Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I Think (My Digestive Tract Is) Turning Japanese!

As I sit down to write this, with the latest batch of makizushi digesting in my innards, I reflect on the myriad other distinctive entrees, appetizers, and all things in-between that I've eaten since coming to Japan, and how it's all affected me.

For starters, yes: Japanese cuisine relies very heavily on the consumption of fish, and seafood in general. Fish, however, is not always eaten raw, but prepared in many different ways. Here I've seen them grill it, poach it, saute it, fry it, stew it, fillet it, skewer it, baste it, batter it, and freeze-dry it...everything short of regurgitate it. Now the kinds of fish you can get a hold of are prodigious. The most popular seem to be salmon, bluefin tuna, Pacific cod, and various flatfish. Breeds like bass and sturgeon are virtually unheard of. (I have to say though, if there is one type of fish product I am not a fan of, it's shishamo. It's the only fish dish I've eaten in Japan that made me gag and throw up a little afterward. Think slender, pregnant fish. Full of tiny, flavorless, grainy eggs. Smells like you'd imagine.)

The one thing I eat more of than fish, however, is rice! Children in schools are expected to bring their rice with them for lunch (at my schools this is on Mondays and Thursdays), each serving held in a small yet sturdy "Tupperware-like" container that suffices as a grade-schoolers' bentou. Full-on bentō are ubiquitous throughout Japan, each tailored to regional tastes and to provide a well-rounded meal. By-and-large, the most common way to eat rice is steamed, called gohan. Rice cookers are a common kitchen appliance, conveniently cooking your rice to the proper consistency with the touch of a button (whether or not you put in the exact amount of water each and every time—brilliant machine!).

Other seafood I've had: squid (ika), octopus (tako; and no, not the Mexican fare), and scallops, as well as various shellfish and crustaceans. I like them all to varying degrees (I'll take scallops, shrimp, and crab any day, squid's all right, but octopus is often too rubbery for my taste), but nothing tops whale seed! I mean whale sperm. No, not sperm whale, whale ejaculate. Okay! How about whale semen? No? How about now? Called shirako in Japanese (a term that has a broader meaning extending beyond whales; go here to take a look, and see some other peculiar Japanese culinary delights while you're at it), it's considered a delicacy by many. I had my first oral encounter with the stuff during last year's bonenkai (year-end party). Let's just say it's not something I plan on repeating.

Surf aside, Japanese cuisine makes great use of turf as well: in particular, chicken (toriniku). Karaage is a tasty and easy to eat dish, and the slightly less greasy choice I've made when tired of KFC. Yakitori is another great way that I've eaten chicken, a perennial favorite during Japanese festivals. I've never had trouble finding either one of these at any local market in Japan. And ramen, "Japanese soul food," is often served with a slice of cooked pork or beef right on top.

As for snacks (okashi), this is one area of the Japanese diet where you really can't go wrong. Being something of a junk food junkie myself, I'm maybe a little biased. Shōyu-flavored rice crackers, edamame, and Pocky are among my favorites. Onigiri is okay too, but unless you can read kanji who knows what you'll find inside (watch as your face screws up when you bite into what you thought was minced salmon but turns out to be pickled ume—joy!). The one thing I'm still on the fence about though is rice cakes (mochi). These consist of tiny, dough-like mounds of pounded rice that are usually filled with red-bean paste (anko). Sometimes they're a welcome treat, other times they're just a thing I fantasize throwing against the wall. Again, when I'm not "in the mood" for mochi it's a texture thing—like eating mushy baby food—and my gag-reflex is pretty strong.

Yet if there's one nearly unavoidable, highly recurring, and mostly ubiquitous quality about Japanese food, it's the wetness. Everything's wet. That, or there must be some inscrutable element to Japanese cooking that bestows upon the food a quality that suggests to the eater that he or she is eating something wet. Does that make sense? I don't know if I'm describing it correctly. It's not as if the food is a little moist or out-and-out drenched, there's a soppiness to it. I find myself often lamenting not having a slice of bread (or reaching for seconds when bread is around) to mop up all the soppy deposits that Japanese food tends to leave behind. Yes, that's it, soppy deposits. It's a quality to Japanese cuisine equally as evident during the food's journey out of one's body as into it. A quality I have become rather familiar with (hence the title). Right. Well, moving on....

"But tell me? Where do I go in Japan to find these culinary delights?" You're in luck! The options are plentiful. Izakayas are great little Japanese watering holes that serve finger foods and other simple appetizers and platter pleasers for those who like a laid back locale where the drinks flow freely. Konbinis (a Japanese contraction of the word "convenience store") are...err...convenient...pit stops and food marts usually attached to chain gas stations that can be on almost any street corner. Ramen-ya and sushi-ya (ramen shops and sushi shops, respectively) are also easy to find on street corners, or sometimes hidden down secluded alleys. And, of course, Western-style sit-down restaurants, supermarkets, and fast food joints are not uncommon in the modern culinary landscape of Japan. (What's nice too, is that whenever you eat out you get these specially prepared hot towels, called oshibori, to clean your hands before and while eating.) Good stuff!

Itadakimasu!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Truly immortal!

Somebody please do something noteworthy with this crew again! They haven't aged a day since!