Testing My Taste Buds’ Limits

As it turns out, I should’ve waited to post about all of the strange and delicious Japanese foods I’ve eaten since moving here, because the dinner I had last night would’ve topped all the others. I’d mentioned that my school has a lot of work dinner parties, and those at the end of the year are usually of the best quality. Those are the “bonenkais” (忘年会, which literally means “’forget the year’ party”), and all the stops are pulled out for them.

From the very beginning, I knew this dinner, as delicious as it was bound to be, would be a challenge for my Western taste buds. The three traditional Japanese foods that I have to choke down, rather than actually enjoy, were all in the first course. Sea cucumber (海鼠, “namako”), sea urchin (海胆, “uni”), and the dreaded cod sperm sac (白子, “shirako”). And to round it out, a rather scary looking crab accompanied them. I made it through the sea urchin and sea cucumber just fine, but once I had a good long look at the 白子, I decided that I’d have to pass. I reasoned that since I’d eaten it twice before, I knew what it tasted like and therefore wasn’t really missing out on any of the experience. Plus, another of the teachers was all too happy to take it off my hands and enjoy it himself.

The scariest first course I've ever seen.
The scariest first course I’ve ever seen.

And then the second course arrived: flounder (比目魚, “hirame”) sashimi. No problems there; I love raw fish, and flounder is one of my favorites. The serving style, however, was a little…odd. The flounder sashimi was served on a makeshift platter formed by none other than a flounder fish. The chefs had literally flayed the meat off of the flounder, sliced it up, and then used the remainder of the fish as a plate. And that’s not even the best part; since the spinal cord was still intact, the fish “plate” was alive when it arrived on our table. We all got quite a shock when the flounder would gape its mouth or flop around a bit. I can honestly think of few more undignified situations in which to die than acting as a serving platter when you’re the dish in question. And funnily enough, the teacher who took the 白子 off my hands expressed a huge amount of surprise that I ate a lot of the flounder sashimi. I think some Japanese people still think that, because I’m a foreigner, I can’t eat any Japanese foods.

Flounder served on flounder.
Flounder served on flounder.

The rest of the meal was pretty run-of-the-mill, except for one fish that, while absolutely delicious, looked like something out of a nightmare. Meet the scariest, most delicious fish you’ll ever eat: the red sea bream. Fatty and rich in the best way, I didn’t much mind the way it stared at me after the first bite. My supervisor, however, made the mistake of snacking on the eyeball. Japanese dining doesn’t waste much when it comes to eating fish; judging by my supervisor’s reaction, however, the eyes are one of the few inedible bits.

Thankfully, the taste and the appearance don't match at all.
Thankfully, the taste and the appearance don’t match at all.

When the dinner ended, I, along with the rest of the tenth grade teachers, was contented with a full stomach. But as the restaurant was owned by the parents of one of the tenth graders, we all got handed a newspaper-wrapped package to take home. In America, most kids’ parents give their teachers candles or cookies as a “thank you.” In Japan? Fresh squid and fish eggs!

Not exactly your stereotypical "apple for teacher," is it?
Not exactly your stereotypical “apple for teacher,” is it?

2 thoughts on “Testing My Taste Buds’ Limits”

  1. This reminds me of the time I attended a welcome party dinner for exchange students at my university in Sendai. Naturally, for such an occassion the meal was washoku, most of which was seafood (apart from a piece of good crumbed fish, I don’t eat seafood). Needless to stay I was very hungry that night eating mainly white rice and a smattering of cabbage leaves used to garnish the different meals. I couldn’t bring myself to eat uni, sashimi or the not-so-little sea snails (can’t remember their Japanese name…) I did build up enough courage to try the unagi (or maybe the hunger was making me irrational) but as I was chewing all I could think of was tinned cat food. That was the first and last time I ever ate unagi.

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    1. I honestly can’t imagine living in Japan if I didn’t like eating seafood, so I definitely give you major credit for that. It’d be so difficult to eat out, when almost every dish either contains fish or has been cooked in a seafood stock! But about the unagi…blasphemy! Do you remember how you had it prepared? I’ve usually had it grilled/barbecued, and that’s by far my favorite kind.

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