Here are a few of my alternative favourites and, ummm, not so favourites! Are you feeling adventurous? If your answer is yes, come to Japan and get your chops around these special treats!
1) Natto-uzura sushi
Of course we have to include natto when talking about strange Japanese food! However, this dish comes with a little extra something… a raw quail’s egg!! Natto, made from fermented soy beans, is infamous amongst foreigners living in Japan. Japanese people often ask foreigners if they can stomach it, or will even run out to buy some before watching on with a kind of morbid fascination as the foreigner (generally) struggles to deal with the pungent smell, snot like consistency and strong flavour. This spectacle sometimes attracts a crowd.
Natto has been eaten by the Japanese for centuries and was once an important source of protein. It is largly eaten as a breakfast food and is believed to have many (almost miraculous and often exaggerated) benefits to health. Natto is to the Japanese what kimchi is to the Koreans. Likewise, quail eggs are believed to be a dietary food, high in vitamins and even linked with restoring sexual potency in men.
When I first came to Japan, I wasn’t a big fan of natto. It didn’t repulse me, but neither did it thrill me. However, as time has gone by I have grown to like the stinky stuff, especially when mixed with a generous dollop of karashi (Japanese mustard). I was feeling adventurous one day and decided to order natto-uzura and… I loved it!! It’s one of the first items I order every time I head to a sushi joint.
Where to buy it?
Natto-uzura sushi is available at most conveyor belt sushi restaurants. It’s particulary good at Musashi in Kyoto.
2) Deep fried, battered Hachinoko
By breaking down the kanji (Chinese characters) of Hachinoko (蜂の子), you can get an idea of what it is. Literally translated it means “young of wasps”, and that pretty much sums it up. The young are actually larvae, although there are normally a few fully grown wasps thrown in for good measure! Traditionally, the larvae are cooked in soy sauce with a little added sugar. My favourite restaurant, Rinku in Kurayoshi, serves them deep fried in a delicious batter.
Insects have traditionally been a source of protein for inland Japan. Wasps are said to have the highest percentage of edible protein of all insects – a whopping 81 percent! Insects are seen as many as the meat of the future, and there is no place on Earth quite like Japan at combining the traditional with the futuristic!
I like the crunchy texture and slightly oily taste of the battered variety. I’ll be having them again when I get the chance.
Where to buy it?
Rinku in Kurayoshi-shi, Tottori-ken is my fave insect joint! Hachinoko is also widely sold in the Nagano prefecture. Served at some rural ryokan in the Nagano region.
Hmmm… this one is rather “special”. Shirako is fish millet served raw, as tempura or in nabe (a hot pot). Fish millet doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well, it does when you consider the fact that millet refers to the male genitalia of fish filled with sperm!!! Shirako is usually derived from cod and is considered a delicacy. It has a strange similarity in appearance to intestines.
I tried the nabe (hotpot) variety and found it to be strangely creamy in taste. The problem I had was that I kept thinking about how I was chewing on fish sperm. I’m in no rush to have it again.
Where to buy it?
Shirako is available in a number of supermarkets.
Horumon has made a bit of a comeback in recent years with small restaurants seemingly popping up just about everywhere. I, for one, am happy about that! Horumon is the name given to grilled or barbequed offal (the parts of an animal usually discarded in the West). Stomach lining, lung, tongue and my personal favourite, intestine pipe, are popular dishes. To the surprise of many foreigners, horumon is not actually any cheaper than “normal” meat. The name “horumon” comes from the greek word “hormone” which means stimulation. Apparently. However, it is also similar to the Japanese word “hōrumon” which means “discarded goods” in the regional Kansai dialect.
Horumon is one of my favourite foods! Intestine pipe needs to be cooked well, but is well worth the wait.
Where to buy it?
Horumonyaki are very common. Jonsetsu Horumon is a reasonably priced chain. Can be bought at traditional Izakaya (Japanese pub)
This last one is a drink with a twist, and I don’t mean lemon or lime. Simply get one venomous pit viper snake (mamushi), a big bottle of alcoholic sake, mix (alive), leave for several months and serve over ice!!
Sometimes called ‘snake wine’, mamushi-shu is believed to have medicinal properties, including helping overcome sexual dysfunction in men. The mamushi in the mamushi-shu in my favourite restaurant, Rinku, is reused and is now in its 18th year! That’s the same dead snake, put back in the jar. I wonder if it is losing its power?!
Well, as they say, ignorance is bliss. However, sadly I have a little bit of experience which renders that saying redundant. Let me explain… During time spent in Madagascar doing research, it was necessary for me to catch and handle a number of wild snakes. Invariably, the snakes would be stressed and would pee on my hands, with some making its way onto my clothes (which weren’t exactly getting regular washing). I became very familiar with the smell of snake urine. Seventy to seventy-five percent of what we perceive as taste actually comes from our sense of smell. And that’s what mamushi-shu tastes like to me – snake pee!!! Is it strange that I’ve had it more than once??!! However, I often tend to opt for hachi-shu these days… alcohol with killer wasps in it!
Where to buy it:
Throughout Japan at traditional bars and restaurants.