanese regulations only the chefs who have qualified after three or more years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare this fish.
The basashi’s challenge appears to be more ethical than gustative. Basashi stands for horse sashimi and it is just that – slices of raw horse meat.
I have had this dish couple of times in Fukuoka (capital of Kyushu) which is known to have it quite often in restaurants. But let’s be honest, the taste was not amazing. I would not say it is bad, but it’s not good either.
The main problem is that culturally many people see horses as friends. It’s a similar issue to eating dogs, or for many Japanese people eating a rabbit would be a no-no as they see it as a cute pet.
Basashi can be found all across Japan. You can also find cooked horse meat dishes like stews.
Kujira, or whale, is another one on this list that is internationally controversial. The whale meat normally eaten in Japan is from the Minke whale (Minku kujira), which is one of the least threatened species of whales, and quite commonly found in Japanese supermarkets, thanks to Japan’s “scientific” whaling program. Whale meat is usually very lean and red with fine marbling, slightly deeper in hue than other red meats. And because it is a mammal, it is in matters of taste, closer to a beefsteak than to a fish.
If you read down to here and went through all the dishes, only one question remains: Would you dare?