I once thought natto (fermented soybeans) was Japan’s worst culinary bogeyman, but much nastier, nightmarish foods exist in the archipelago to tempt foreign fates. I’m from Australia, where the Japanese dining landscape is mostly dried seabeds of sushi and tempura bound by rivers of teriyaki sauce. The truly alien encounters await in Japan’s gastronomic world, from surreal sea creatures to pod-like akebi fruit.
There are 400 Japanese words just to describe food texture. Many are a charming onomatopoeia, like fuwa fuwa (fluffy) or mochi mochi (chewy). This, then, is my onomatopoeic eating journey.
Warning: These foods might confound your taste buds and mess with your psyche.
With that obligatory message out of the way, like a lightweight Anthony Bourdain, I’ll start with the mildly disconcerting and finish with the fully terrifying.
1. Beta beta yokan
I love pastries and buns. Too bad in Japan they’re often pumped with anko (also called an) most commonly, an azuki (red bean) and sugar paste. From manju (steamed bread) to mochi (rice flour cakes), Japan abounds in anko stealth bombs disguised as dessert.
Yokan are bouncy anko and kanten (algae jelly) blocks. It’s the specialty of Toraya, a wagashi (traditional sweets) empire founded in Kyoto circa the early 1500s and a purveyor to the Imperial Palace. You can buy yokan at Toraya department store outlets or cafés across Japan.
Japan abounds in anko stealth bombs disguised as dessert.
Yokan is rich, dense and (as the Japanese call it) beta beta (cloyingly sticky). As with peanut butter, anko fans like to debate the merits of smooth versus chunky, but for this Westerner, legumes as candy are weird because I think of chili con carne. It’s not unpleasant but won’t replace Pocky as my go-to snack.
2. Tsuru tsuru tororo
Vegetarians do not get off lightly in Japan, where textures like neba neba (gluey, like the natto mentioned at the start) are revered. Tororo is a bland slurry of grated raw yamaimo (mountain yam), often served on rice or noodles with soy sauce and green onions and making tsuru tsuru (slurping noises) while eating it is encouraged.
In olden times, tororo was praised as an aphrodisiac, dubbed “medicine of the mountains” and described—when topped with a raw egg—as the sky “with a full moon.” Gee, the Japanese can wax poetic because, to be honest, it was like diving in phlegm. My friend and I were defeated one-third in by this viscous sludge.
Gee, the Japanese can wax poetic because, to be honest, it was like diving in phlegm.
Yamaimo is sold grated and frozen in supermarkets or prepared in specialized restaurants. The ultimate pilgrimage is the shop Chojiya, in Mariko-juku in Shizuoka Prefecture—an atmospheric thatched roof eatery established in 1586.
3. Saku saku inago
Leggy, beady-eyed insects are visually startling but I tried some saku saku (delicate, crispy) treats in Tsumago-juku in Nagano Prefecture that were inago (grasshoppers) fried in soy sauce and sugar—and they went down surprisingly well. Close your eyes and you could be crunching senbei (rice crackers). I could munch these watching Netflix.
Historically, inago and other critters like wasp larvae and silkworm pupae were consumed in rural inland prefectures, such as Nagano and Gifu, that lack coastal access to seafood. Ryokan (traditional inns), souvenir shops and supermarkets here still promote insects as regional delicacies. Or get your bug fix in the preserved Edo-period town Ouchi-juku in Fukushima.
I could munch these watching Netflix.
Insects were catapulted from their country roots at Tokyo’s Michelin-starred Den, which served ants that popped in the mouth, releasing lemony flavors. Cheap, plentiful, nutrient-packed, space-efficient, fast-growing insects could be the food of the future. Bee larvae supposedly taste like nutty marshmallows. Why not couverture chocolate-dipped grubs?
4. Puri puri motsu
Offal consumption spiked during Japan’s post-WWII food shortages. Today, the spirit of mottainai (avoiding waste) is still heartily embraced with the widespread popularity of motsu, horumon or naizo (all of which are various forms of pork or beef innards). Yakitori (grilled chicken) chefs can chop a bird into 40 edible parts, from rubbery uterus to tender combs.
Charcoal cooking and syrupy basting sauce turn meat scraps into tasty morsels. I couldn’t swallow the puri puri (springy, bouncy) mysteries in a beef motsunabe (offal hot pot) but the broth was heavenly, bursting with “gutsy” complexity. Unfortunately, I’m still haunted by the tough horse intestine I was served in the Kiso Valley.
Unfortunately, I’m still haunted by the tough horse intestine I was served in the Kiso Valley.
Motsu is casual, home-style fare, so follow the red lanterns or railway tracks to casual izakaya (pubs) and open stalls in alleys or around train stations. Head to Osaka, believed to be Japan’s birthplace of offal barbecue. Fukushige Horumon has English menus. Hakata is renowned for motsunabe and Hiroshima is home ground for horumon tempura.
5. Nuru nuru shirako
In this nation of islands, the ocean delivers both treasures and terror. Shiokara is chopped seafood, usually squid, smothered in its fermented guts. Odori-don (“dancing” squid or octopus) features still-twitching flesh from the freshly killed animal. However, the greatest psychological challenge is milt or shirako (fish sperm sacs, usually from cod).
Resembling monster tentacles from a horror film, nuru nuru (slimy, slippery) shirako is sometimes labeled “soft roe,” but translates to “white children.” No, not creepy at all. It’s tasteless, creamy and custardy; evoking soft tofu. The accompanying soy citrus sauce couldn’t wash away the filmy residue left behind. You might need a good, stiff drink.
If you’re keen, you can source shirako in izakaya, sushi bars or market seafood stalls, especially in winter. Still traumatized from the tororo, my friend refused to join in.
“Come on. Just try a little bit.”
“Maybe I’m not marketing it to you right. What if I said it’s seminal fluid?”
Don’t eat shirako to be “Japanese.” Only one out of the seven locals I asked said they like it. Don’t do it for kudos. People respond with silence when I share my shirako tale, not fist bumps or high fives.
I downed these kooky foods to research this story and I thought I was done with them, but lately, I’ve started craving grilled motsu! Through travel, we devour new experiences and change in unexpected ways. Mistakes are inevitable. I’ve hovered— intimidated—outside enchanting eight-seat diners with Japanese-only menus baffling to me as hieroglyphics. Perhaps it’s time to step through the noren (shop curtains).
I’ve eaten fish sperm—what’s the worst that can happen now?