(Once again, my friend Melissa sends us tales of life in the JET program. She is currently living in in Kumamoto Prefecture on Kyushu Island.)
One of the first things that comes to people’s minds when they think about traveling to a foreign country is the different types of food. Most are slight tweaks to a common food that we may have eaten in the past; a type of chicken cooked with a new tropical fruit, or perhaps a type of pasta made with a cheese you’ve never tasted before. All of which are relatively safe and leave your palate piqued with interest but not overwhelmed.
Japan, in my experience, has two very different categories of food. On the one hand Japanese cuisine is famous for being very mild with their flavors and preferring to taste the basis of what you are eating rather than additives. A good example would be sushi where the focus is on the natural taste of the fish rather than any type of seasoning. Even their sweets are very bland in nature. Mild creams and chocolates are just enough to sweeten your taste-buds but not enough to overload them with sugar.
Then there is the strange and unusual category. Different parts of Japan will have their own foods to put in this category but in Kyushu there are a couple of winners that I feel deserve to be mentioned.
The first and actually the least unusual in this area would be Yamame. This is a type of trout that is caught in the fresh-water rivers in the smaller villages. The fish in about 5-7 inches long, with very little meat on it.
The thing that makes this special is that in this part of Japan eating that fish whole, head and all, is the ONLY way to eat that fish. There’s no picking out the bones or taking out the eyes. You eat every little bit of that fish. The audible crunch of the bones and the bitter aftertaste of the organs can be a bit much at first but it grows on you after a while. The thing that sometimes gets you is when they serve a female Yamame. It is considered very lucky to get a pregnant female. The kids during school lunch will gasp in excitement and jealousy when they see the gaping hole of the fish with little eggs spilling out. The ‘pop, pop’ feel of eggs bursting in your mouth like little zits has been something to this day that I struggle with. The bitter salty taste of the eggs and the almost jelly like texture sticks to the roof of your mouth for the entire day.
This next food is something that is very famous in this part of Japan. To start off with I should mention that in Kyushu all forms of meat, fish, sea food, etc. is game to be eaten raw. On several occasions I have been served raw chicken and pork. Now to some this might seem strange but salmonella and other bacterial growths in meat are non-existent in Japan. Eating raw meat is considered very safe and even a preferred health measure since you are getting the full amounts of vitamins and protein without the extra fats and salts that end up in the meat when you cook it. Chicken and beef are not the most unusual raw meat to be served. This next meat can come in at a whopping $100 for a small plate of it raw and the animal itself is actually brought in from the good old USA. So a big round of applause goes out to Montana for supplying Japan with your… can you guess? …HORSIES!
Yes, raw horse meat or Basashi is considered a delicacy in this part of Japan. There is even a festival, called the drunken horse festival, where the horses are hand fed beer and are blessed by priests and the people before they are taken to a shrine to… well let’s just say that white lite at the end of their tunnel isn’t from the beer. Now this particular ceremonial BBQ slaughter has changed in the last 10 years due to animal cruelty charges from visiting foreigners, but to this day they will still feed giant Clydesdales beer and have them trop up and down the street with dancers. No eating of the horses but everyone gets to touch the horse and celebrate the memories of old traditions.
(Melissa actually sent this to me before the big UK horse meat scandal. It seemed an appropriate topic to post.)