The Japanese generally eat less meat than other Asian nations, which is a throwback to a simpler time where it was actually illegal to keep, kill and eat livestock and even fish and other seafood. In 675, due to the influence of Buddhism, Emperor Temmu, banned the consumption of meat and fish and the Japanese survived on a vegetarian diet for those centuries. During the Asuka period the ban was renewed by succeeding Emperors until the end of the Heian period in 1185. Animals which were considered as pests, such as deer and wild boar, were not affected by the ban, but most people still didn’t eat them.
After this, fish and seafood regained a certain popularity, but the eating of meat never really took off again with many Japanese people continuing to eat a purely vegetarian or pescatarian diet. Meat and egg consumption only became popular again after 1854 when European food began to influence Japanese cuisine producing such “youshoku” (Western cuisine) amalgams as tonkatsu (pork cutlet), kareeraisu (curry & rice) and omuraisu (omelette-rice).
To the modern Japanese, eating something so common in the west as lamb or mutton, is as horrific as eating dog, cat or monkey. However, the Japanese do have a lot of other foods which we in the west would consider strange. Let’s consider some of the worst offenders.
Before I even got to Japan, everybody told me the same story about natto: “Don’t eat it!”.
It was a warning I didn’t follow. I was too curious about this strange, beloved dish of fermented soy beans because one of my non-Japanese friends actually loved it. It was Japanese comfort food, and trying it would give me an insight into the very core of Japanese food culture.
The thing that turns most people off about natto is the smell. It’s fermented soy beans – and it smells like it. It smells so bad companies have even started producing scent-less natto. A lot of Japanese told me that while it does smell bad, natto actually tastes good, but when I first tried it, it was such a huge onslaught to my senses that I didn’t attempt it again for another 2 years. When I had finally settled in Japan, I tied it and it wasn’t so bad. The taste grew on me as it reminded me of Marmite.
Natto is really just slimy old beans. And eating slimy old beans is strange but the biggest problem with it though, is that it coats your mouth in good-bacteria-laden, sticky goo and the strings are extremely resilient. Try it at your peril! I can’t guarantee that you’ll fall for it as I did.
From now on are 4 things which I have never been “privileged” to taste. Basashi is simply raw horse meat! Europeans who have recently weathered the horse meat scandal will be positively revolted by this uncooked version of their worst nightmare, but it is… relatively popular in Japan. Although basashi is somewhat bizarre at the best of times, one Japanese ice cream company decided that it was a great idea to enhance their flagship ice creams with a certain… something.
“I know!” the inventor exclaimed, “raw horse meat flavoured ice cream is surely what everyone really wants, but they just don’t know it yet”, and so, raw horse meat ice cream (basashi ice) was born. No idea how it tastes… and I don’t want to know.
Uni is the roe from sea urchins that live in small nooks and crannies on rocky ocean floors and are covered in spikes to protect them from predators. How anyone decided it would be delicious to eat something that looks like the black soot creatures from Totoro is beyond my comprehension. Eating the spawn of such creatures is even less fathomable.
Imagine. One day, a Japanese diver would have fished something, black, spiky and creepy-looking from the bottom of the sea, broke off all the spikes, managed to rip the the sea urchin in half, then scoop out the raw eggs from inside and eat them! Now, I have had uni flavoured rice crackers and they’re quite inoffensive, but never had the courage to try the real thing.
We move now into really revolting territory… Fish eggs are popular in all cultures, from black caviar through ikura salmon roe to takaro cod roe which form the youshoku amalgamations ‘ikura pasta’ and ‘tarako spahetti’. So, how about some of the stuff that fertilises that roe?
Shirako literally means ‘white child’ and is the Japanese name for… fish sperm! It is served in its natural state inside a thin membrane, often with sushi. The texture is said…… I repeat, said to be “soft and creamy”, with an acquired taste and presumably a little bit salty!
Shiokara is probably the weirdest, most disgusting dish in any cuisine in the whole universe! Made from salted and fermented fish or squid guts, shiokara has a seriously intense smell (and likely a strong flavour too). It is so pungent that even many Japanese people consider it too hardcore!
No… Just, no…
All in all, I’ve only tried 1 out of these 5 Japanese so-called “delicacies”, and that was long before I became a vegetarian. Luckily, that latter fact will preclude me from being able to try any of the others. Too bad…
By Ste McLean