Why you should care
To become a true local means eating the local food.
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As Election Day nears, the prospect of it not ending well may make many Americans want to bail. A new life abroad may be the cure-all for those postelection blues, and few spots are as far from the electoral map as Japan.
Blending in takes effort, however. Aside from the language, one of the greatest challenges for the first-time visitor to Japan is the food. If you’re looking to make it your new home, the sooner you can adjust to its unusual delicacies, the better. Everything can be eaten raw, and almost every part of every animal is fair game. If you can hold down these dishes, you’ll be laughing at struggling gaijin like you’ve been there for years.
Of all the oddities in Japanese cuisine, few things are as immediately off-putting as jako, or shirasu. These juvenile Japanese anchovies are served whole and by the hundred. Try not to notice their little eyes looking as startled as you may be while you heroically wolf them down to impress the locals. If you can’t stand their terrible gaze and find yourself in Ehime Prefecture (northwestern Shikoku), then instead ask for jakoten. Presented as a kind of fried domino, it’s made of the same tiny fish, but in this version, they’ve been flurried into an unrecognizable block. Sound disgusting? Say that again after you’ve tried it.
What’s the one thing you know about chicken? Not to eat it raw. Well, forget that — in Japan, chicken, like pretty much everything else, doesn’t have to be cooked. If you’re looking to blend in, don’t blink an eye when the chef presents it at your table. In Nagano, several restaurants proudly serve the dish after flash-boiling the outside to kill any external bacteria, still leaving the majority of the meat opaque-pink and distinctly raw. It’s often served with a little wasabi to further reduce the risk, but if you can swallow toriwasa along with your revulsion, you’ll find this is some of the most tender, delicious chicken you’ve ever eaten.
To describe too closely the texture of shirako would be to pretty much destroy any chance of you keeping a straight face.
People say that pigs are smart animals, but pigs have the insurmountable challenge of being delicious. People also say that horses are smart animals, but they don’t often eat them. Logically then, you’d be right not to expect too much from basashi: horsemeat sashimi (and yes, that means raw). The meat is chewier than beef and not quite as tasty as pork, but in certain areas of Japan it remains popular. In Tokyo bars it pops up grilled in yakitori restaurants, but for the full experience, head to Nagano, where horses are raised from field to plate. Dip it into a little ginger soy, chew hard and nod appreciatively.
A good test of your Japanese guide’s English ability is how they translate shirako. If they tell you it’s fish eggs, then it might be time to look for someone else. The dish is part of a fish’s (specifically a cod’s) reproductive system, but this delicacy has been harvested from the males. Eaten for breakfast during the big cod catches each winter on Japan’s east coast, it’s regarded as a delicacy by locals of Ishikawa (on the island of Honshu). To describe too closely the texture of shirako would be to pretty much destroy any chance of you keeping a straight face. Suffice to say: If you like fishy cream cheese, then, boy, this is the dish for you.
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