Japan is truly a foodie’s heaven, with lots to offer. But there’s so much more than just sushi, wagyu, ramen, and sashimi, which you will see below. Be sure to try them out the next time you’re in Japan (hopefully this article doesn’t gross you out). That being said, all hail the interesting food of Japan! (Disclaimer: some of the descriptions may gross you out. You’ve been warned.)
1. Natto (fermented soybeans)
Natto refers to Japanese fermented soybeans. You may be put off by its pungent smell and its gooey, sticky texture at first, but don’t let this deter you from trying this traditional side dish! Natto is made by fermenting soybeans in a type of bacteria called “Bacillus subtilis”, which is naturally found in the gastrointestinal tract of humans. Because of this, it is packed full of nutrients, optimal for strengthening our immune system, and helps improve digestion.
Natto is unique to Japan and is usually served for breakfast, where it is mixed with shoyu (soy sauce), mustard, and sometimes minced chives, and generally topped on a bowl of hot rice and sometimes nama tamago (raw egg, also discussed below). There are plenty of other ingredients such as kimchi, dried bonito, cheese, mayonnaise, nori (seaweed), and tuna that go surprisingly well with Natto. Other creations include Natto salad, sushi, and ramen.
Although it is not clear how, when, and where Natto originated, numerous theories have been put forth. According to the oldest belief, Natto was believed to have been created somewhere between 10th century BC and 3rd century AD, before it started becoming a staple in Japanese breakfasts from the Edo period onwards. Today, Natto can commonly be found in supermarkets and convenience stores, where a 3-pack usually costs around 100 yen.
2. Uni (sea urchin)
Uni is the Japanese name for the edible part of a sea urchin, specifically referring to its bright golden-coloured gonads, the sex organ that produces roe. It has a buttery melt-in-your-mouth texture when eaten, while its flavour is subtly sweet yet briny from seawater. Uni is actually very healthy, containing 172 calories per 100g with almost all unsaturated fat, meaning it can help lower cholesterol levels. It is also full of omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower blood pressure and reduces the risk of irregular heartbeat. It is even considered an aphrodisiac!
There are three different grades of Uni based on colour, texture, and freshness. Fresh Uni is taken directly from a live sea urchin, which is definitely worth the experience. Even though sea urchins can be found in all of the world’s oceans, the harvesting process is extremely labour intensive and cleaning is highly meticulous as well. Only less than 20 in hundreds of sea urchins are edible, and divers have to go about 25m deep into the sea to pluck them by hand from the ocean bed.
Uni is usually enjoyed alongside sashimi or nigiri sushi, and sometimes even raw quail egg. They can be used in sauces, spreads, and even Western variations of Uni, such as Uni pasta and sandwiches, have also started becoming trendy in recent years. Much like caviar and foie gras, Uni is certainly an acquired taste.
3. Shirako (fish prostate)
Shirako translates to ‘white children’ and refers to the milt, or sperm sacs, of a male cod. It is served either raw or cooked and is considered a delicacy in Japan. It has a soft, buttery texture similar to pudding, with a very subtle creamy flavour. It is so rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 that, believe it or not, you may already have been subconsciously eating it, as it is used to make dietary supplements!
Shirako is sometimes served raw. When it is cooked, it is usually either fried (tempura), steamed (chawanmushi), grilled, or served as a topping for rice or sushi. Eating Shirako is simple as it is typically eaten with ponzu or soy sauce on the side. Shirako is easiest to find during the winter months from December to February, where it is commonly served in restaurants, sold in speciality stores and fish markets.
You may be surprised to find that Europeans also consume something similar to Shirako. For example, Romanians consume the carp milt, while Russians consume herring milt and Sicilian cuisine includes the milt of tuna. So, it turns out Japanese aren’t the only ‘creative’ ones here! After all, consuming caviar has been considered a status symbol, so why would consuming Shirako be any different?
4. Raw egg
While you may be worried about salmonella, it is completely normal to eat eggs raw in Japan. This is because salmonella comes from the shell of the egg, and eggs from Japan maintain its natural, protective germ barrier from its shell. There is, therefore, no risk of bacteria spreading. Because raw eggs are a staple in the Japanese diet, Japanese farmers practice caution when raising the chickens and harvesting their eggs.
Raw eggs are a staple in the typical Japanese diet, where it is commonly eaten as Tamago Kake Gohan, where the raw egg is topped on rice and eaten with soy sauce. Raw egg can also be eaten with udon, ramen, soba, a dip for sukiyaki. It can also be found in a classic breakfast bowl dish, with rice, natto, chives, and soy sauce. So why eat the egg raw? Raw egg yolks contain a lot more nutrients than cooked eggs but provide about half the amount of digestible protein as compared to cooked eggs.
Upon observing a pack of eggs in Japan, you would discover that expiration dates are very short, usually, about 2 weeks from production, as compared to the 2-month expiration date in eggs produced elsewhere. Another thing you may notice is that the eggs are smaller than what you may typically find. Farmers have to go through a rigorous series of inspections before you can find them on shelves in stores. Fun fact: even egg vending machines exist in Japan!
5. Torisashi (raw chicken)
Torisashi refers to thin slices of raw or barely cooked chicken, which is taken from the inner part of the chicken’s breast and thigh, thus having the least chance of contamination. You can find Torisashi in izakaya bars and restaurants, where it is served similarly to traditional sashimi, meaning that it is typically eaten with wasabi, pickled ginger, and sushi sauces. It may sometimes be served with minced chives, garlic, sesame seeds, and salt too.
