Shinjiraremasen, Ikura, basashi
By Steve Flocks, GLOB Guest Columnist
EDITOR'SNOTE: University of Florida LS-ENGLISH LANGUAGE INSTITUTE Faculty member Steve Flocks is sharing a letter he wrote to his family from Nakajo, Niigata-ken, Japan, 1993.
"Gimme some REAL FOOD!" Expats in Japan may be heard quoting Ren, or was it Stimpy, after only a couple weeks of life here in the land of sticky rice and uncooked food. I've been here five years! I want pizza! Give me a Reuben sandwich, a hoagie, a sub! Fritos! A burrito! Pancakes with maple syrup! Real smoked bacon!
Stop! Don't do this to yourself.
I'm an omnivore. I can eat and enjoy just about anything. This may be a result of growing at a "You can't leave until you finish everything on your plate" table. Early in life I learned the futility of being a picky eater, that those Lima beans will still be on your plate no matter how much you chase them around with your fork, and they're going to get colder and nastier with each passing minute. So I ate everything on my plate, all the time, and now I like everything . . . almost.
I've seen Americans here in Japan try to fight it. They have people in the States mail them food; they travel long distances to the bigger cities and search out Denny's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin' Donuts, or McDonalds (pronounced Makudonarudo by the Japanese). On rare trips to the local grocery, these Americans buy only food they recognize. They make embarrassing dinner guests. They cut themselves off from a major aspect of Japanese life and culture.
Japanese food. Many Americans know sushi: raw fish–tuna, mackerel, yellowtail, sea bream, or sea bass; fish roe or urchin roe; and non-fish like abalone or squid, set on two fingers of rice and then wrapped in seaweed. They may even know from their local Japanese restaurant the fried noodles (yaki soba) or fried rice with vegetables (chukadon), but from that point on, things get weird. My language lesson for Japanese cuisine: Taberaremasu ka? (Can you eat it?)
Being an omnivore, there are few foods I can't stomach. I can count them on one hand. Watermelon. I detest watermelon. A blow to a southern boy who grew up missing the thrill of a wet, sticky face on a wet, sticky summer day, spitting seeds at your friends. I missed all that. Also capers, cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon. Hate 'em! Can detect parts per million in affected foods. No problem with coriander, cumin, caraway, or other "c" herbs. So I was prepared to like Japanese food. To charenji, using the English loanword "challenge" the way they use it here, with the meaning of "try." I looked forward to tasting/testing new, unusual foods with an open mind and palate.
Truly, when I started eating sushi I soon wondered why we ever cooked fish in the first place. Of course you can never beat fried fish (or fried anything) but a good raw tuna or mackerel: it's not "fishy" tasting or smelly; it's not tough or stringy. It's a slow explosion of mild, distinct flavors in a pleasant, slightly pneumatic package that pushes back on your teeth for an instant before surrendering with an audible collapse between your jaws. Visit any revolving sushi bar, where small plates of individual sushi wonders file past you on a conveyor belt, constantly supplemented by the sushi master standing inside the circle, and you'll find along with the fish and shellfish, wonderful, fat salmon eggs (ikura) the size of Trix cereal, image right. They pop in your mouth with a rush of salty fish essence. Several at once saturates your palate with a carpet bombing of little cholesterol bombs. The urchin roe? Few Americans like its acrid taste. Abalone? A little tough but excellent and, alas, becoming more and more difficult to find. And then you reach the point in sushi-eating when, as a closet meat-and-potatoes person, you must draw the line. Language lesson #2: Shinjiraremasen (I don't believe it) and Zettai tabemasen! (No way am I putting that in my mouth).
