Weird or Wonderful?: Japanese Foods

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By now, plenty of people are familiar with at least the names of certain odd-sounding, yet still reasonably common Japanese foods such as natto (fermented soybeans), fugu (pufferfish), or yuba (tofu skin). Today, I thought it might be interesting to go a step further with a post detailing some lesser-known foods in Japan – some specific to certain regions, others popular right across the country, but all of them still consumed in today’s society.

Jibachi Senbei (Digger Wasp Rice Cracker)

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In a small city called Omachi in Nagano prefecture, these rice crackers are a local specialty. Made using locally sourced digger wasps, which are specifically farmed for human consumption, the insects are boiled in water, dried, and sprinkled over the cracker mix before being stamped by hot iron cracker cutters. Said by Omachi’s official tourist guide website to pair well with green tea, these crackers are no doubt a great source of protein, although contrary to popular internet myth are not widely eaten by everyone in Japan.

Hachinoko (Wasp Larvae)

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Like most other insect dishes, hachinoko is a specialty of Nagano prefecture, albeit more of a traditional delicacy than digger wasp rice crackers. After being harvested from their nests, the larvae is cooked in a combination of soy sauce and sugar to create a snack that’s crunchy, slightly sweet, and once again probably pretty high in protein. Traditionally served over boiled rice, and also said to go well with beer or Nagano sake, hachinoko is said to have been a favourite snack of former emperor Hirohito.

Inago no Tsukudani (Candied Locusts)

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Yep, Nagano really does like its insect dishes – although this one can also be found in nearby Gunma prefecture, as well as in Yamagata. Crunchy on the outside, juicy on the inside, the locusts are prepared by simmering the insect in soy sauce and sugar to create a flavour much like hachinoko. While people once began eating inago as a means of combating locust plagues, it’s now sometimes served as a regional bar snack and is also sold in area-specific supermarkets.

Zazamushi (Aquatic Insect Larvae)

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Still not convinced that Nagano is the way to go? Don’t worry, they have zazamushi as well, yet another regional delicacy. Eaten again as, you guessed it, a good source of protein, zazamushi is made by boiling the larvae of insects living at the bottom of rivers with soy sauce, sugar, and sake. As with inago, the dish is served in local restaurants, usually alongside alcohol, as well as sold in cans in supermarkets.

Shirouo No Odorigui (Dancing Ice Goby)

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Odorigui – literally ‘dancing eat’ – actually refers to an entire way of eating any and all kinds of seafood in Japan, in which it’s consumed still alive and squirming. Octopus and squid are sometimes eaten this way, but another specific seafood also eaten as odorigui is shirouo, or ice goby. Found in Fukuoka prefecture between February and April, these very small and transparent fish are usually consumed completely raw and swallowed whole, or else mixed in a cup together with quail egg and vinegar.

Shirako (Fish Milt)

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Still keen on fish? If so, shirako might be the food for you. Usually eaten raw as sushi or boiled with ponzu (a citrus-based) sauce, shirako is a mixture of male cod genitalia and sperm. Translating as ‘white children’, shirako has a soft, creamy, almost buttery texture that melts right on the tongue. Om nom. It’s also considered something of a delicacy, and unlike any of the above foods on this list, can be found all throughout Japan in many pubs and sushi bars – the perfect go-to dare dish for curious foreigners.

Nankotsu (Chicken Cartilage)

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Time for a bit of a breather with a food that, at least by comparison, seems positively conventional. Almost. Sure, you could order up some tasty pork shoulder, beef rib, or chicken thigh, but why do that when you could chow down on the chicken bone cartilage instead? Nankotsu might look pretty similar to popcorn chicken, but bite in and you’ll discover not soft meat but instead a distinctive crunch. The cartilage is usually taken from the breast or sometimes the knee area of the chicken, and eaten either fried or grilled. Seasoned with a little salt, a squeeze of lemon, or a slightly sweet sauce, nankotsu is a staple of just about any yakitori or yakiniku restaurant in Japan.

Horumon (Beef or Pork Offal)

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Although it sounds eerily similar to ‘hormone’, this food is named after a word in the Kansai dialect meaning ‘discarded goods’. Which, now I think about it, is perhaps only slightly less ominous. Like nankotsu, horumon is commonly found in yakiniku restaurants and is a dish made up of skewered and grilled beef or pork innards. More specifically, the likes of the esophagus, diaphragm, heart, intestine, pancreas, uterus… and rectum. The very first horumon dish was trademarked in Osaka in 1940, but it’s now a popular staple of yakiniku restaurants all over the country and widely considered a ‘stamina’ food. So for all you active and sporty types, eat up!

Basashi (Raw Horse Meat)

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Last but not least, the raw horse dish usually served as sashimi or sushi called basashi. Eating raw horse in Japan originated in Kumamoto prefecture, and basashi is still considered a specialty of the area today, although it’s also quite popular in Oita prefecture, Nagano prefecture, and the Tohoku region (Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata prefectures). Sometimes referred to as cherry blossom meat due to the colour, which is redder than other meats thanks to its high levels of hemoglobin, basashi can be found in some yakiniku restaurants but is more often served cold, dipped in soy sauce, and served with grated garlic, ginger, or horseradish.

Question of the post: How many of these foods have you eaten, and did you like any of them? Are there any that you would absolutely never eat even if given the opportunity?

17 thoughts on “Weird or Wonderful?: Japanese Foods

  1. I’m a rather picky eater and prejudice often gives me nausea even if I’d actually like the food were I untainted by prejudice. I’m not proud, but often can’t help it, and one of the things that frightens me most about going to Japan is ending up being rude about food.

    I doubt I could stomache any of that, but I most definitely draw the line at things that are still alive. Other stuff? Maybe… with lots of sauce… Maybe.

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    • Fair enough. I will say too that there are definitely certain foods I eat regularly here that taste just fine, but don’t necessarily look all that appetizing. So sometimes I make a point of just not looking at my food too hard.

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  2. I’ve never eaten anything similar to these foods before but I imagine eating the bugs would be like eating chips? I personally wouldn’t order it at a restaurant though

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    • I’ve eaten bugs before, but not in Japan actually – it was while I was living in Thailand for a few months. To be honest, they tasted more like the sauce they were coated in (sweet) than what I imagine the bugs by themselves would have tasted like.

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  3. There was a street food with larvea in it in Korea… God I still remember the smell, it was so putrid it just made me want to gag from the scent. I always like to try things once, but that one I couldn’t…

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    • Yeah, this is why I still don’t eat natto even after all these years. I’ve tried it several times before and the taste is fairly inoffensive, not even particularly strong in any way, but it literally smells like vomit to me.

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  4. I’d like to try all the insect dishes. I don’t care for the sugar in the sauce though. The chicken cartilage? Boring. I eat that all the time. I’d try the horse meat but I wouldn’t be nearly as excited about trying it as I would the insect dishes. I’m amazed that they can harvest the insects in an economic manner. There is some respectable skills and knowledge being employed there.

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    • I’ve tried some insect dishes before, but that was when I was living in Thailand rather than Japan (and honestly, I think they just mostly tasted of whatever sauce they were coated with).

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    • I thought they were pretty tasty myself, but then, maybe I was just sort of caught up in the moment. I had them during a festival where it was customary to eat them to take part, which is a bit different I guess to just eating them normally.

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