Food For Thought

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■  By Miguel A. L. Esquivel (NIC Out and About Volunteer)

food_for_thought_600I love Japanese food. I love most foods, I must admit, but there is a special fondness in my heart for Japanese cuisine. Many foreigners living in Nagoya (and, indeed, Japan) would admit that, if it wasn’t a major reason for wanting to come here, food is certainly a pleasant fringe benefit of being an expatriate.

There is a saying in English that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and certainly the same is true in the exchange of cultures. Within weeks of my arrival, I knew my way around Nagoya thanks to memorizing the locations of various Sukiya and Yama-chan’s restaurants. Watching TV under a heated kotatsu this winter would not be the same without senbei crackers and green tea. Not to mention, what social gathering would be complete without some shouchu, sake or Asahi Super-Dry?

There is a scene in a book I like, where the commanding officer of an invading army comes across a caravan of marauding desert vagabonds. Rather than fight them, however, he wishes to understand them and talks with them instead, and, in the middle of the night, one of the natives hands him a bit of their food, which he takes appreciatively. It’s a camel’s eye, roasted over their camp fire, and both armies watch the officer with bated breath, to see what he would do. Whether the offering was sincere or, as he suspected, was just some prank, the officer gladly eats it, and asks for more. His army relaxes, and the fighters laugh and roar their approval, and the battle for world peace and understanding wins a small victory.

Thankfully, eating Japanese food does not require such a courageous effort to be eaten… but, neither can it be denied, wow, some of the food here is weird!

In the American comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, young Calvin wonders, “The more you think about things, the weirder they seem. Take milk for example. Why do we drink COW milk? Who was the guy who first looked at a cow and said. ‘I think I’ll drink whatever comes out of these things when I squeeze ‘em!’”

The same holds true for many of the foods I’ve seen in Japan. Take wasabi, for instance. Sure, it’s great with sushi, but why was it created? In some dish combinations and in some of the…liberal amounts I’ve seen it used, I’m sure it would count as cruel and unusual in some countries. It’s just evil.

Another example is fugu, or pufferfish. Because fugu can be lethally poisonous if prepared incorrectly, it’s become one of Japan’s most celebrated and iconic dishes. But whose brilliant idea was it to eat a poisonous fish in the first place? And, even more incredibly, how many times did someone have to experiment eating fugu until they got it right?

The idea for this article, I have to admit, came to me one night when I was at an izakaya bar with some Japanese friends. It was someone’s birthday, and we celebrated with a feast: salad with sesame seed dressing, tuna and unagi maki rolls, karage chicken chunks, and more. Then came the last course, a specialty dish that came on the house—it was white, it was slimy, and it was definitely fish. Or perhaps only fish-based.

My Japanese friends snickered and pushed the plate towards us three foreigners in the group. “Try it,” they insisted, “you’ll like it!”

“But what is it?” we asked. I was very much aware that, though they wanted us to eat it, they weren’t eating any themselves.

“Shirako,” they told us, and pushed the plate a little closer. They tried to explain it, but couldn’t. Eventually, we gave in, and dug in. It felt slimy, tasted strange, and continued to leave an uncomfortable taste long after the one piece I braved to try was gone. It was only afterwards, when I got home and looked it up, that I discovered the reason why. “Shirako,” which means “white children” in Japanese (this should have been the first hint something was amiss), is fish sperm. Fish sperm!

I consider myself a very open-minded individual, but seriously, fish sperm? I’m not criticizing Japanese cuisine at all—I realize that all cultures, even American ones, have strange foods—but you’ve got to admit that shirako falls slightly low on the List of Things You’d Want to Eat. Definitely above dog, a common and favorite dish from various Southeast Asian cultures, but it’s much lower than CoCo Ichiban curry. It seems to me that “gourmet” and “delicacy” are just sneaky ways of trying to get people to eat the strange leftover bits that weren’t used in animals.

Now that the holiday season is above us, I’m warier than ever. After all, I plan to travel around Japan and try the local cuisine, and my Japanese friends are all throwing parties of their own. I had taken care to ask, very politely, that there be no shirako at any of these events. Thankfully, many of these get-togethers are pot luck—I hope no one minds me bringing McDonald’s Mega-Mac burgers. Just in case, of course.

I’m still confident in my opinion that cuisine is quite possibly the best and greatest ambassador any nation has to welcome people. It’s still the best way to create a good first impression about cultures. Give me sushi, or give me death, I say—but, please, be kind with us foreigners, for we know not what we eat!

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