The Five Weirdest Japanese Foods
Sazae (Sea Snail)
Sazae is a big, slimy sea snail, almost the size of your fist. It's served in the shell, often raw. Believe it or not, that rough, orangey blob that's poking out of the shell is actually the most appetizing part. Hold your breath, grab it with your chopsticks, and pull the whole creature out of its crustaceous abode: it looks like a botched circumcision, or a distended frog tongue.
Lovers of escargot will tell you that the snails are flavour sponges with the texture of calamari. Well, this snail tastes like low tide, with the texture of a waterlogged eraser. It's a much more challenging food than other raw shellfish, so don't get cocky just because you like shrimp sashimi!
In Japan, sazae is a delicacy that's likely to be available at any good seafood restaurant. It's not considered an unusual food or an acquired taste, but Japanese people know that sea snail isn't exactly a standard menu item in the West, so you might score some points if you can finish the whole thing. (I never have.)
Fugu (Poisonous Pufferfish)
Fugu is probably the most accessible item here; it's also the only one that can kill you. In fact, at least twenty people a year are hospitalized from eating it. This poisonous fish causes your muscles to seize up, leaving you conscious but unable to breathe, until you asphyxiate to death. It has no antidote. And it's delicious. How about that?
The fish's poison is contained in its liver, ovaries, and eyes. Specially trained chefs have to remove these organs before it's prepared for consumption. You actually need a licence to prepare fugu in Japan! In America, only a handful of restaurants are allowed to serve it - and in Europe, it's completely illegal.
If it's properly prepared, fugu is actually very safe, and very easy to find. It has a delicate flavour and smooth texture that's delicious as sashimi or tempura. It's true that every year a number of people are hospitalized from fugu poisoning, but almost all of those are prepared by amateurs without much common sense. Still, many foreigners find it hard to build up the nerve to order it. I was one of those, until I ate it accidentally without reading the menu properly. And I lived to tell the tale.
Toriwasa (Raw Chicken)
"Raw chicken" is practically shorthand for "food poisoning". You're not even supposed to let other ingredients touch it. It ought to come with a warning label for salmonella. But who would want to eat it raw anyway? What could be less appetizing than cold, pink, floppy poultry? Ask that question to a Japanese friend, and you'll be scoffed at. Roundly.
To be precise, toriwasa isn't exactly raw - it's very briefly boiled. But only the very outside gets cooked at all. It's then chopped into manageable pieces and eaten either with chopsticks or on a stick, like shish kebab. Usually the only flavouring is soy sauce or ponzu. If you're wondering whether you've been missing out by bothering to cook your chicken all these years, relax - you haven't. Toriwasa has a sickeningly chewy texture and not a lot of taste. Still, lots of Japanese people love it, so it's worth a try. It just might be your thing.
Despite what you might think, the risk of food poisoning from toriwasa is very low. Only the freshest chicken is used. The Japanese are used to safely preparing raw meat, and chicken is no exception - even though it's, well, weird.
Basashi (Raw Horse)
Unless you're from Slovenia, Iceland, or some parts of Italy, the idea of eating horse probably curdles your blood. Horses are such beautiful, intelligent creatures - and what's more, they don't even look that tasty. Babe and Charlotte's Web already make it hard enough to eat pork, but how could you eat Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, or Hidalgo with a clear conscience? Once you try basashi, I think the answer to that question will be "easily enough".
Basashi is horse meat served raw, sliced very thin. It has an appetizing red colour and a light, almost sweet flavour. The texture isn't nearly as tough as you'd imagine - the horses are raised for their meat, not for work, so their muscles are supple and tender. Like toriwasa, it's always served very fresh, so the risk of food poisoning is almost zero. It can be expensive: a meal at a specialty horse meat restaurant could run you up to 60,000 yen (about sixty dollars) per person.
If you're willing to chow down on an intelligent, hardworking friend of man, I highly recommend basashi. Unlike some of the other items on this list, it's accessible and delicious to almost everyone. Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan, is the best place to get basashi. If you're eating it around people a little less open-minded, I suggest you make a whinnying sound to really gross them out.
Shirako (Fish Semen)
Funny story - I once got in trouble for talking about this dish at work. Yep, this is probably the only food out there that's actually X-rated. Shirako is fish semen. It's white, gelatinous, and a little salty. In Japanese, Shirako means "white children". How's that for evocative?
Shirako can come from cod, salmon, squid, and even fugu. It actually doesn't taste like much - mainly like whatever it's cooked in. When cooked, its texture is very soft. It can be eaten as-is or as sushi, but I think it's best as tempura. The contrast between the crunchy batter and smooth, steaming semen is heavenly. Most Westerners could probably eat it without a problem - until they find out what it is. Without the tempura batter, shirako's appearance is a little daunting.
We already eat fish eggs - really, what's the difference? Not only is shirako tasty, it'll make a great story for your friends back home. It's considered a delicacy and can be a little pricey, but if you see it on a menu, give it a shot.
© 2014 Kieran Barnhardt