I used to be glued to the tube when the Food Network first debuted, since it was a channel devoted exclusively to the art of the kitchen, from Emeril’s “bam,” to Mario Batali’s rustic Italian dishes, to the informative and entertaining Alton Brown, who combined theatrics along with actual technique. But like any media — especially television — change isn’t always for the better.
But who am I to harp on just the Food Network? TV today seems to simply consist of “reality” shows or shows featuring competition. What happened to the likes of”M*A*S*H,” “Taxi” and “Cheers,” where there was a real storyline that made you laugh and cry at the same time? Granted, when the original “Iron Chef” series first aired, it was interesting since it was the only cooking competition at the time. But now, it seems every other cooking show is either a cupcake war, cake war, kids cooking competition, or even a grandma cooking competition. So, I simply tend to gravitate toward “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” to learn about food from other cultures. And sometimes “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.”
I’ll admit that when I watch “Bizarre Foods,” it’s mostly to learn more about another country’s food culture than it is to actually sample those items. I mean, camel meat “preserved” in its own fat for months at less than ideal temperatures, leaving you with slowly decomposed meat in rancid fat? Uh, no thank you, I’m vegetarian. Or South American yucca beer that starts its fermentation with the women of the village chewing cooked yucca to introduce their own salivary amylases to initiate said fermentation? Uh, thank you, but I’m Mormon.
But sometimes, Andrew Zimmern highlights foods that I would love to sample, especially of the nose-to-tail dining variation or cultural dishes almost lost to modernization that usually take days to prepare. And that’s when I realized that Nihonjin also have a fair assortment of bizarre foods.
No, the original sushi wasn’t a California Roll, a basic futomaki (rolled sushi) or even the nigiri (bite-sized) version. It actually was something a lot more sinister, where the rice wasn’t even meant to be consumed. Rice was simply the vehicle to start the fermentation and acid production that preserved the adjacent slice of fish. And the fish didn’t start out as the best, fatty portion of otoro (fatty belly meat) or maguro (southern tuna), either. It wasn’t even as pleasant as the basic snapper. No, the original sushi used carp. Yes, carp, which usually is considered less than edible because of its soft texture and muddy flavor. Funazushi, a rare type of narezushi (mackerel sushi that’s salted) is the forefather of modern sushi definitely would qualify as a bizarre food. A specialty of the Shiga Prefecture, fermented bun, or Carassius auratus grandoculis, is first tightly packed in salt for about a year, then dried and mixed with rice to “ferment” for up to three more years. As you can imagine, it has an overpowering aroma and a sharp, vinegary taste. Make that a double bizarre food.
It’s Not Snot (or it snot snot)
Yamaimo, or the mountain yam, might look innocuous on the outside, shaped like your usual large tuber, but once it’s prepared, it creates a whole ‘nother ballgame with its unusual texture. Slimy and gelatinous, it resembles what bubbles out of your 2-year-old nephew’s nostrils when his allergies flare up. And it definitely doesn’t have much of a taste, so it’s primarily consumed because of the hanabata consistency. Another bizarre food.
Everyone knows that when you prep chicken or turkey in the kitchen, the key is proper hygiene, making sure to use a separate cutting board, separate knife, separate bowl and wash all items in hot, soapy water, lest we cross contaminate other foods items and give diners the dreaded salmonella poisoning. But what about serving chicken sashimi-style? What!? You should never consume chicken or turkey until the thigh juices run clear, never bloody! But chicken sashimi is exactly what some izakaya serve back in the Motherland. You see, not all chickens are infected with the salmonella bacterium, even stateside. But because a small percentage are, the USDA doesn’t want to take any chances and allow any chicken or turkey to be served less than well done. It even frowns upon the consumption of runny egg yolks, which aren’t really cooked but simply warmed. However, in the Motherland, there are poultry producers that raise hens that were never exposed to other hens — who might harbor the dreaded salmonella bacterium — where undercooked or even raw morsels won’t harm your intestinal tract. And this is one bizarre food that I’d be willing to sample … As long as it were in the Motherland.
Fish for Adrenaline Junkies
I’m convinced that diners who sample the flesh of the Tetraodontidae or fugu species are simply like those who seek the fastest roller coasters or love to skydive. They simply do it for the adrenaline rush they experience when the ride or the dive ends and they’re still alive. Personally, I’ll only exit a perfectly sound airplane even with a parachute at anything more than 35 feet elevation if the alternative was a fiery crash that surely would end with death. Otherwise, I’ll remain in the confines of said craft with the pilot.
But skydiving is like consuming pufferfish. I think it’s purely to consume something that could’ve killed you but you end up still alive. Because from what I’ve heard from those who have tried it, it doesn’t have much of a taste or texture. It’s one thing to sample the absolute best thing you’ve ever eaten or drank, even if in doing so puts you at risk for a premature demise, but to risk it for a nondescript white-fleshed fish bizarre food?
Hanabata and Toe jams
Probably at the top of the list of bizarre Japanese foods is that slimy, smelly bean, natto. You know that it wasn’t intentionally created that way. Especially since the Japanese have refined their cuisine so that subtle flavors are the rule and strong flavors and textures are avoided. You know someone way back when had to have steamed some soybeans, placed it in a straw wrapper to consume later that day, but inadvertently forgot where it was placed. Then they eventually found that packet of soybeans after B. subtilis worked its “magic” and created something with the consistency of snot that left “threads” from your lip to the plate — not unlike the threads that linger after you spit at the dentist’s office — with the aroma of used gym socks left in your car trunk for a week. But someone did consume that first creation of natto … someone likely so hungry that it was either starve to death or eat it …
Though I still feel that by itself, it simply tastes like used coffee grounds, natto creates magic when mixed with cubed raw tuna and fukujinzuke (chopped picked vegetables) with a little light or white shoyu (soy sauce) on sushi rice. Or when creative chefs incorporate natto into non-traditional dishes that you’ll find on Natto Day (July 10th) here in the 50th. This year’s event will be the sixth annual Natto Day dinner organized by the natto-obsessed trio of Scott Pang, Mari Taketa and Greg Sekiya though this year I plan on sharing my special natto dessert …
Or if you plan on visiting the 50th anytime soon, get a table at Gyotaku to sample their Nattochos featuring fried wonton chips topped with raw ahi (Yellowfin tuna), avocado, negi (leek), nori and not just natto but also grated yamaimo. Yes, bizarre Nihonjin nachos.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.