Maybe in the passed, having bean soup and a bowl of salad sounded like dining with your grandmother. But recently eating healthy sounds more stylish than ever before. Posting a picture of sushi roll on your Instagram account makes you cool. Some of you may have adopted the habit of eating out at Japanese restaurants as a healthier option. Or you might as well order hard core choices from their menu. Like umeboshi, sour pickled plum, for their alkaline property. Or natto, fermented soy bean, because you want to take in plant-based probiotic. Or maybe, some of you might actually enjoy their very distinctive taste.
If you’ve reached to that level of love and grew your taste for Japanese food, maybe you are ready for the next step. Or shall we skip a couple of steps and go even deeper? To the world of Japanese weird food. Some of them are rare to find and may not attract big audience appearance-wise and taste-wise. But food is after all a personal preference and there is a chance you might like them.
Karasumi being one of Japan’s top three unusual foods and frequently used as an ingredient for traditional tea ceremony dish, it is fairly accessible at any high end department stores in Japan. It’s made from mullet roe by salting and drying in sunlight. It greatly resembles Bottarga from Mediterranean region, though Bottarga is slightly harder. (It’s historically said it originally traveled through the Silk Road from west to east.)
Karasumi’s thick almost cheese like taste goes very well with wine, not just with sake. If you’re in a rush, you could slice it very thinly and put it on canape as a starter. If grilled, karasumi becomes even more fragrant. But be careful not to brown it, because you don’t want to pop the fish egg or burn it. If you’re feeling creative and have the time, you could use it for pasta sauce and stir fry dish.
Ankimo is Japanese version of foie gras, although it comes from the sea. It is made from monkfish liver. It’s creamy, fatty, thick. Foie gras lovers would most likely enjoy it once you pass through the fact it is from a fish. But then, ankimo is naturally fatty and thick, while foie gras is a result of force feeding poor birds only for the purpose of satisfying our taste buds. Little more humane, perhaps?
You can easily buy canned ankimo, but it’s even better if you can get it raw and prepare it yourself. You may want to give it a try if you’re the chef in the house. You first need to wash off veins and blood off fresh ankimo with water. Then leave it soaked in mixture of half cup water and equal part of sake with a few pinches of sea salt. After 30 minutes, take out ankimo and dry it with paper towel, then roll it in tin foil gently shaping it into salami-like shape and twist each ends of tin foil to close. As last step, steam it for 30 minutes and slice it just as you would with foie gras to be served. It is best to be served with ponzu sauce (Citrus and shoyu based sauce and you can find easy recipe online. The sauce goes well as stake sauce or salad dressing, so no waste here.). You can slice the end product and lightly cook it with butter on a frying pan with salt and pepper, too. The steamed ankimo stays good for a while in fridge. It is time consuming, but who knows? It might become your next party staple.
You could often find sea cucumber dish in countries like France, Spain, or China. It does not look that appealing to many people’s taste, but it is actually very rich in nutrition and there are some Japanese dish that use sea cucumber raw. Surprised? Horrified? Wait until you hear the fact this strange creature’s ovary is counted as one of unusual foods in Japan. Yes, you read it correctly. Ovary.
Noto island is the main provider of this very unique food and kuchiko is sold both dried and bottled after lightly salted and fermented. The gathering of sea cucumber ovary is only available during the coldest period of winter when sea cucumbers become fertile. They need many tens of kilograms of sea cucumber to make one sheet of dried kuchiko, since the sheet is made of layers of ovaries. It requires tons of ingredient to make a jar of fermented version as well. Kuchiko is very rare to find and very expensive as a result. Still the delicate combination of sweetness and saltiness together with its unique fragrance is considered a great companion for sake. There are online store that sell kuchiko. But if you want it to be served at restaurants, you would have to go to very formal places or those with rather rare and original line ups on the menu.
Respect the Tradition, Welcome with Open Mind
A lot of unusual foods have been around for a long time. Okinawa prefecture has ‘Mimiga’, sliced pig ear, among many other pig dishes as their proud foods to this day. But most of them in Japan are of harvest from marine lives maybe because Japan is surrounded by the sea. When you think of how each unusual food was created and developed, it is hard not to imagine how people lived back then.
Japan has four seasons with hot and humid summer and rainy seasons. Fish is hard to be kept fresh most of the year and many mountains Japan is blessed to have would not help with the transportation system. There were no planes or cars. So perhaps people tried to figure out ways to preserve the seafood. There were no fridge and seafood was probably not cheap for a lot of people to get hold of. So there were people trying to make use of any part of the life, be it ovary or eyes (yes, there are products like canned fish eyeballs).
It is very easy to judge any cultures that have different taste than you have. But if you loosen up a little and see it as a object to consider what part those strange practices take in its cultural history, it could become pleasurable project. It is not important whether you actually eat any of the above or appreciate them. Respect the tradition and observe with open mind!
How to get them
Some of what’s introduced above would be available at higher end department store (consider the fact it comes with the price even in Japan) that sell Japanese goods. Karasumi and ankimo are often used sparingly at some Japanese restaurants around the world (but make sure to pick a place where Japanese people actually seem to be going as regular customers). If you want to make sure to get the real thing that was harvested and made in Japan, ask your friend who’s planning to travel to Japan. The weird foods will take you to the next level of understanding Japanese history and its culture.