Archive for April, 2009

Just when I thought I had seen it all in Japan, I realised I have only been scraping the surface of bizarrity. (That isn’t a word but it sounds right somehow. My English ability has dropped to the level of a 6 year old.) I went for a mosey around the public library at Tsurumai Park the other day, and was more than a little surprised to see that there is a Sugakiya (ramen restaurant) inside. Not attached to the outside, but actually inside the library. I was thinking how amazing it would be if SOAS had something similar – during the exam period and 24hr opening a ramen restaurant in the library would be the perfect antidote to a hard nights revision!

But it gets even weirder than that. After a hunger fuelled stroll in search of a new and exciting restaurant, we found the perfect place that the producers of Hells Kitchen would probably commit acts of indecency in public places for Gordon Ramsey to sort out. A restaurant called “Mountain”, which specialises in interesting types of rice and spaghetti. Naturally, amongst the list of about 60 types of spaghetti (which actually turned out to be more like a noodle-pasta hybrid; best not to ask) you have standard sauces such as bolognese, carbonara and Japanese style flavours such as Mentaiko (spicy roe). What is surprising however, is seeing strawberry pasta make an appearance on the menu. Or kiwi pasta. Or banana pasta. There were a lot of very strange combinations – none of which sounded very appetising! I saw someone eating said strawberry pasta, and it seemed that it was the sauce and not the actually pasta which was strawberry flavoured. I must say it looked truly horrific. However the absolute worst item on the menu had to be the “Italian Tomato Parfait”. What part of  mixing ice cream and tomatoes seems like a good idea?! And what sort of person orders such a vomit inducing concoction?! Whats more, the portion sizes were bigger than American sizes, enough for 2 very hungry people or maybe even 3! After eating about a third I had to give it up to Michael who has the appetite of an mammoth. I would love to see Gordons reaction to the menu and restaurant…

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Japan has a wonderful variety of food, some of which is strange, some of which is horrendous. Some things which I used to think were really different or interesting have become so normal (green tea ice cream, miso soup, seaweed, raw eggs, pickled cucumber and radish etc) but there are still things which I find a bit bizarre.

However strange something sounds, I will always try it once to see what its like, and so I thought I would share a few of my experiences with you.

Whale – Amazing. If whales want to stop being endangered then they should stop being so delicious! I had it served raw, very thinly sliced with garlic, soy sauce and ginger. It has the appearance of very fine quality steak, very lean and not fatty at all. It also tastes similar to steak, but even softer. It didn’t have a fishy flavour at all. I wish whales weren’t endangered, this is definitely the most un-eco-friendly food I have ever eaten, but I am glad to have had the chance to try it.

Fugu (Highly poisonous Pufferfish) – One of my students took my out for a very posh meal and this came as part of a set course feast, so I didn’t even know what it was until after I ate most of it! It looks like any other kind of white fish, has virtually no distinguishing taste, and is in fact rather bland. I am sure people only eat it for the death factor, and as I didn’t know what it was, this was non-existant! Nice to be able to say I’ve tried it, but I won’t be wasting money on it anytime soon (due to the fact that it is so poisonous, the chefs have to pass very rigurous tests before they are allowed to prepare it and so it is top-end price range). Incidently, almost all deaths caused by fugu are due to housewives trying to save a bit of money and prepare it at home, although the jury is out on whether this can be considered accidental or not!

Sea Urchin – I was expecting this to be good since it is such a prized delicacy in Japan (at up to $450/kg its up there with caviar and the like) and maybe its something you get used to, but I’m not a big fan. It has the strangest flavour. Very strong taste of the sea, very salty, and with a rather nasty after taste. I didnt like it the first time I had it at an average quality sushi shop, but I tried it again at a posh restaurant and it was slightly better, so perhaps it depends on the quality.

Octopus – fairly standard by Japanese standards but very nice all the same. Bit of a chewy/rubbery quality to it like squid, but as long as its fresh, it always has a slight tenderness too.

Sea cucumber – not bad, bit chewy. It came raw but pickled which has the effect of dehydrating it and giving it the texture of raw Octopus. Having encountered a sea cucumber or two in Australia while diving I was rather interested to see what it tasted like.

Sea Cucumber’s Bowels – Tried eating the bowels raw after seeing the head chef so boldly down a piece,  however this was  honestly the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten/seen/smelt. Bearing in mind that Sea Cucumbers are bottom feeders and scavenge whatever they can find, plus sift through sediment, you can get some idea of the flavour. Essentially it smells and tastes really strongly of the sea, whilst being incredibly salty. The sensation of eating it is comparable to drowning in the sea with the pungent sting of seawater all up in your nose followed by the abrasive scratching of crushed seashells and sand. However, instead of dying, you will have an unforgettable aftertaste that will have you retching. Avoid at all costs.

Tuna/Bonito’s Bowels – Not as bad as the above (kind of chewy like beef intestines very very salty and very very fishy) but not particularly enjoyable by any means.

Raw Jellyfish – a really tasty treat. This one has become a favourite in my bento lunchbox and I will miss it when I go home. Slightly strange chewy texture, it seems to be served in a sesame seed sauce wherever I eat it. I was half expecting to have a numb tongue after eating it but thankfully it doesn’t come with such a kick!

Abalone – Kind of chewy, pretty yummy. Its a bit like a cross between squid and moules!

Pigs trotter -not something I would probably ever order again, but not half as bad as it sounds. Essentially it was just fat, served on the bone in some kind of sweet and salty soup.  I’m not a big fan of fatty textures which was the main reason I wouldn’t order it again, but it had obviously been simmered in the soup for hours and had absorbed all the flavour which made it nice.

Face of a Pig – Again, this isn’t something I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen, but I did enjoy eating it. It was the skin of the pig’s face sliced up, and although it is cooked for a long time it remains ever so slightly chewy.

Pigs Ears with kim-chi -pretty much the same as pigs face, thinly sliced pieces served in a kimchi sauce. Delicious.

Raw Chicken- thought this would be horrendous, but I have eaten this twice now with no foul consequences. Apparently salmonella isn’t a big problem in Japan, and when you eat chicken sashimi its with meat that has been slaughtered that morning (or so I am told). It is poached for 20 seconds and then sliced thinly. Served with soy sauce, ginger paste and finely sliced spring onions. Its the same texture as raw fish but obviously the taste is different! I would recommend trying it if you are in Japan, but can’t imagine eating it anywhere else! It is surprisingly nice.

Fermented soy beans (納豆) – not pleasant. Very standard in Japan, but I have no idea why. Everyone raves about its health benefits but that’s not enough to persuade me that I should eat it it. It is brown, sticky, gooey,and  stringy like melted mozzarella cheese. It looks AWFUL, it smells AWFUL, it tastes AWFUL, but the worst part is that it leaves a disgusting aftertaste in your mouth which leaves you wondering why you let it violate your body out of choice.

Chickens heart, beef tripe, liver, and other various innards – not bad. I know you can get these at home, but they don’t really form part of my everyday diet, so it was good to try them. I like the way things are cooked here, very simply with subtle ingredients, so you really taste the meat. Japanese/korean barbecue or Yakitori is the most common and best way to eat innards. If you go to a Yakitori restaurant with a Japanese friend, get them to order a bunch of random ones and try them without knowing what they are – such a fun game!

The only random thing left I really want to try whilst in Japan is horse meat sashimi which I will get around to as soon as I have some money!

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