I love food. Cooking and eating together is one of my favorite ways of showing love – to my spouse, my friends, and my family.
There’s very few things I won’t eat… and can count on one hand the number of times I haven’t enjoyed that random thing I ordered off the menu.
Food in Japan is spectacular (albeit different than my palate and stomach were used to) and often odd. The two don’t have to be mutual exclusive, I’ve learned. Sometimes the most delicious things are the ones that I have difficulties explaining to friends and family back home – because they sound like they would be gross.
These are some of the weirdest (and most delicious) foods I’ve eaten in Japan:
1. Fish eggs (salmon roe – ikura)
Fish eggs took some getting used to, to be honest. I didn’t like them the first dozen or so times I tried them… I wasn’t necessarily opposed to the taste, but it freaked me out the way they just pop in your mouth as you eat them.
Now I love fish eggs, especially salmon roe. They are these large, orange/reddish spheres that go really well with rice.
A fish egg (salmon roe) and salmon rice bowl (pictured above) is my go-to meal when I’m feeling grumpy, picky, or generally irritable while out with friends. Although it sounds weird to admit it, fish eggs have become one of my favorite seafood-related foods in Japan (second only to raw salmon).
2. Black sulfur ramen
I first tried black sulfur ramen in Hakone a bit over a year ago, when I was passing through with my husband and father.
I couldn’t get over how completely black the noodles were – eating them was such a strange sensation! In the end, they tasted pretty similar to non-sulfur noodles. Despite the similarities in taste, this still landed on my top weirdest foods in Japan list.
3. Tofu skins (yuba)
Did you know that tofu had skins? Because I definitely didn’t. They look like this:
The skins are savory, with a sort of rubbery-chewy consistency. They weren’t so weird as they were unexpected.
I first tried yuba (tofu skins) in the city of Nikko, where I was lucky enough to get to eat them raw and cooked, as a side dish and soaked in a soba noodle dish.
4. Raw horse meat
This is one of the only ones on the list that I am not keen to try again. Back when I first went to Tokyo, I went to a bar near the Tsukiji fish market with a couple Japanese friends to celebrate something (now I can’t remember). At the time, I wasn’t a fan of fish (shame on me, I know) and didn’t speak much Japanese, so two of the members ordered for all of us, deciding we would split a huge tray of sashimi pieces over rice.
Someone gave me raw horse meat.
I tried it.
I didn’t care for it very much and asked what it was, so I could avoid it in the future. When I found out I had just eaten raw horse meat, I freaked out a little bit (while said friend laughed and thought it was hilarious – it was one of those ‘prank the foreigner’ experiences).
Long story short, no I don’t want to try that again.
5. Natto (fermented beans)
Natto is a slimey, strong smelling “super-food” composed of fermented soybeans. The running joke is that you either love natto or you hate it – and even Japanese people are split a pretty even 50/50 on “love it” vs “hate it”). I am very firmly in the “hate it” camp but since my husband and in-laws are from Ibaraki, the natto capital of Japan, I’m around it all the time.
Natto is typically eaten over rice, plain or with soy sauce, mustard, or minced leeks. Every time my husband eats it, I made him go brush his teeth twice before he can breathe next to me or kiss me, because he smells like some small animal crawled into his mouth and died there two weeks earlier.
Seriously. It’s so awful.
Ryosuke even wrote me a poem last year, making fun of my hatred for natto:
6. Whale meat
Whaling is a difficult topic to talk about. Period.
However, like a lot of the other food on this list, I’ve ingested whale meat without realizing it at least a dozen times.
There’s only so many times you can ask “what is this?” when you’re out with friends, eating at someone’s house, or sharing a meal with the in-laws before you just give up and eat everything on your plate. Canned and fresh whale meat can often be found at supermarkets.
7. Chicken Cartilage (nankotsu)
You see, in Texas we don’t eat the cartilage of the chicken. Instead, you chew around the cartilage to get to the good stuff (you know, skin, meat, etc).
