Thursday, April 2, 2009

Food: Cultures Experienced

They’re the best part! Just for you – because of this occasion!

Lobster brains, laid out before me; a smattering of grey matter on succulent flesh. A delicacy, I’m assured. As I run my fork in awkward circles around the meat all I can think is, is this a game of load the ignorant foreigner with alcohol, and trick him into all manner of foolish things.

All eyes were upon me. And, after all, I did just eat the meat of a fish, as it lay skewered in front of me still twitching in its final moments. So really, what was the difference here?

Polite smiles encourage; polite smiles also indicate that it would be a disservice to my hosts, were I not to eat this small bite, this most cherished part of the once captive crustacean. Very well then, no sense in delaying the inevitable: slug back the Chu-Hi and swallow the brains.

Thank you Zauo Sushi (3-2-9 Nishi Shinjuku, Tokyo) for this fabulous opportunity. If only that was to be the strangest thing I would eat that night.

Now, I am no stranger to Asian food. Growing up in Toronto’s Northern suburb I had access to some of the best Chinese food on the planet. I know how to tell what internal organ in floating in my soup, because of the texture and patterning. I understand that animal’s feet can be quite tasty. I am no stranger to that which comes from the ocean’s depths. However – the next thing offered my way, once more, gave me reason to pause.

The lobster brains were good, there’s no denying it. It tasted like a rich creamy butter, nothing distressing at all. Those around me all smiled as I enjoyed it. However, that time had passed. It was now it was time for fish eyes.

Look, don’t get me wrong – I understand that sometimes eyes can be tasty. But I also remember being told by many people, “sure, I used to eat eyes when I was a baby, but not anymore.” If these ocular devouring professionals choose to pass up the gelatinous treat what was I doing about to eat into it?

Oh, another Chu-Hi? We’re throwing it back together? Well in that case – let’s have some eyes!

With a little pop, I broke through the hardened shell, and released the gushing innards. As those around me started laughing I realized that while lobster brains are for the best of the best, eyeballs were just a way to laugh at the tourist.

Once more, if only the night were to have ended there. But no, being Japan, and being a guest, the night needed to press on. From the restaurant to karaoke bar. From karaoke bar to another karaoke bar. From that karaoke bar to an all night karaoke bar. Each step of the way introduced me to more culinary and fermented treats, oddities, and wonders. Some of which I even remember.

It was through blurred vision that I stared down at a menu, trying to discern what food would help settle my stomach, and what food would – well, there’s no need to think about that.

There – before me – was something familiar in this sea of the exotic: squid.

I’d had squid before. It comes cut up, deep friend, and served with lemon and tarter sauce. Squid. I understand it, and I enjoy it. And there’s something else – deep friend… deep fried what? Well it doesn’t matter. All friend food tastes the same. For the final item? Shrimp. Sweet, delicious shrimp.

At the best of times I don’t like shrimp. This newly invented desire should have set off alarms. It should have foreshadowed my eventual despair. Sadly, at that moment, I felt quite good about my provisionary choices.

Sake, sake, everywhere – and not a drop to drink; well not by the time the food came. And what food it was. It turned out my deep friend food was octopus. This I could tell by the fact that it was, very literally, a deep friend octopus!

Yes, there was its head, and there were its tentacles. One bite, one chew, and down they go, you say? Hmm. Well perhaps I’ll just fill up on the squid. The squid, which were just lying on a plate all neat and orderly staring at me with their full eyes coated in some sort of pickling, slimy, brine. Well, there was one saving grace – the shrimp. Sure I don’t like them, but I’ve had them severa--- Oh what is that?!

My reason for not liking shrimp is that they look, when eaten, like what they did when alive. This is a pet-peeve of mine, eating things that look dead – as they once did living. But I had thought this about shrimp? How wrong I was. Those little pink cocktail curls are as far removed from shrimp as a steak is from its living counterpart. This shrimp, the one I had so agreeably chosen, had eyes, and antenna, and – what? Just one bite and you swallow it all back?

Shrimp. Just like the octopus. Just like the squid. All of them looking just like they did before they were destined to end up in my belly. Just staring up at me. But they were ordered. I had to eat them.

One by one, creature of the deep slid down my gullet... And to be honest, by the time I got to the shrimp, I figured – hey… I’ve come this far, there’s really nothing all that strange about this one either.

Eating around the world – it’s a cultural experience. One best done, under the steady procurement, provision, and progression of alcohol. Sweet sweet cultural lubricant: so long as you can keep it all down in the end.

[Note: This post was inspired by the March 8th episode of Departures, Mongolia: Meals and Wheels. Justin Lukach, Scott Wilson, and Andre Dupuis were subjected to some delicious boiled blood, after being sufficiently … loosened … by fermented yak’s milk.

Watching the episode of the trio, I was thoroughly reminded of my own trip through the Orient – and thought this would be an excellent time to share it with you. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I did. Perhaps even a little more.]


  1. Being Chinese, I had to live with these foods at my parents' and grandparents' home. Fish eyeballs still gross me out to this day and deep friend octopus is no friend at all to me. I think it's the texture (when masticating) that makes me want to puke my guts out, but then I hold it together to keep it in. Then, I start thinking that I'm basically swallowing my own puke (what is more disgusting than that?)

  2. Hahaha! I know exactly what you mean, I'm based in Tokyo and my professors and lab mates usually get their kicks out of making me and my fellow foreign students sample natto and horse liver sashimi ;-)


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