Strange Spread: The Vibrant World of Japanese Cuisine

Sushi rolls and platters at the Hokkaido Food Fair in Koriyama's Usui Department Store

Sushi rolls and platters at the Hokkaido Food Fair in Koriyama’s Usui Department Store

Maybe the Scottish brogue was throwing me. I don’t, after all, have a particularly good ear for Celtic cadences. Having a knack for inappropriateness I never knew myself capable of since moving to Japan, I assumed my brain, under the influence of diabolic dyslexia, registered the offering as “fish sperm”.

However, the pale intestinal thing he jiggled at me with a pair of chopsticks was indeed fish sperm, known culinarily as milt, defined by TheFreeDictionary as “seminal fluid produced by male fish”. You can watch this gloriously discourteous video on Shirako, the sperm sacs of a male cod.

Earlier that day, during my lunch at the Fukushima branch office, I had already dared my digestion by trying some packaged fresh fish from the 7-11 convenience store, which I later found out to be a type of Japanese blue-backed fish (背の青い魚; this one most likely a kind of mackerel), mouth-wateringly sour, succulent, sweet, and unfortunately stubbornly pungent (my apologies to any post-lunch students or coworkers reading this).

Following my painful ordeal of having (knowingly) ingested glutenicious yet delicious Japanese foods during my first week or so here in Koriyama, I’ve been vigilant in my efforts to eat only natural foods with no fancy dressings such as those in the ubiquitous and customary soy sauce—soaked dishes. But outside the inviting glow of restaurants and under the fluorescents of the supermarket, the world of Japanese cuisine has not ceased to amaze me with its selection of the weird and wonderful.

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On a rather slow yet sunny Monday, my usual day off, I ventured to Usui at the behest of some clever students who suggested I visit this downtown, ten-floor department store to find some much-needed Japan-style postcards to send to family and friends (hold on, they’re coming!) – these being the same students who fawned over their favorite dish, Omuraisu.

On the top floor, I stumbled into a maze of market stalls and smells I have never smelled in my 26 years of smelling. I saw foods and creatures I’ve never set sights on and some I never want to again. Disturbingly beautiful mounds of translucent red roe eggs precariously spilled atop basins of ice, hewn blocks of hardish pink and green marine, and the kawaii-est (cute) cubes of chocolate and perfectly circular balls of lightly dusted mochi – everything so pleasing to the eye and yet so utterly unknown and exactly what any curious traveler would want out of an exploratory outing.

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The most alluring of the smells, aside from the puffed sweet potato loafs lightly toasting under hot lights at several of the booths in the front of the fair, turned out to be one of the more gruesome looking: Ikameshi, sweet rice—stuffed squid, which hails from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture.

Roasting Ikameshi at the Hokkaido Food Fair at Usui

Roasting Ikameshi at the Hokkaido Food Fair at Usui

I gave the less lovingly piled intestinal-looking slime heaps a wide berth, past heated buffet trays lined with mouth-watering jumbo fried crab cakes. Behind the plastic or glass display cases, perfectly rolled sushi rolls as big as a babe’s arm and ornately arranged bento boxes shined in what I had assumed was a toxic veneer of sprayed laminate.

Upon a little research, however, these and much of the food shown in the many store-front displays here are plastic replicas. In fact, fake food goes back some ways in Japan, evolving from short-lived wax-made models in the Shōwa period (1926—1989) to today’s vinyl makes with a much longer shelf life. The phenomenon, according to several sources, was spurred by Western influence and has its value today for tourists braving an all-Kanji menu in less English-prevalent prefectures.

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In addition to some fan literature on the subject – including Yasunobu Nose’s Japanese People Eat With Their Eyes – there is a famous street in Tokyo, Kappabashi-dori, lined with shops selling plastic restaurantery from fake knives to the most intricately detailed blue-backs.

As much as I enjoy gawping at and drooling over the all-too-perfect window works, I still have a long way to go in learning Japanese if I want to try all of Japan’s real gluten-free offerings.

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Putain, Gluten!

I remember this pain. I rolled over, expecting to see the sun peeping over the low-rises in downtown Koriyama, but what really roused me was the churning sensations in my stomach. I had let my guard down during my first week or so in Japan, eating unknown foods and dressings and letting open the gates for my old arch enemy, Gluten.

Now that it’s my third week here, I’m teaching full days of classes – up to eight a day – and there is little break between each lesson. 40-minute session, 10 minute in-between (unless the previous class runs over), repeat. It’s a wonderfully structured system, each session focusing on very specific target language the student should be able to use effectively by the end and remember it for the next time the lesson is repeated.

