“I’ve never seen a foreigner eat that before!” Whenever I hear someone Japanese utter that exclamation, their voice colored half by shock and half by admiration, I know that I probably don’t want to know the identity of whatever I just ingested. And it’s happened a fair bit in the past year and a half.
In Japanese society, dinner parties with your coworkers are a regular thing. My school has more of these parties (called enkai” or 宴会) than most others that I’ve heard. My teachers tend to take any opportunity possible to have an enkai. End of the semester? Enkai! Beginning of the semester! Enkai! End of exam period? Enkai! Just had a field trip? Enkai! Not that I complain about this, of course. I consider myself pretty lucky, because the teachers at Aomori Koko tend to go to pretty upscale restaurants. While I’ve been to restaurants of varying styles, from Chinese to Italian, we usually head to traditional Japanese restaurants…and that’s when it turns into a game of “Ooooh, what animal could this possibly be?!”
I’ve never been an overly picky eater (Though my mum would probably tell you differently…), but my taste buds have definitely gotten far more adventurous since I moved here. “I’ll try anything once” has become my mantra. As long as it isn’t still moving, I’ll give it a try.
For their part, my coworkers always seem surprised when I eat traditional Japanese fare, and that surprise is compounded when I actively enjoy the food. We have “eel day” every year in the spring, when the English department orders eel for lunch. (Incidentally, I love eel. Grilled, barbecued, raw, freshwater, saltwater,…doesn’t matter. Eel is downright delicious.) My coworkers knew that I liked eel, but they decided to keep the identity of the side dish, a soup, a secret until after I’d eaten it. Once I’d downed it without hesitation, they snickered and giggled as they told me that the mystery meat in the soup had been eel hearts. “We didn’t think you could eat it! Most 外国人 don’t like it,” they’d told me afterwards.
Before I came to Japan, I squirmed at the idea of eating basic sushi like octopus and squid. In fact, the first time I tried squid, I could barely swallow it. Now I actually enjoy octopus, so long as it’s of a high quality, and while I don’t particularly enjoy eating squid, I barely bat an eyelash when it’s put in front of me. My idea of “weird” has definitely shifted drastically when it comes to food. I’ve eaten such random things like throat cartilage (From a cow, I think?), sea urchin sushi (This is a Japanese delicacy. I’ve had it twice; two times too many, in my opinion.), and sea cucumber intestines (Think mucus-covered rubber bands.). I’d consider those some of the more unique foods that I’ve eaten in Japan, but in all honesty, I’d say that I could identify roughly half of what I eat when it comes to traditional Japanese dining. And I’m fine with that, so long as it tastes good!
However, there is one downside to my gastronomic adventures. Because the foods eaten here are so varied (see: horse, eel hearts, sea urchins, sea cucumbers), I’ll accept basically any explanation as fact. My gullibility regarding food has increased exponentially. A few weeks ago, the English department had its year-end party. One of the first dishes put in front of us was a very high quality dish consisting of fish sperm sacs. Originally, I’d thought they were egg sacs, but have since learned that they’re cod sperm sacs (白子 or “shirako”). Egg…sperm…I’d rather just have the meat off the fish, thanks very much.
I enjoy 99% of Japanese food. Fish reproductive parts, no matter how they’re prepared or what kind they are, are in that other 1%. This kind was the worst for me, because the sacs burst when you bite into them and are really rich. However, this type of sac looks distinctly like brains, so when one of my coworkers remarked to me, “I think it’s lamb brains,” I wholeheartedly concurred. It wasn’t until I had the same kind of sushi at another sushi dinner that I was told that it was from a fish and then realized that the lamb brain joke was definitely at my expense. In my defense, they really look like brains.
Japanese dining isn’t just about the taste, though. No, presentation is just as important, which is why plates often come with flowers, autumn leaves, or even little ceramic figurines to complement the food itself.
Even the colors of the plates enhance the color of the food. And when some meals at traditional Japanese restaurants have eight to ten courses, it can turn into one long, overwhelming, delicious whirlwind.
When it comes to Japanese food, however, that is definitely not a bad thing.