Torisashi has a very tender and soft texture, similar to tuna. When slightly seared, it turns out more tender. There are a few common forms of Torisashi that you can sample throughout Japan. Gizzards tend to have a crunchier texture, while the heart has the least amount of excess fat content, and these are some of the rarer varieties of Torisashi. Chicken liver is also sometimes used, where it is cut up into small slices and is slightly seared. It has a creamier texture and is one of the more popular cuts. The most common forms come from the chicken breast and thigh that produce the chewy and slightly fibrous texture among all the cuts.
Despite this, you should never attempt to make your own Torisashi at home. Chickens that are used for this dish have to be slaughtered in a specific way and immediately refrigerated so that no bacteria can grow on the meat. It seems that Torisashi has garnered fervent fans in Kagoshima prefecture and other prefectures in Kyushu, but you can find it being served in izakaya bars in Japan too.
6. Nankotsu (chicken cartilage)
While discussing what parts of chicken Japanese consume, they also consume Nankotsu, or chicken cartilage. Nankotsu Karaage, deep-fried chicken cartilage, is a common dish found in yakitori restaurants and izakaya bars. Served with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt, it’s truly citrus, crunchy treat. It honestly doesn’t have much flavour but is definitely very crunchy and slightly chewy.
It certainly takes time to enjoy Nankotsu. Its texture isn’t something we are typically used to. Despite this, this part of the chicken is rich in collagen and helps strengthen joints and aids digestion. This is because the cartilage is made of strong tissues abundant in nutrients and vitamins.
7. Fugu (blowfish)
Japanese pufferfish, or Fugu, is notorious for the highly toxic poison it contains in its organs. Despite its deadly potential, it has been eaten in Japan for hundreds of years. It is also prohibited to be prepared at home and must be prepared by a licensed chef when at restaurants. With its chewy texture and subtle flavour, Fugu is typically eaten as sashimi, karaage, or grilled.
Fugu has to be prepared with extreme precision and skill. Aspiring Fugu chefs are required to train for at least three years and take numerous exams before being allowed to serve Fugu. On top of this, they have to eat their own examination work and only 30% pass. As you can see, its hefty price tag does not come easily. Many hours of hard work go behind those delicate translucent pale grey slices on your plate.
There is a rich history behind this delicacy, with first records written in 720. Many people have suffered from fugu poisoning in the past due to the lack of restrictions and regulations. Today, these numbers have gone down significantly. Shimonoseki, the southern tip of Honshu, is especially famous for Fugu. There are about 500 Fugu chefs there and there’s even a shrine where fishermen go to pray for a good catch that pufferfish season.
8. Ika Ikizukuri (raw squid sashimi)
While sashimi usually involves killing the animal before preparing it, Ika Ikizukuri involves the chef slicing the squid up while it is still alive. Another somewhat controversial dish, it was brought to global attention in 2010 thanks to a YouTube video that went viral. It depicted soy sauce being poured onto the headless squid, whose tentacles were moving around wildly. Since then, the Japanese have coined the word ‘odoriguri’, which literally means ‘dancing eating’. This happens because the nerve endings of the squid that react to the sodium in the soy sauce.
Eating Ika Ikizukuri is an experience in itself—the squid’s brain is severed, and the meat is thinly cut into strips and arranged into its original form while still alive. The meat is so fresh that it’s transparent and sometimes you can even feel its tentacles moving about in your mouth. It has a subtle sweetness to it, which the soy sauce contrasts well.
Yobuko, a town in Saga in the Kyushu region is famous for squid, and you can find some especially fresh squid in the markets and restaurants there. The type of squid depends on the season. There are also unique restaurants around Japan where you can catch live squid and eat them alive.
9. Basashi (raw horse meat)
A Kumamoto speciality, Basashi is raw horse meat, eaten like sashimi. With a chewy and tender texture, it doesn’t have a gamey aftertaste like lamb. Horse meat is very low in fat, helping to lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases and contains numerous vitamins and proteins that enhance cellular metabolism. Basashi is usually paired with sake while being served alongside soy sauce, grated ginger, and garlic on top.
Three different types of meat are used to prepare Basashi – fatty, lean, marbled meat, and rare cuts. The incredibly soft, extremely fatty cut is usually taken from the horse’s neck. The lean cut includes completely trimmed meat without excess fat and hence it has a slightly tougher texture. With an appealing colour and texture, the most popular cut would be the marbled one with fatty streaks. Rare cuts of horsemeat are usually mane and main fat, liver, and tongue, which are highly valued since only a small amount of each can be obtained from each horse.
Basashi has grown in popularity especially since the end of the first World War, after which it became a common household ingredient. It is difficult to trace its exact origins, but it is also believed that Basashi was first eaten by samurai that were first trapped in Kyushu during a battle in 1877, as they didn’t have anything else to eat. These days, they are commonly found in izakaya bars and yakiniku restaurants, where the meat is grilled over a flame.
And there you have it. Hopefully, you haven’t lost your appetite after reading this article. It’s interesting that some of these foods have a rich history behind them. I have not tried them all myself, but I reckon they are definitely worth a shot. I remember freaking out at the thought of eating Uni and almost broke my baby teeth when I tried Nankotsu for the first time years ago. Now, it’s your turn to try these foods the next time you’re in Japan. Weird or wonderful, you choose!