銀杏、もずく、まぐろの山掛け、イカ納豆・・・などなど、さまざまな食べ物に挑戦してくれました。 JACKIE HOFFART PHOTO
Over the four years I lived in Japan, I ate most of the foods that were given to me, especially if they were deemed to be "foods foreigners can't eat" — a category I find more than a little patronizing.
But I'm not going to lie; the idea of eating "cod sperm sacs" makes me feel ill. And even though I have eaten natto many times, I still don't have anything positive to say about it.
A few readers had suggested I try a challenge to eat the foods I don't normally like, and since I am back in Japan for a short while, I thought it was perfect timing to meet up with the Shukan ST team and just have them order a bunch of these typically "peculiar" Japanese dishes.
I thought it would be easy. After all, there's nothing I won't eat. And I've tried so many things before that I didn't think there would be too many unpleasant surprises. I was wrong.
We met at a typical izakaya, not too fancy but not a chain. In total, I had 15 different dishes for the challenge plus two "relief" dishes (fried chicken and wonton cheese, for when the challenge became a bit torturous).
Of the 15 dishes in the challenge, three of them I had tried before, and six of them I would happily order again. I was split down the middle with dishes I thought tasted delicious and dishes I thought were unappealing, at seven and eight respectively.
The most challenging part was the appearance and texture of some of the foods. We use all of our senses to eat, not just taste. So if I think something looks and/or smells unappetizing, chances are I will find its taste unappetizing too. It's definitely the case that a wobbly or slimy texture took something away from my enjoyment of a dish.
In the case of yamakake, or raw grated Japanese mountain yam, the sticky, puffy texture reminded me of a mix between bath bubbles and beaten egg whites. The taste was bland but I found the sliminess was, for lack of a better word, gross.
Similarly, the slimy, lumpy texture and dark, raw appearance of hotaru ika, or firefly squid, was so severely unappealing that when it came time to put it in my mouth and chew, I just wanted it to be over so quickly that I can't really remark on the taste. I nearly gagged.
I had roughly the same experience with shirako. Both its brain-like appearance and creamy texture impeded my ability to enjoy the taste on its own. I suppose it tasted sort of neutral to me (not good, not bad), but the squishiness combined with the actual large size of the piece I had in my mouth made it difficult to chew and swallow without gagging.
I guess that's what it tastes like to eat your words. I set out to eat everything they put in front of me and I did, but after the shirako, my kind Shukan ST ex-colleagues decided to order me some "relief" karaage. I was grateful for the familiar and delicious taste.
The other dishes I found to be either delicious or sort of neutral, meaning not exactly to my liking but edible.
I found this to be much more challenging than I'd expected, but in a way it has helped me to take even more pleasure in all of the the Japanese foods I have been happily eating during my visit. There are so many peculiarly Japanese foods that I do love (kare udon, omurais, onigiri, ramen!), so it was good to have some that I didn't love as much in the mix — you know, for balance.
Next time: What if I ... cut my hair in a foreign country?