You’ve seen videos of frog sashimi and other strange Japanese food. Japanese think that stuff is just as bizarre as everyone else. Stuff like that is called getemono, meaning both “strange things” and “low-quality products.” In other words–weird. A lot of everyday Japanese foods, however, would make non-Japanese rush to the toilet covering their mouth. While I actually prefer Japanese food to western food, every country has its dishes the rest of the world would sooner toss under the table at Fido. Some of us, though, the ones who think Fido knows something that we don’t, go for the unusual stuff. There’s something that makes you feel an intimate connection with a culture by trying its most traditional and retched dish.
It makes you strong. Harumon is a broad word meaning anything from intestines to organs. It’s all the nasty bits. Any yakiniku restaurant will have a portion of the menu devoted entirely to these strange, mysterious parts of the animal. It will be blanket-labeled “harumon” without further elaboration because only a butcher or veterinarian would recognize what it was anyway. What you’re eating is left up to your imagination.
That said, thin harumon–I’m talking about intestine in this case–holds sauce very well. Once you get over the fact you’re eating cow guts, you might like it. It’s chewy, but good. Thick harumon, though, will gag you. What I had was a big, weird ball of chewy gut fat that I couldn’t swallow without a lot of water.
Nankotsu is fried chicken cartilage. It’s a lot like eating the crunchy stuff at the end of a chicken wing, which before coming to Japan I actually didn’t know was edible. You’ll find it in yakitori restaurants and izakayas, Japanese pubs. It’s prepared the same way as karaage, Japanese fried chicken, so it won’t taste much different. The problem is the texture. To me, eating nankotsu is like eating chicken bones. When you bite into what looks like karaage but feel a crunch between your teeth, something’s weird. I can’t eat nankotsu because the texture is just too strange and boney for what should be chicken nuggets.
You have Anthony Bourdain to thank for this one getting on my Strange Japanese Food list. Tastewise, tororo isn’t so bad. The problem is what it looks like. In one Japan-themed No Reservations episode, Bourdain and a Japanese Iron Chef sat down to a steaming bowl of cod semen soup, which resembled what I ordered at an expensive sushi bistro in Osaka more than I was comfortable with.
I ordered maguro yamakake. The menu had been in quite difficult kanji, but I could read maguro, so I knew I would be getting tuna. I received a bowl of tuna chunks slathered in sticky white goo, which I mistook for tuna steeped in its own semen.
After some searching on my iphone’s Japanese dictionary for yamakake, I found out the white stuff was a kind of potato that gets gooey when you mash it, named yamaimo. Granted, this member of the list may be more a personal distaste, but I can’t think of tororo without thinking of something stranger I could be putting into my mouth.
When I arrived in Japan, every non-Japanese told me the same thing.
“They will try to get you to eat natto. Don’t.”
It was a warning I didn’t take to heart. I was too curious about this strange, beloved dish of fermented soy beans passionately despised by every non-Japanese. It was Japanese comfort food, and trying it would give me an insight into the very heart of Japanese food culture.
The thing that turns most people off about natto is the smell. It’s fermented soy beans, and smells like it. It smells so bad companies even make scentless natto. A lot of Japanese will tell you that while it does smell bad, natto actually tastes good. That’s a lie. Things that smell bad taste bad too.
It was bad, but not as bad as everyone said. It does taste strange, but strange because natto is just slimy old beans. And eating slimy old beans is strange. The biggest problem with natto, though, is that it coats your mouth in natto. After you eat it, everything tastes like it. If you’re going to try it, I recommend trying it last, otherwise you’ll end up trying it the whole meal.
Basashi is the worst thing I have ever had in my life. No exceptions. Basashi is raw horse meat. It’s popular in Yamanashi, where I live. I was at a restaurant with some friends, and they asked if I’d ever tried it.
“No,” I said. “Eating raw meat is really strange in the states–bizarre, even.”
“You should try it.”
“Sure.” Like I said, trying a country’s food is how to understand its culture.
Minutes later the waitress sat some sliced basashi in front of me, bleeding all over the plate. It was slimy, uncooked horse meat that reminded me of an autopsy scene in CSI.
This was one time I had to say, “No.”
“Just one little piece!”
Now, the slaughtered horse this had come from had likely been running around the local track last week. People don’t realize that in horse racing the horses play for higher stakes than the gamblers, and this one had lost one too many times. But this was Japanese culture! Not just Japanese culture either, but local Japanese culture.
“…just a little piece.”
It was the most horrid thing I had ever eaten. I could barely swallow even the tiny scrap I put in my mouth. It’s soft, raw, bloody horse flesh. Basashi is the strangest, worst food I have ever eaten and I will never try it again. Take my advice and don’t try basashi if you’re visiting Japan.
Bonus. Umeboshi Candy
“Nathan, challenge.” My old coworker was holding out some candies that looked like Sweet Tarts, which I eyed with great suspicion.
“Doshite ‘challenge?’” I ask. Why ‘challenge?’
“Challengekara.” Because, challenge.
I took some of his candy and put it in my mouth. I was thinking Warheads, the atomically sour candy we used to burn our tongues on in junior high.
I slapped my hand over my mouth. “Nani?!” What in the nine hells did you just give me?! (Loosely translated.)
Everyone laughed. “Umeboshi ame.” Pickled plum candy.
I call it a bonus because it’s candy. But umeboshi itself can be quite bad, though even many non-Japanese like it. I for one, don’t.
The exact flavor of umeboshi depends on the region. Some prefer it more salty, others more sour. You’ll find the unique little pickled plum in bentos all over Japan, but it’s an acquired taste. The strange mix of salty and sour might actually appeal to more people if it was less intense, but not the candy. Never the candy.
So that was some strange Japanese food you may encounter if you make the pilgrimage. But don’t be thrown off course by the weird stuff. Japan has some of the best food in the world. The U.S. still makes better hamburgers, but in general I prefer the food here to my home country’s. When you come to Japan, eat up. You won’t regret it unless you try basashi. Make it a point to try the strange Japanese food in particular, because you haven’t really experienced a culture until you’ve tasted it.