At this point we find the natto coming around on the conveyor belt. You'll find it in any sushi bar worth its soy sauce. Natto is fermented soy beans. Maybe you know miso (fermented soy bean paste). Well, natto is chunkier and "farther along." If miso were a pasteurized American cheese slice, then natto would be a hunk of Limburger cheese . . . that was forgotten in the back of your refrigerator for, say, twelve to eighteen months. It's a brown, viscous mix of soybeans enslimed in a goo which separates from itself only in long, thin strings that thwart attempts to break them and create wonderful bridge-like strands spanning bowl, chopsticks, and mouth. Think of stretching hot mozzarella cheese or well-chewed bubblegum. It's that effect. But here the fun stops. The smell? Exactly like old gym socks. The taste? What do you expect from fermented (read "rotten") soybeans! It's earthy, it's musty, it's alive! People eat this on rice, along with a raw egg (no salmonella here) for breakfast. Me, I like it with ika (raw squid). Why do I eat it if it's so nasty? Because I can.
And that's the sushi bar, where dishes are not limited to raw sea creatures but may also include raw ox liver (gyureba hamu), raw horse meat (basashi), and raw ham (nama hamu). Culinary delights galore. You'll probably even find an "American salad," which, strangely enough, has cabbage, corn, and tuna in addition to our standard lettuce, tomato, carrot, cuke.
A visit to a private home or a classier restaurant might present you with some greater challenges (using "challenge" now in the English sense of a "dare"). Okay, yes, I've eaten the strange organs you find in the body of a crab. I've eaten raw crab eggs and drunken sake out of the crab body mixed with all that green stuff. I've eaten the prized sazae (turban or top shell) whose meat comes out of its spiral shell like a fat pig tail. I've eaten fat, minnow-sized river fish deep-fried alive, larger fish filleted alive, their gills pumping and mouths gulping as they watch you pluck the flesh off their sides. I imagine them saying "Noo noo Mister Bill." Or forgo the meat of the fish and crunch on some fish skeletons (the Japanese equivalent of potato chips). These make great beer snacks, as do inago (grasshoppers) wok-fried in teriyaki sauce. Try miso soup with tiny, guppy-like fish frolicking about in it. Kinda tickles. But don't hesitate before gulping them down. One American here balked after taking a mouthful. A lone, tiny fish, perhaps thinking she was heading upstream to spawn, arced out through the man's pursed lips and flopped on the table. Faux pas! Grab a live jumbo shrimp, called "dancing shrimp" or odori, and snap off its head before it thrashes out of your hand. Really tickles going down. But, zettai tabemasen!, I gotta draw the line at wakame nuta. In English I think this means "predigested seaweed." Or at least that's a fair description. It's another slimy item. Now, slimy's okay. I can take slimy. But wakame nuta is also bilious. It's acidic and has an astringent quality. Like your mouth tastes after you . . . well, that's why I think "predigested" should be on the label.
If you can keep down the wakame nuta, you'll probably lose it with shiokara, or pickled squid guts. Now how can I describe this delicacy without blasting your palate? (How am I doing so far?) After all, millions love it, but it resembles nothing that might find its way onto an American dining room table. Unless! Unless this table were visited by a bad little boy who had been out in the garden because, yes, shiokara looks like earthworms! Earthworms in a sauce that looks like, say . . . again, western food offers no similarities . . . . I'm going to have to say baby waste: the color and texture are right on the money. Again, an acid taste and definitely "of the sea," though some may say it's "off, you see." [Pun intended.]
Now you may say shinji raremasen, or may feel convinced I have no future writing for Gourmet or Bon Apetit. I need only remind you of the experience of anthropologists visiting the Yanomamo Indians of the Amazon jungle. When offered peanut butter the Yanomamo, had the same visual impression to the diaper worthy shiokara. That's not a good comparison -- I have never seen an article by a Yanomamo in Gourmet or Bon Apetit either.
I feel I'm not doing well attracting you to Japanese cuisine. In fact, I love Japanese food. Sushi; tempura, batter-fried shrimp, mushrooms, perilla (beefsteak plant) leaves, fern tops, tree shoots; and I've eaten natto, and wakame nuta; and even shiokaraagain and again, liking them a little more each time, but I still can't stand watermelon. When you visit Japan you can of course live solely on McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken, but to really understand the people you must share their food. When you go to a grocery store, buy something you can't identify. Keep an open mind and an open mouth—and be prepared for surprises. Recently at a Christmas party I innocently raised a glob of tubular, white matter and asked, after popping it into my mouth, "What is this?"
"Salmon sperm. Taberaremasu ka?