Japan offers more extraordinary food experiences than nearly any other country in the world. Even if you want French crepes, or Italian osso bucco, or delicious Sichuan – even just a great cheeseburger and milk shake – the Japanese can cook it, and cook it well.
Beyond that, Japanese food itself is one of the most distinctive, sophisticated and complex cuisines on earth. Having developed so much in isolation, Japanese cuisine is utterly unique, using ingredients that are inextricably tied to the country’s complex geography and history.
While one can explore almost infinite variations on Japanese noodles, Wagyu beef or seaweed dishes, things can get even more interesting when one ventures beyond those basics. The Japanese palate is inexhaustibly curious, even daring, and the country is home to dishes that may challenge even the most sophisticated, well-traveled gourmand’s tastes.
Some foods eaten in Japan might provoke objections on various grounds – among them raw horse, whale and various sea creatures that are cooked while still alive – but for adventurous eaters who think they’ve eaten it all, here are eight exotic dishes served around Japan worth considering:
Ankimo: Fish liver is popular in Japanese cuisine, which may be news to many, especially since…fish have livers? Well, of course they do. One of the most popular is the liver of the monkfish, an exceedingly unattractive fish that is known in Japan for its delicious ankimo. Salted and served with a ponzu sauce, ankimo is considered by some to be comparable to foie gras.
Yuba: The Japanese make everything from tofu to soy sauce from soy beans, but perhaps the most elegant, simple and simply delicious product of the humble bean is yuba. Known in English as “tofu skin,” yuba is a side product of the heating of soymilk, and as with many Japanese foods, it is processed in a number of different ways, making it a chewy snack or even a pastry called yuba manju. Perhaps best is the simple little bowl of creamy yuba that is almost a pudding – one of the most delicate flavors in Japanese cuisine.
Chirimen Jako: Once you get past the occasional sense that your food is staring back at you, taking a mouthful of chirimen jako is less unnerving than might be expected, because whether dried and chewy or fresh and moist, these tiny sardines have a nice flavor and nothing at all in the way of bones. A popular bar food, they go well with either beer or sake.
Fugu: Fugu is the Japanese name for the puffer fish, a poisonous fish that can be toxic to the point of total paralysis. But in the hands of the proper chef – and you do want to make sure he’s a chef who knows what he’s doing – it is apparently quite an interesting… psychological test. Like many Japanese foods, fugu actually has quite a light taste, but it’s the potential for something going wrong – which of course hardly ever happens – that gives the dining experience its flavor.
Tobiko/Mentaiko: Fish roe are a popular component of many different Japanese dishes, from the ubiquitous tobiko that is sprinkled on sushi to the salmon roe that explodes with fatty, fishy goodness in every bite. But one of the most popular forms of roe in Japan is less well-known to outsiders: mentaiko, or marinated cod or pollack roe, is so popular that in addition to being eaten raw on its own, it may show up in rice balls, or even as a popular flavor of potato chips.
Torigai: There are all manner of shellfish available from the seas that surround Japan, but one of the finest is torigai, the Japanese version of what the English know as cockle and what translates as “heart clam.” Fishermen have to get a special license to harvest torigai, which are mostly found in the waters of Shizuoka prefecture and only in the spring, making torigai rare, expensive – and perhaps even more delicious.
Shirako: While fish roe, or eggs, are widely eaten, a less common dish is fish sperm, or what the Japanese call shirako. Not actually the sperm itself, shirako is the sac that holds the sperm (of cod), so it is larger, chewier and less gooey than one might expect. Served fried or steamed, it is at its creamiest when served uncooked.
Natto: Speaking of gooey, we’ve saved the greatest challenge for last: Natto is, as they say, an acquired taste. Most Japanese seem to have acquired it, as it is often referred to as “Japanese comfort good.” Though often compared to a very pungent cheese, this concoction of fermented soy beans – with a very sticky, crunchy and mucus-like texture that is an acquired feel – did not strike this eater as particularly cheese-like. Or at all tasty. But if you’re looking for distinctive flavors – and something that’s said to be very healthy – natto may be a taste worth acquiring.