Food errors // Interesting Ingredients // Favourite Foods // Lessons Learnt for Vegetarians
Before I came to Japan, I thought I knew quite a lot about Japanese food. I’ve been to Yo Sushi and Wagamama; we have always have miso, udon, soba and tofu in the cupboard: so, what could be so confusing- right? WRONG. It didn’t take long for AC to get tired of hearing “I made a Food Error today” every time I called! And although I’ve learnt a lot about different ingredients and dishes, I still regularly come across things I don’t recognise. I should say though, that this is not going to be a BuzzFeed-style article about how CRAZY Japanese food is, and how many BIZARRE things are eaten here that you JUST WON’T BELIEVE. I actually don’t think that Japanese food is very strange, there are just a lot of different herbs, vegetables and fish that we don’t have in the UK; most of my Food Errors have been a result of not being able to read Japanese, rather than the food being really strange.
Having said that, I have made some funny mistakes. For example, on my first day I bought a packet of what I thought was a kind of rice pudding with jam. Turned out to be o-kayu お粥 with umeboshi 梅干: a rice gruel flavoured with salt and pickled plums. Mmmm… It’s great to taste salt and vinegar when you were expecting sugar and jam! I also bought a bottle of vegetable oil from the supermarket which turned out to be mirin (sugary sake). Not so good for frying an egg. But I haven’t actually eaten anything disgusting (I like ALL food), mostly I have just made a lot of meat-based errors. These have reduced as I’ve got more food-savvy, but I still slip up. Only last Monday I managed to get sneaky meat in all three of my meals! Two were due to my inability to read, one was just a trick. There was a picture of broccoli and squash on the box of my o-nigiri bento, and inside there was battered pork and a tiny hotdog. Bastards!
If you want to know a lot about Japanese food, there are some great websites that I’ve used to find out how to prepare unfamiliar ingredients or what certain dishes are. These ones have been helpful to me: justhungry, justonecookbook, recipesfortom and bento. I’ve really enjoyed looking for things that I don’t recognise in the supermarket or market and then reading about what they are and trying to figure out how I can cook with them. And much thankfulness must go to my lovely friend M, who is always on the end of my whatsapp, answering “what’s this”, accompanied by a blurry photo! There is such an interesting range of ingredients here, and lots of beautifully fresh vegetables & fish. There is also a massive range of seaweed, tofu/soya products, dried things and pickles in more varieties than you can imagine. Here is a selection of things I’ve come across…
Made from the root of Amorphophallus konjac, this difficult to describe food is almost calorie and nutrition free! It doesn’t have much flavour, but it has a texture like a really solid, crunchy jelly. It doesn’t go soft or soggy, no matter how long you cook it, and it absorbs lots of flavour. It comes in different forms, including noodle shapes. I really like it! But it doesn’t dissolve in your mouth at all, you have to chew a lot, which is a bit funny. In fact, people have died from choking on it and certain sweets made of konnyaku have been banned in the past. It’s a vital ingredient of oden (yummy).
Ah man, I love furikake so much. It’s like crack. But for rice. And probably less healthy. It describes a really wide range of dried seasoning that you put on top of rice to make it more interesting. There are LOADS of different types and flavours and I’m sure that the ingredients list must read like the back of a Pringles packet (why else would it be so more-ish?!)- but I can’t read so I don’t care. The one I have at the moment has little bits of dried wasabi, sesame seeds, katsuboshi (see below), dried fish eggs, seaweed and I don’t know what else. It’s so delicious. If you don’t want to eat twice the amount of rice you really need to, simply because you require a vessel to carry furikake to your mouth, do not try this, ever: you won’t be able to turn back. This is what it looks like…
As well as the well known ones, there are a lot of unusual root vegetables* here! I particularly like lotus root/renkon/蓮根 (Nelumbo nucifera), and burdock/gobo/牛蒡 (Arctium lappa) -but the jury’s still out on mountain potato/naigamo/山芋 (Dioscorea japonica). The latter has a mucilaginous goop covering it (like okra) which sort of goes away when you cook it but also sort of stays. If you ignore the goop then it’s quite nice: it has a mild taste and the texture is like a cross between water chestnut and a really floury potato. Oh and- fresh bamboo shoots/takenoko/竹の子 are particularly sweet and delicious here. They don’t look anything like the ones we get from the chinese takeaway!
I am yet to try taro/satoimo/里芋 (Cocolcasia esculenta) or lily root/yurine/ユリ根 (a Tiger Lily- not sure what species) but hopefully I’ll get them in before I go.
*I should note for the botanical pedants (you know who you are) that lotus root, taro, bamboo shoots and lily root aren’t actually roots.
Bonito Flakes/Skipjack Tuna Katsuobushi 鰹節
This is a really important ingredient! It is smoked, dried and fermented skip jack tuna that has been shaved into flakes or sometimes powder. Sometimes it’s not tuna sometimes it’s bonito which is a cheaper fish. Anyway, it’s in everything. It’s one of the key ingredients of dashi だし: the stock that is the basis for all soups, stews and broths. It has a really strong, yummy flavour: smokey and fishy with loads of umami. A little pinch makes your food delicious!
Herbs & Leaves
I haven’t encountered too many herbs because it’s been winter and food in Japan is very seasonal. However, two I have tried are shiso and chrysanthemum leaves. Neither tastes like anything I’ve had before. Shiso 紫蘇 or perilla (Perilla frutescens var. crispa) is really common and used to flavour lots of things: it’s in sushi, it’s often dried to put on rice and sometimes you get a tempura-ed leaf with your udon. Yummy! It looks like a stinging nettle leaf and there is a purple kind too.
Fish egg sack, miso, freeze-dried tofu, seaweed types… So many things. Here is a selection of shots from markets, which are much more common that the UK and full of lovely things.
MOCHI 餅 IS MY SOUL FOOD. Savoury mochi is delicious, but mochi sweets- mmmmm. Actually, all Japanese sweets are amazing. I would be totally happy to forgo pastries and cakes for the rest of my life if someone could just keep supplying me with desserts made from rice, beans, herbs and seaweed. I’m really not joking. But before I dribble on my keyboard, here are some photos of some delicious meals I’ve had in Japan. You’ll notice that there are a lot of sweets…
Five Rules for Vegetarians Visiting Japan
So after all of my food misadventures, here’s the summary of my advice for other vegetarians…
- Be suspicious of all deep fried, battered or breaded things. And dumplings.
- Learn how to say: sumi masen, kore wa niku desuka? O-Niku wa tabemasen. Say it all the time, to everyone, just so they know. Just keep saying it.
- Don’t go anywhere near ramen. DON’T.
- Instead of feeling disgusted when you realise that you just ate meat, try to feel grateful that it was such a small amount that you didn’t notice it in advance (I haven’t had much success with this one yet).
- If you’re not prepared to eat fish, cancel your trip to Japan.