Last Saturday night I was in a yakitori restaurant eating raw chicken.
That’s right, you heard me. Raw chicken.
Back home in the States, we are taught to never ever, ever, ever, never, ever eat raw chicken. Don’t even touch it if there is a hint of pink.
But here in Japan, it is perfectly acceptable to pop a hunk of fleshy fowl down your gullet. Yakitori (grilled bird) restaurants here in Tokyo raise their own chickens in sanitary environs and butcher the birds under close supervision.
It is guaranteed that the meat is not contaminated with salmonella or worms or rat poop or anything else we Americans regularly eat in hot dogs.
Of course, when that raw chicken is sitting on your plate staring at you like Belial from ‘Basket Case’, battling every stigma you ever learned as a child, it is difficult to just stick your fork (or chopsticks) into that glob and eat it. But you know, when in Rome, so I did. I ate the raw chicken.
It wasn’t that bad. It was like sushi, only with more texture. The flavor wasn’t anything to write home about, but the experience is more of a rush than anything. It is like eating fugu, or pufferfish. Fugu is poisonous, and if it isn’t prepared right, it can kill you. The fish itself tastes like styrofoam, but just the thought that what you are about to eat could be lethal, makes it a delicacy.
Eating in Japan is an adventure. Nothing is ever as it seems. For Americans, the difficulty arises from our preconceived notion of tastes.
For example, at the yakitori restaurant, they don’t just serve raw chicken. They also serve grilled chicken on skewers, along with seasoned pork and vegetables. It is delicious, especially for Americans who are tired of fish and rice. Our yakitori came with a dipping sauce that to me, looked like relish.
Red alert! In Japan, never make an assumption about the taste of food, because you are more than likely going to be grabbing for the nearest glass of water.
This wasn’t relish. It was crushed wasabi. Which is spicy. Quite spicy.
I made this same mistake several years ago when Lisa and I were still dating and we lived in the States. I grilled some bratwursts at her apartment. I found a bottle of mustard in the fridge. I squirted a yellow line down my brat.
Just as I bit into it, she squealed, “What are you doing?”
Never taking Lisa’s warnings seriously, I chomped away. The next thing I was lapping my tongue in the bathroom sink.
Tip for the day: Japanese mustard tastes like horseradish on steroids.
Now here in Tokyo, Lisa and I share cooking duties. Prior to moving to Japan, there were four dishes I rotated through when it was my turn to cook: chili, jambalaya, shrimp scampi and chicken divan (a mushroom soup casserole my mother taught me).
Upon moving to Japan last year, my chili recipe went out the window. There are no chili beans at the local market. A can at the international food store costs over $5. Plus, the tomato juice comes in tiny bottles. In order to make a full pot of chili, I would have to fill my shopping cart with eight bottles of tomato juice, costing $2 a piece. My chili is not worth $40. How about yours?
Anyway, I kept the other three recipes, but the ingredients were altered. For example, the main ingredient in chicken divan is cream of mushroom soup. They don’t have mushroom soup in the Tokyo stores, but for some reason they have shelves (literally) of cream of corn soup. So corn became a key ingredient to my chicken divan.
As for my shrimp scampi, I added octopus to my recipe. Why not? And the jambalaya translates quite well to the Japanese menu: rice, shrimp, vegetables. The only thing is jalapeno peppers are fairly expensive in Japan and are not always in season.
In fact, all vegetables can be a little tricky to find. The first time I went to the Japanese grocery store by myself, I didn’t know what to think. It was like I was a guest in Wonka’s factory.
I needed green peppers. I looked in the produce aisle. There were sprouts. There was radish. There was even rutabaga. But green peppers? Heavens no.
Finally, I realized the green peppers were right next to the mushrooms.
What I thought they were the jalapeno peppers, were in fact green peppers. What I thought were string beans were in fact cucumbers. What I thought were carrots… well, they were actually carrots. They were just short and squat.
One time Lisa sent me to the store to buy, among other things, zucchini. I came back with one of those mutated cucumbers. One time she sent me to get bacon and I came back with pork loin (I know, how hard is that? But seriously, you had to be there. You would have made the same mistake).
Fruit in Japan is expensive as all get out. I try to eat an orange every day (since orange juice is outrageously expensive). A bag of oranges costs $5. A little steep, but reasonable when you compare it to the price of apples ($1 for one apple).
One day when I was at the store I found a bag of oranges for $4. I couldn’t tell the difference between the $4 oranges and the $5 oranges, so in the cart it went.
The next morning I peeled an “orange” and bit into it. It was the most bitter, wretched thing I ever did taste.
Of course, I ate the whole thing. I mean, I did pay for it after all.
Later, Lisa informed me that I had bought imposters. They weren’t oranges at all. They were a fruit called hassaku, which is found only in Japan. You are supposed to eat it more like a grapefruit, or just peel the entire skin and eat the pulp inside.
This seemed like a lot of effort. But as I mentioned, I had bought the entire bag, so every morning for the next week I got up five minutes earlier just so I could peel the damn skin off my oranges. Sorry, ‘hassaku’.