Well after being here in Japan for three weeks and eating everything I could get my lips around, I have had much that was good and some that was not. If you are eating traditional normal day to day Japanese food then you are in for an adventure and to be honest it wasn’t as good as an adventure as I was hoping for. The Japanese palate is on the other side of the food spectrum from what we are used to.
After getting to travel some in the past few years the one thing that really amazes me is how much food there is out there that I have never seen or even heard of. I have eaten vegetables that I couldn’t identify. I have eaten fish that I didn’t think were edible. I have eaten bowls of stuff where the only ingredient I could identify was noodles and it was really good. Today I had something that was somewhat like an eggplant but was so meaty in texture that I was shocked it wasn’t meat. The Japanese love pasta, not just Japanese noodles either. They do a lot of dishes with spaghetti and everyone I tried was really good.
The other night I was wandering around searching for someplace for dinner. I wish I could describe this well enough to do it justice but I can’t. In the area where I am, there is literally an underground city. There isn’t enough room for everything and everyone on the surface of the earth so they have simply made another level to the city. When my coworker was talking to his wife on the phone the other morning, I overheard him say “I swear, its like another city underground!”
Anyway I am looking for a place to eat, which I should say is a pretty funny thing to do because every single place has plastic models of their food in the window so even though I can’t read what it is, if it looks good I go in. So I find this pasta place with tasty looking plastic food and go in. The waitress says something to me in Japanese, I say Hai and ichi, (yes and one) I assume she asked me if I wanted to eat and if it was just me. Of course she could have asked me if I liked men and what my IQ was. She sits me down and asks me something else. I think its funny that she does like we do in America and just assumes that you are in her country so you must know the language. I do the same thing in this instance, I assume she just asked me the question I am used to getting at this time in every restaurant, I order a drink. I order bubble tea which if you haven’t had it, its iced tea with these half inch diameter black tapioca balls in it. It requires a giant straw to pull those things through it. Its chewy thirst quenching goodness. I also order some spaghetti based pasta, looks like it has butter, lemon zest maybe and some tomatoes and a couple tiny mushrooms. Perfect. When the pasta comes it looks great and tastes great. I have eaten about half of it when I think, wow they have really put a lot of Parmesan cheese on this. Then I look and my cheese has eyes. IT WAS NOT CHEESE. It looks just like cheese, but it was these tiny clear fish. I would like to be able to say it tasted bad but they really didn’t. The taste and texture was not all that far off from hard cheese actually. The thing is, once you realize your food is full of baby fish staring thier tiny crying eyes at me, its hard to finish. If you look close you can see all the little eyes.
I wish I could say that was the end of my food horrors, but it wasn’t. The biggest horror came today in the form of a frequent visitor to the Japanese cuisine nightmare. Bean based sweets.
Japan is huge with the vending machines. They are everywhere and sell everything from coffee to used girls underwear. I wish I was lying about that second one but if you think American men are weird you haven’t even met weird until you come here. We have quite a few vending machines at the company I am here visiting (sorry no underwear there). Today I went to the restroom and passed a vending machine. I thought a little coffee would be good. As I was standing there pondering the many possibilities, I spied a shiny red can with Japanese writing all over it. There was not one word of English on it, which is a little unusual even for here. Normally there is at least the word coffee on the can somewhere identifying what it is. Not this can. Just shiny red kanji. I am a food gambler and thought what the heck, its a buck ten, I’m rolling the dice. I buy it and it comes in a small can and the can is pretty warm. The drinks come in both hot and cold from the same machine, this came from the red area so I knew it was a hot drink. A hot drink in a can no less. So I carry it back to the area where we do inspections. As I am carrying it, I am shaking it and it seems thick. Not watery like coffee, thick like syrup. Rut row.
There are 3 Japanese inspectors that follow us around and Harold San our interpreter, standing in the inspection area. As I walk up I say “Harold San, I wanted something to drink and thought this can looked good, what is it?” At this time I should say, that in life you are given signs. Some might say its a higher power, some might say its mother nature, and I don’t know but I do know that we are given signs and it was at this time I was given a sign. As I held up the can, everyone started laughing. Not ha ha laughter either. The kind of laughter that you laugh when you can’t wait to see the look on someones face when they drink the red canned drink. Harold San says “Cary San, this is hot sweet bean drink”. Holy mother of all that is good and pure in this world. Who thought “you know hot sweet bean drink would be a great product!”. Well I bought it so I might as well get this over with, I open it and smell it. It smells like refried beans. I even let Mike smell it. He said “refried beans”. Yeah. So I take a swig. Let me break this down for you. Have you ever bought kidney beans in the can? You know the juice in the can? Take a cup of that juice and add a half a cup sugar, now take a few of the beans and mush them with a fork and stir them into the mixture. Now heat it on the stove until reduced to a thick syrup like consistency and pour it into a mug. Yup, that’s the stuff. Sweet, warm, thick, gritty, chunky, bean based drink. As long as I live, I would be surprised if I ever drank anything this odd ever again. I can’t say it was horrible, it was bad, but not gag bad. In my best Tony Bourdain impression I did drink most of it but I couldn’t do all of it. I tried to get Mike to drink some. He wouldn’t even speak the word no. He just shook his head as if I had just asked him to drink dead cats. In true sick Cary fashion, I will be buying several cans of this stuff to bring home. Don’t be surprised to get a can for Christmas next year.
Bean drinks aren’t the end of it. I was in Tokyo last week and there was a line a mile long for something. I squeeze my way to the front to see what all the fuss is about. Its this machine that is making cookies. It puts some batter on one side of a mold, then it drops in a chunk of brownish stuff, then more batter, flips the whole thing over, cooks it and drops it out, wraps it, all within a few seconds. Its really cool to watch and the people are going NUTS for these things. They smell fantastic so I must get some. I finally get the womans attention and point to the sign that says 3 for 100 yen. She thinks I am reaching for cookies and actually slaps me. I had to laugh, chill lady, I cant speak Japanese, I need to point! She gives me my cookies. They are warm and soft and I take a bite and…. THEY ARE FILLED WITH SWEET BEAN GOO. I just about gag. How is it that mobs of people are killing each other to buy these things by the thousands and the very same food makes me gag? Here are a few pictures of the bean filled cookies. I ran into a stand tonight that made them in fish shapes. Yum fish shaped sweet bean cookies. I wonder if when kids get home from school here, they ask their moms for bean filled cookies to dip in warm bean drink. I think will serve that at my next party.
The woman in the hat is the one that slapped me.
That is a thick bean cake he is painting batter on.
They look good right? They even smell good.