Along with their own national dishes, the Japanese also give a twist to many popular foods (baked potato flavour KitKats, anyone?), including pizza and ice cream.
However, while many flavours may be available for these popular western choices, there are also lots of other unusual sounding and tasting creations and if, as an expat, you can get used to ice cream with jellyfish or beef tongue flavours or even fried chicken or octopus, then this country is for you.Also, while pizza is not a national dish it is very popular and there are various pizza chains offering the pizza toppings everyone knows and loves. Japanese pizzerias also offer toppings such as hotdogs, seaweed, seafood and mayonnaise. Some outlets offer pizza as a dessert, which will see toppings of marshmallows and chocolate bars being available.
The first weird Japanese food on our list is one that will be introduced to expats as an introduction to the country’s unusual gastronomic delights. Natto is described as a ‘superfood’ but it is actually fermented soy beans.
This means it has a very strong smell and is a slimy creation, and while it is popular, not all Japanese love it – the people are fairly evenly split between those who hate the creation and those who love it.
Generally eaten with rice, minced leeks, green onions or soy sauce this is a traditional food and a rite of passage for expats new to the country.
Not many people will tackle this horse meat which is served raw with rice. Other dishes use thin slices for dunking in soy sauce, served with ginger and onions. It’s a popular dish in many Tokyo restaurants and basashi is also available in tins.
For those who do want to try it, then it might be a good choice to ask for it to be served as raw wagyu beef on a sushi platter instead.
Not only unusual and weird but also controversial, kujira is whale meat. Widely available in restaurants and supermarkets, it is illegal in many countries. In some parts of Japan, kujira is also served in schools.
Expats who might be willing to try it need to appreciate that chefs will just use cuts of meat from the tail for sushi. The meat is cured in salt or brine before being poached in hot water. Served with miso or rice, kujira isn’t raw but can be difficult to eat.
Kujira can be offered in small cuts, in a salad, or with hot rice and many people opt for it instead of a beef steak. The dish will vary depending on the region and some will offer deep-fried whale meat, which is said to be great with sake.
While on the subject of controversial dishes, fugu is a puffer fish that needs to be carefully prepared since it could prove lethal for those eating it. It’s a very popular dish in Japan and for expats could be a frightening experience; there are strict laws forbidding anyone who has not got three years of training in serving the fish from preparing it.
This means it’s important that restaurants that comply with regulations are used by expats who are determined to eat fugu which means, sadly, they should never touch it if they are offered it in someone’s home. It is worth noting that fugu is not a cheap dish to enjoy.
Also, expats should never ever accept the liver from a puffer fish, since the organ has been banned from being served since 1984. This is the most toxic part of the fish and must be carefully removed by the chef so it does not contaminate the rest of the fish itself. The liver has been described as the tastiest part of the fish but it contains a poison that is more powerful than potassium cyanide.
Uni is a sea urchin that is popular in restaurants around the country, indeed it has been a popular dish for hundreds of years. One reason for this is that the meat from a sea urchin was believed to have aphrodisiac effects and many people believe this is still true.
While unusual, it is a healthy delicacy and there are lots of dishes that use it, including sushi. Some expats may be offered a uni that is still alive, in which case the shell needs to be cracked open and the insides scooped out; the edible part looks like a human tongue and has a nice taste.
While seafood is very popular in Japan and many expats will enjoy most of the creations, careful thought needs be given before tackling ika ikizukuri. That’s because this is a squid that is prepared while it’s still alive; this means the chef needs to be quick and skilled.
One of the attractions for this particular dish is that the squid still appears to be alive when it’s delivered to the restaurant table and sometimes the skin will change colours as it tries to camouflage itself. The squid is diced into bite-sized raw pieces.
Other restaurants will also offer octopus, lobster or shrimp, while the popular restaurants will offer fish or shellfish as well. Ika ikizukuri is also controversial since the person eating the dish will be watching the squid or fish die in front of them.
Ikura and shirako
It’s not likely that many expats will take Ikura and shirako as a combination since they are usually served separately. Shirako is the sperm of a fish and is generally the sperm sacks of a cod but could be another whitefish depending on where in Japan the expat tries it. This is a dish that is an acquired taste.
