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Big in Japan: 5 Japanese foods you might want to avoid
Japanese cuisine is known the world over for its exquisite preparation and beautiful presentation of seasonal ingredients. Most visitors to Japan cannot wait to get a taste of 'real' Japanese food, such as fresh sashimi and sushi or delicate shrimp and vegetable tempura. And, truth be told, these dishes just seem to taste better in Japan!
However, it's worth pointing out that the Japanese are adventurous eaters, and their love of food extends far beyond sushi and tempura. In fact, some dishes that are considered delicacies in Japan aren't exactly popular menu items in the West. Internal organs like the heart and intestines are commonly served, and eating the flesh from a fish head with an eye staring straight at you is somewhat disconcerting, but not at all uncommon.
So just how 'real' do you want to get in your exploration of Japanese food? Here are 5 of the more bizarre foods that you might want to avoid while traveling in Japan.
Natto (納豆) is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans that has a distinctive aroma (it smells like rotten cheese), a strong flavor (it tastes liked aged gym socks) and a sticky consistency. However, it is also a low calorie, protein rich food that researchers attribute many health benefits ranging from cancer prevention to improving heart health and promoting the reversal of hair loss.
Tako-no-shokushu (たこの触手) Animal lovers beware - this dish starts when a tentacle is severed from a live octopus and the arm is cauterized. After a quick dip in soy sauce, you pop the squirming live tentacle into your mouth and start chewing. If you don't chew it quickly enough, the sucker will latch onto the roof of your mouth, and it will take a swig of beer and a well-applied chopstick to pry it off.
Fugu (ふぐ) Perhaps the most famous dish in Japan, the potentially lethal blowfish is dissected by a specially trained chef to remove all traces of tetrodotoxin before the raw meat is served. Of course, an incredible amount of time and preparation is needed as one errant flick of the chef's knife can leave behind enough of the poison to slowly paralyze your entire body while you remain completely conscious of your impending doom.
Tori-sashimi (鳥刺身) This gag-inducing dish is quite simply sliced raw chicken served with green onion and a special dipping sauce. Although relatively tasteless, this dish is prepared by specially licensed chefs, and is considered a delicacy in Japan. If you can get over your fears of hospitalization due to a rough case of salmonella poisoning, then go ahead and give this one a try.
Basashi (馬刺) Thinly sliced raw horse meat is served with a dipping sauce made of soy, garlic, ginger and green onions. While it's difficult for most people from North America to wrap their head around eating a barnyard favorite, this chewy dish is not that uncommon in Japan, and is actually quite nice if you convince yourself that you're eating beef (which you're not).
If you are ready to get 'real' in your exploration of Japanese food, then try out these 5 dishes - you'll have some great stories to tell!
Be sure to check out more of Shane's writing at The Tokyo Traveler, which today features an interview with Matt 'Big in Japan' Firestone.