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Nikkei View

Growing Up with Stinky, Slimy, Altogether Wonderful Japanese Food

I’m a foodie. Everyone knows this. I write about food, I take photos of food everywhere I dine, I love to cook, and I love food from everywhere. One of my personal rules has always been if someone, somewhere in the world eats it, I’m willing to try it…at least once.

So I’ve had chocolate covered ants. Fried grubs. The meat of some strange animals that you wouldn’t think humans ought to eat, like rattlesnake brats.

Homemade kimchi, homemade takuan, and natto.

In a way, I was prepared for this gastronomic open-mindedness (open-stomachness?) by growing up Japanese. I was raised in Japan until I was 8, but even lifelong Japanese Americans know what I mean when I say that Japanese cuisine—although hailed today as the epitome of high culture and is accepted as mainstream with commonplace dishes like sushi, ramen, tempura, sukiyaki, and teriyaki—can feature some nasty stuff. Foul smelling, slimy, and icky-textured. Food that is best swallowed quickly, without chewing or thinking about. No savoring the flavor, just pop it in and send it down the chute.

A lot of people probably would disagree with me, but I feel that way about oysters. I think they’re gross. Keeping my personal rule in mind, I’ll eat them if I’m at a nice restaurant in a town like Boston, where oysters are de rigueur. But I won’t seek them out and suggest an oyster bar for a night out.

It’s ironic, then, that people who slurp down an oyster at a moment’s notice would probably be grossed out at some things I love: raw eggs mixed with soy sauce and drizzled on hot rice; natto (fermented soybeans) mixed with soy sauce and mixed with hot rice; crunchy takuan; oden, an odiferous winter stew.

Natto in particular seems to turn off lots of Japanese in Japan as well as stateside. I’m told natto stinks though I’ve never felt offended by its odor. People say it smells like dirty feet, but durian—the ugly, spiny fruit of Southeast Asia—smells much more like dirty feet than natto. But more than the smell, people think natto is yucky because of its slimy, snotty texture. After fermentation, the soybeans are coated with a transparent film that can evoke the slimy coating of the creatures in the Alien movies. But you know what? Natto is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. (Not so much the white rice you’d mix it with, however.)

Takuan is a side dish I grew up with, one of the myriad of “tsukemono” or pickled and prepared vegetables that are served alongside traditional Japanese dishes. Takuan is just pickled daikon radish. It’s usually bright yellow from the addition of ground turmeric and tastes sweet and salty, and crunches when you eat it. But when you just smell it, it stinks to high heaven.

My wife Erin has a wonderfully easy family recipe for making takuan, so every couple of months she makes a big bowl of it and puts it in five or six jars for my mom, who eats a few pieces with every meal. Once it’s made we let it set overnight on the kitchen counter, then I try to get the jars to my mom’s house right away because it stinks up the whole house, and my car too. For the next couple of months, every time my mom opens her refrigerator door, it smells like something crawled in there and died. It tastes great, though, and unlike natto, there’s no yucky texture to deal with!

Another favorite stinky dish is kimchi or fermented cabbage with red chili pepper powder and garlic, a Korean staple that my mom used to make years ago, and that Erin and I have been making the past year as we’ve gotten into fermenting food (warning: a lot of fermenting means a lot of stinky food).

Kimchi is made primarily using napa cabbage, but you can also make it with cucumbers and daikon. The daikon by itself is intensely pungent, but making it into kimchi raises the odor level several notches.

Japanese love daikon radish. When we visited my uncle and aunt in the small fishing town of Nemuro a few years ago, it was daikon harvest season and every home in town had a rack in the yard with more than a dozen—sometimes several dozen—daikon strung up to dry. Once they shrivel up, they’re cut and used for various side dishes including takuan.

We also grate daikon and add it on top of fish or meat, adding a layer of unmistakable odor to the tastiness of the protein underneath. With soy sauce added, it’s pretty darn delicious!

Japanese also eat mountain yam, or yamaimo (or nagaimo), which isn’t stinky and practically has no taste, but when sliced and grated turns into a mucus-y slime that can be mixed with soy sauce and drizzled over rice or served with noodles. I wonder sometimes why the first Japanese to eat such a plant would think to try it this way. I haven’t had it but many older Japanese Americans recall growing up eating homyu, a Cantonese dish that’s a smelly mix of salted fish and steamed pork. I see there are some Chinese and Japanese restaurants in the LA area that still serve it so I’ll eventually give it a try.

The freshest salmon roe I’ve ever had, only a day old.

To show my Japanese bona fides, other foods I like that I bet my non-Japanese friends would run screaming from:

  • Ikura or salmon roe—I had the freshest ikura ever last year at my aunt and uncle’s house in Nemuro on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. It was bright red and popped with an oily burst that wasn’t the least bit fishy.
  • Seaweed paste—This is a gloppy, salty, dark green/blackish paste out of a jar that you mix in with rice. It adds a sodium hit that makes white rice very tasty.
  • Konnyaku—A gelatin-like substance that can be called “food” because you eat it, but has no flavor or calories or nutritional value, just a chewiness to it. It’s made from a type of yam or taro plant, and has seaweed added to it (I guess for nutritional oomph?), and is found as an ingredient in stews like oden. It’s usually a dead-flesh gray color with speckles, and is sometimes made into noodles.

Growing up, my mom used to cook the family western-style dinners like steak, burgers, or even spaghetti, but she often cooked a Japanese meal for herself, and that meal would often be salted salmon pan-fried with rice and tsukemono (pickled vegetable side dishes) such as takuan or maybe kimchi. This was my food culture as a child.

I bet it was the food culture in many Japanese American homes, even in the years after WWII when many families tried to underplay their Japaneseness, because food culture is one of our strongest ties to the past, and to our community.

Now that Japanese cuisine has become mainstream in the U.S., I think it’s good to remember the unique dishes we grew up with that Americans probably would be grossed out by. Those are the cultural touchstones that remind us of our Japanese heritage.

Then again, it’s all relative. When I was a kid, my white friends in school would tease me about stuff like sushi and sashimi. “Eeeew, you eat raw fish? That’s gross!” Even until the 1980s and ’90s, sushi was not commonplace in my white suburban geography. Maybe in LA or San Francisco, but not in Denver.

Now those kids have grown up and I bet they eat sushi at least once a month. Sushi is available everywhere, not just at Japanese restaurants but at many Chinese and “Asian fusion” restaurants too, and even at most supermarkets.

I know one Caucasian woman who eats sushi at least once a week. Hell, I can’t even afford to do that.

But in a world where Japanese food has become commonplace, there are still Japanese dishes that are not. Here’s to all the slimy and smelly foods that make up my culinary DNA!


* This article was originally published on Nikkei View on June 19, 2014.


© 2014 Gil Asakawa

culinary food food culture foodie gil asakawa ikura japanese food kimchi natto sushi takuan tsukemono yamaimo

About this series

This series presents selections from Gil Asakawa’s “Nikkei View: The Asian American Blog,” which presents a Japanese American perspective on pop culture, media, and politics.

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