Again, it’s another popular dish and for expats wanting to try authentic Japanese cuisine then they should attempt it at least once. It looks and tastes much better than it sounds and is often fried so it has a crispy outer coating while having a soft inside.
Ikura are fish eggs which are, most commonly in Japan, salmon roe. Served raw, these little balls pop as they are eaten and tend to be served with rice. Some areas will offer up mentaiko, which is pollock roe dished up in the fish’s ovaries.
Funazushi is another fish dish and a great example of authentic Japanese cuisine. It is usually made with a wild caught goldfish or even carp, with the chef removing the scales and gutting it carefully without damaging the body and then packing the cavity with salt and leaving it for a year to ferment.
Depending on where in Japan the expat decides to try the dish, it may be kept in barrels underground so the fish is fermented properly. After a year, the fish is repacked in rice and then left for another four years until the preparation is complete.
Those who enjoy funazushi will say that it’s an acquired taste, with a strong fish and salt experience. However, it is declining in popularity with many younger people not able to deal with its striking taste.
When it comes to enjoying traditional Japanese street food, expats could try takoyaki, which are fried octopus balls.
The chef will take a small piece of octopus and wrap it in a sticky batter to become a bite sized ball and then fry it. When served up they usually come with mayonnaise or a special takoyaki sauce.
There are lots of street vendors offering these and one recommendation is to use those that have more people waiting to be served since they will be of better quality. There are also chain restaurants offering this dish in a range of flavours.
Sazae, or the horned turban sea snail, is a popular dish in Japan. This is a large mollusc and can be served either grilled or raw as sushi.
This dish tends to be seasonal and when grilled does have a frothy appearance which some may find off-putting but it is still considered to be a delicacy.
It’s a fairly distinctive snail that grows to about seven inches in length, and it tends to be an expensive dish. This is also a popular roadside dish served up by street vendors in many harbours where they are freshly landed.
So, after dealing with a wide range of unusual dishes from live squid being filleted and served up still alive at the table to fish that can kill, what could possibly top the list? The answer is horumon, or entrails.
The word horumon literally means ‘discarded goods’ and will cover any part of an animal after the edible muscle parts have been removed. Horumon restaurants are very popular and the dishes can be boiled or barbecued.
Horumon, which is sometimes known as motsu, can be made from pork or beef offal and along with intestines can also include the heart, rectum, pancreas, diaphragm and uterus. The popularity grew from Korean barbecue restaurants but there are now ready made packages available in Japanese supermarkets.
While entrails are popular around the world they are a delicacy in Japan. Expats need to be wary when ordering intestines since they may find organs being added to the mix – and they may find animal brains are also offered up as horumon. Usually served with a thick sauce, horumon can be chewy and difficult to eat though it does release squirts of fat into the mouth to help the process. Horumon is best enjoyed with a variety of marinades.
However, we can’t leave the subject of the weird and wonderful foods of Japan without giving honourable mentions to inago which are candied grasshoppers,.
And it was a close call to adding namako to our top 11 weird Japanese foods, which is a type of sea slug, though many restaurants will refer to it as a sea cucumber. Cut into thick slices and served with soy sauce and vinegar, the namako is offered up raw and often served at New Year.
Then there is nankotsu which is fried chicken cartilage; it’s a popular dish in Japanese pubs as well as restaurants and monkfish liver – ankimo – is growing in popularity and there are lots of places offering dried jellyfish – kurage.
Other particular favourites in Japanese restaurants include curry doughnuts where there is a curry centre instead of jam; omu-rice which is a rice omelette; and okonomiyaki, which is a savoury pancake made with shredded cabbage and either pork or squid.
For the braver expats, there is also the choice of boiled locusts stewed in a sweet soy sauce called inago no tsukudani or the popular bar snack known as hachinoko, which is deep fried bee larvae. The aquatic version of hachinoko is zazamushi which are insect larvae.
Essentially, an expat cannot really say they have enjoyed a country until they ‘enjoy’ some of the traditional delicacies and while some of the cuisine mentioned here will be off-putting to many, there are some that taste much better than they sound!