Imagine my surprise when on one of our first dates out in Tokyo, my boyfriend (well, now husband) ordered three sticks of chicken cartilage at the yakitori restaurant. It was chewy, odd, and not entirely awful – the most difficult part of eating it was trying to get my head around the fact that I was willingly eating cartilage.
Now, of course, years later I love the stuff. We order it every time visit the yakitori stand across town.
8. Smoked Rainbow Trout (Nijimasu)
Remember how earlier in this post I said I used to not like fish?
That’s the understatement of the century.
When I first moved to Japan, eating seafood made me feel physically ill. I have no idea why. For as long as I can remember, anything remotely related to seafood makes me nauseous and if I tried to eat it, I ended up vomiting more often than not. Shrimp flavored ramen, pan fried catfish, smoked salmon – I couldn’t eat any of that.
Then I moved to Japan with this boy I was dating and spent the summer living at his parent’s house in Ibaraki. His parents, who ate fish with nearly every meal, introduced me to other types of fish, with not as “fishy” tastes. We learned that I did better with raw fish than cooked fish (raw fish don’t taste like the ocean as much) and the first time his older brother caught nijimasu at a local river and smoked them, I was actually able to eat it.
It was delicious.
To me, nijimasu is one of the fish that helped me start liking fish.
Even though it has these creepy little eyes that stare at you while you eat it (hello, nightmares).
I’m better now, when it comes to fish. I love nearly every single type of raw fish I’ve tried, do okay on smoked fish, and can handle most cooked fish. I married that boy from earlier (yay me) and began to take on his love for fish. In fact, I haven’t been physically ill after eating a fish in almost three years now- thanks to the magic of true love (or something like that).
9. Sea grapes (umi budo)
Sea grapes, also known as green caviar, are a local specialty on the island of Okinawa (although they exist in other parts of the world too). They’re technically a plant. Ish.
And are very salty and pop in your mouth. In that way, they’re rather similar to fish eggs.
10. Intestine (hormone)
I’m still not 100% what parts of the body get dumped in front of you when you order “hormone,” all I know is it’s the nasty bits. My husband swears it’s only intestines, but other friends say that restaurants will often dump organs into the mixture too.
Basically “hormone” is a bunch of very sketchy-looking meats, served in a thick sauce. I’ve tried it twice and it’s made me gag twice – taste-wise it’s probably the worst thing on this list.
Even when Japanese mom and dad serve it when we’re visiting, I won’t be polite and pretend to eat it. It’s that awful.
11. Spicy Fish Egg Pasta (Mentaiko)
Spicy fish egg pasta can be found at basically any “large” pasta restaurant in Japan. It is spicy cod roe, with mayonnaise or cream or butter or olive oil or whatever else that particular restaurant fancies. Everyone seems to have their own recipe.
I prefer to make mine at home, using black pepper and unsweetened soy yogurt.
The hardest part is squeezing all the eggs out of the sac (as seen below). Ewwww.
12. Candied grasshoppers (Inago)
Inago, or candied grasshoppers, don’t actually taste much like grasshoppers. They’re a little chewy, a little crunchy, and taste strongly of soy sauce and sugar. As long as you don’t look at what you’re eating (or touch your tongue to the food), you won’t even notice you’re eating tiny, very dead insects.
I picked some of these up for Japanese dad when Ryosuke and I were on a road trip through central Japan – and then ate them over rice with Japanese dad a couple weeks later. They were… interesting?
Honorable mention: Fried Octopus Balls (takoyaki)
Takoyaki is small chunks of octopus, friend in a ball-shaped batter and topped with green onions, mayonnaise, and sauce. It’s a rather normal dish, the only thing “weird” about it is it’s English name / explanation of “fried octopus balls.” (because it’s not actually the balls of an octopus)
It’s delicious. You should definitely try some when you’re in Japan (especially if you’re in Osaka) – takoyaki is one of my favorite foods in all of Japan~!