I wasn’t an especially picky eater before arriving in Japan… although, nor was I a particularly adventurous eater. But when you move to a new country, being even slightly picky goes out the window. Whether you want to or not, you’ll face some very new foods. They’ll become foes, or new favorites — the choice is yours.
Just for fun, here’s a list of foods that I’ve eaten for the first time while living in Japan, most of which I really like, and three of which I really…don’t…
Raw fish – I don’t go out of my way to eat sashimi or sushi, but I also don’t have to. Because of drinking parties with coworkers or cheap conveyor-belt sushi dinners with friends, I seem to eat raw fish about once a week, whether I want it or not. After all these months, though, I can finally face raw fish without dread! Tuna and Yellowtail are my favorites.
Raw shrimp – I try to avoid raw shrimp. It tastes so much better cooked!
Raw squid – Personally, I think that raw squid is probably the worst thing on this list. The texture of raw squid is awful, and I have a really difficult time even forcing myself to eat it.
Fish eggs – I dreaded fish eggs until I actually tried them… they’re good, but interesting.
Persimmon – I didn’t know this fruit existed until I came to Japan. They’re pretty good.
Yuzu (a kind of lemon) – I love Yuzu! Another fruit I didn’t know existed. It’s more of a flavor than a fruit that you cut up and eat. I especially love Yuzu sodas, or hot Yuzu and honey tea.
Loquat – I had to google this fruit the first time I encountered it. Loquat doesn’t have a long season in Japan, so I’ve only eaten it twice, but it’s also a pretty good fruit.
Umeboshi (pickled plums) – Umeboshi can be found on top of rice in bento boxes, or as a candy, or the base of an alcoholic beverage. It’s a strong flavor, but I happen to like it. Ume-shu (plum wine) is my favorite Japanese alcohol.
Soba (Buckwheat) noodles – I absolutely love soba, served both hot and cold. Without question, it’s my favorite Japanese food, and I go out of my way to order it.
Yuba (tofu skin) – I eat this whenever I go to Nikko. Yuba has a slightly rubbery texture that some people don’t like, but it has a mild taste and I really enjoy it.
Crab – I had never tried crab until I came to Japan. It was served at my base school’s Bon Enkai (End of the Year party) and ever since, I’ve gone out of my way to eat it. Hokkaido crab was the absolute best.
Cow intestines – Intestines are a surprisingly common food here in Japan. To be honest, I don’t particularly like the flavor, nor the chewiness, nor the occasional chunks of gut fat… but I eat it without complaint when it appears on my plate.
Goya (bitter melon) – an Okinawan specialty. It lives up to its name: goya is ridiculously bitter. One of my coworkers grows them at home, so she gave me a few this summer. I valiantly searched for recipes to make them taste better, but I was rather unsuccessful. Needless to say, they’re not my favorite vegetable.
Beef tongue – Not as bad as I thought it would be, if you can get past the thought of eating grilled beef tongue. I would definitely order it again.
Fried chicken skin – A classic Yakitori dish, crispy chicken skin served on skewers. It’s not too bad, actually.
Fried chicken cartilage – I can’t do this one. I’ve tried, but the cartilage tastes too much like bone and YOU SHOULDN’T EAT BONE. It’s very popular amongst my Japanese friends, though. They like the crunch.
Grilled chicken hearts – Another Yakitori dish. I reluctantly tried this at the urging of a friend, and surprisingly, I really liked it. I ate an entire skewer of chicken hearts by myself. Admittedly, I feel like a witch when I eat chicken hearts *cackle*
Raw chicken – This unique dish appeared at a drinking party with coworkers. I was skeptical at first (raw chicken? RAW chicken? Is that safe??) but I did try it, and it tasted fine. Actually, it tasted like garlic, because the restaurant slathers their raw chicken with garlic. I love garlic, though, so no complaints from me. I will say that raw chicken is NOT a common Japanese food.
Raw beef mixed with raw egg – I ate this in Korea, although it can be found in Japan, too. Not nearly as bad as I had feared – in fact, I went back for a second helping!
Natto (slimy fermented beans) – Ibaraki Prefecture is famous for natto, and natto is infamous among foreigners. Although I’ve been asked upwards of 100 times if I like natto, I’ve actually only eaten it once. It’s not something you’d order in a restaurant — it’s more of a food you’d eat at home. The beans are slimy and the smell is a little off-putting, but in the end, I don’t think natto deserves the bad reputation it gets. That being said, I haven’t gone out of my way to eat it again.
Sakura denbu – Sakura denbu is dried, flaked cod fish mixed with salt, sugar, and pink dye. It looks like pink sugar and can be found lurking atop rice in some sashimi dishes. It’s one of the few foods that I truly dread eating (alongside raw squid and chicken cartilage) because it really makes me feel sick. Luckily I don’t encounter it too often.
Kinako mochi – This is one of my favorite Japanese deserts! Mochi is a kind of chewy rice dumpling, and kinako is roasted soybean powder (golden in color).
Dango – Dango is like mochi –a chewy rice dumpling – but it’s served on a skewer and it’s smothered in a kind of savory-sweet glazed soy sauce.
Bamboo shoots – Not only have I eaten bamboo shoots, but I’ve also dug them up from the ground myself! One of my colleagues invited me and a few others over to her house last May, and we all took turns with the shovel, digging out about thirty bamboo roots from her backyard. Then we feasted on bamboo fried rice and sauteed bamboo roots.
Shirako (Cod Sperm Sacs) – I saved the best (or the worst?) for last. This is by far the weirdest food on this list, and most Japanese people think it’s weird, too. It’s a kind of specialty food, I suppose. I was kind of dared to try it at a sushi place in Tokyo (without knowing exactly what it was). My opinion: surprisingly, it’s not awful, but I wouldn’t eat it again by choice!
That concludes my list of first-time foods. Many of the above are new favorites; some are so-so; and a few others have become foes (*cough* raw squid *cough*). But living in a new country is all about trying new things and being open-minded, so I’m willing to eat almost any food that comes my way!