I mentioned before how English teachers must be part entertainer, and when you’re immobilized by pain down below, it shows up above; by the end of the day, my efforts to smile and keep upbeat for the students have exhausted me. I’m afraid my glum silence and moments of outright confusion might put off my co-workers – the other day, a fellow teacher asked me several times for a certain file, and for all my frustrated efforts to focus and acquiesce his request, I could barely function enough to answer him with a full sentence. I even opted out of a Tokyo trip with the school for fear that I might have to spend some pretty yen on medical advice and meds or, worse, draw more unnecessary attention to my, frankly, annoying situation during the trip.

A package of mochi squares, ready to boiled and made into delicious treats

A package of mochi squares, ready to boiled and made into delicious treats

However, I’m lying low now, planning carefully my next grocery store attack. I didn’t come 6,600 miles across the world to not sample Japan’s best, and it’s not as if though this subject hasn’t been breached already by gaijin bloggers who have been braving the wheat beast in Japan for some years now. Of course, there are a few Japanese dishes I absolutely must push from my mind, ne’er to be tasted by my lips:

Miso soup – it comes with nearly every meal and can include such base ingredients as soybeans, barley, rice, buckwheat, millet, rye, and wheat. One can find that almost-legendary fifth taste, umami, in several kinds of miso. I had at least two bowls, wittingly, during my first three days in Japan.

Soy sauce – Many of my students, because food can be such a popular topic in class to rouse discussion, now know of my allergy. Though at first I believed their incredulous “Eeeeeehhhhhs?” to be a typically polite Japanese expression of interest, I’ve found, even talking with students in the medical field and reading up on what little research there is on the subject here, that gluten sensitivity is hardly known to the Japanese population. Many students have been intrigued with what toppings I put on my sashimi or sushi, and when I answer “nothing” or “just wasabi”, I receive another adorably astounded “Eeeeeehhhhh?”

Soba Noodles – Like 711s, soba joints dot the cityscape of Koriyama, offering cheap, delicious, and filling lunches. And, like ramen noodles, packed with gluten.

Amazingly, halfway through writing this, my belly aching serendipitously let up as I thought of the Japanese treats I can eat and some I have yet to try:

Sashimi & sushi – While I’ve already had my fair share of both since arriving, I can’t wait for more. Despite the absence of soy or tamari sauce, I find the fresh fare delicious as is, particularly the octopus, which has an excellent texture and savory taste.

My sashimi fare after a day of snowboarding, with a regrettably untouched bowl of steaming miso soup

My sashimi and green tea fare after a day of snowboarding, with a regrettably untouched bowl of steaming miso soup

Yatsuhashi – Made from rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon and stuffed tortilla—like in appearance, these confectionaries are ubiquitous in the sweet shops lined in front of supermarkets in Koriyama.

Mochi – I’ve been dreaming of this rice paste before my arrival. Though a gluten-avoider should be prudent to read the packaging to make sure only rice flour has been used to dust the squares, most mochi is gluten-free and can be mixed with a bean paste and sugar for a tasty snack, according to several of my students.

Watch this mouthwatering preparation of sweet mochi.

Edamame – At restaurants in the States, it’s sometimes stale popcorn or tortilla chips. Here, it’s delightfully fresh, bright green edamame.

O-nigiri – Found lining the shelves and in abundance at every 7-11 and Family Mart, these little triangular seaweed-wrapped sandwiches are great lunchtime snacks (though I stick to only the plain ones, as others contain wheat additions).

There have been a few times when, cocky from such a long run of a pain-free stomach and clear head (well, not all of the time), I believed Celiac’s Disease to be another ailment manufactured in the hypochondriac portion of the brain. Now that the angry gluten gods have made me humble once again, I’m taking my kanji learning for the grocery store more seriously and being – politely – suspicious of all restaurant foods.

In addition, a student who happens to have some interest in the field of food allergies would like to meet with me, discussing the possibility of studying the effects of Chinese herbal remedies on my body. I have little to say on this area, but I’ll treat it with the same approach I take in any life situation: Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, unless it has gluten.

Resources:

http://ctrlalteat.com.au/gluten-free-japan/

http://lazybeggars.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/japan-is-not-the-gluten-free-mecca-you-think-it-is/

(list much like this one; first alerted me to teas with gluten in them and gluten-free soy joy bars)

http://justhungry.com/japan-dining-out-cards

(helpful dietary restriction cards to show waiters at restaurants)