Extreme cuisine: The 5 dishes even Japanese people are freaked to eat
As the world and his dog know, the Japanese are famously open-minded eaters, and their cuisine is full of tastes and textures alien to the foreign tongue.
But plenty of foods that strike terror into expat hearts are actually pretty damn good when you get right down to it. Seaweed, konyaku, oden, natto ... I've braved them all, and my life is the better for it. In fact, sometimes I even find myself craving them when I'm away.
But there are certain dishes that can cause even a native gourmet to lose their lunch. Think: Reptiles, amphibians and insects (oh my!).
So, allow me to present a rundown of the top five freaky Japanese dishes I’ve encountered on my travels. For the faint of heart, I've ranked them in ascending order of difficulty to digest ... or at least to get down.
Remember those specimen jars your biology teacher used to keep around the classroom? Habushu is sort of like that.
Except you get to drink it.
The name literally means “viper liquor,” a case of truth in advertising if ever there was one. It’s a nice, juicy pit viper sitting in a jar of the peculiar Okinawan rocket fuel known as awamori.
And by peculiar I mean awesome, at least when there isn’t a pickled snake sitting at the bottom of it.
Flavor? Pretty much exactly like what you’d expect from an incredibly poisonous serpent pickled in high-proof alcohol. It tastes disturbingly like Novocaine and has about the same effect on your mouth.
Oh, and don’t worry -- the venom is only dangerous when injected, not ingested. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.
Where to find it: Habushu is de rigeur at nearly any Okinawan restaurant. The Nirai Kanai chain, with outlets across western Tokyo, is a good place to start.
More on CNNGo: Awamori, the stiff taste of the tropics
Jumpin’ Jiminy. It’s a plate of teriyaki crickets.
Just kidding, kids. They’re actually locusts. Hungry yet?
Americans have “Children of the Corn,” but the people of Nagano and Tohoku have inago -- “Children of the Paddies.” That’s their euphemistic name for preserved grasshoppers.
In times of old, the bug-eyed little beasties formed an important nutritional supplement to traditional diets.
Ironically for all the grossed-out giggles they elicit, inago are among the most palatable of Japan’s freaky foods. Heavily seasoned, they taste more like the soy-and-sugar sauce they’re preserved in than, uh, locust-meat.
And hey, when you get right down to it, is a locust REALLY that different from a shrimp? So dig in.
Where to find it: They’re easy enough to find bottled online or in izakaya specializing in northern cuisine. In Tokyo, Tenyasu, a Tsukishima shop specializing in preserved foods, carries inago between October and April.
Hungry for some real grub? We’ve got just the dish -- bee larvae.
Actually, more commonly, hachinoko as served is the larvae of wasps, but who’s really keeping score?
It’s tempting to call these little guys maggot-like, but that isn’t really accurate, since there’s nothing -like about them at all. They’re pretty much maggots, period.
Another northern favorite (what is it with these guys and bugs?), they’re usually served in a super-sweet teriyaki marinade, or a savory stir-fry with a little butter and soy sauce.
Either way is served over rice. The better, one supposes, to camouflage the disturbingly similarly shaped insect babies upon which you’re about to chow down.
Like inago, they’re surprisingly inoffensive. Delicious, even, when paired with a nice dry Nagano sake. Then again, what isn’t?
Where to find it: You can occasionally find inago in Tokyo izakaya during the winter months. But your best bet is to buy ‘em by the jar from an online retailer.
Pets or meat? This is an oddball even by Japanese standards.
Recipes featuring the super-sized, several-meter-long Japanese Giant Salamander appear in cookbooks dating back to the 17th century. But today they’re an endangered species, and boiling one up is liable to land you in cuffs.
According to those who ate it before the prohibition went into effect, giant salamander meat tastes like soft-shelled turtle. That clear things up for you?
In the modern era, the next best thing (?) is salamander of the non-endangered variety. These smaller, finger-sized four-leggers hail from Japan’s northern regions.
They are generally served skewered up yakitori style, with a sweet sauce.
That and the six drinks it’ll take to work your way up to ordering them will go a long way toward convincing yourself that it tastes like swamp chicken.
Which it doesn’t, no matter how much beer you’ve had. At all. Again, trust me on this.
Where to find it: The only Tokyo purveyor of salamander I’m aware of is Asadachi (Morning Wood), located just outside Shinjuku’s fragrant Piss Alley -- uh, I mean Memory Lane. This legendary hangout has satisfied Tokyoites’ hunger for animal penises and other extreme cuisine for decades. I am not making any of this up.
More on CNNGo: Shinjuku’s most notorious drinking hangout
Those who find fermented natto beans malodorous had better break out the gas masks for this one. It’s a dish that has the power to send even seasoned Japanese foodies rushing to the restroom.
Unlike the other foods in this list, which look horrible but taste fairly good, kusaya’s appearance is disarmingly innocuous, a little like smoked whitefish.
The fun comes when you put it in your mouth. Then, you’ll know how it gets its “stinkfish” nickname.
This traditional delight from the Izu Islands is a preserved food, made by steeping a variety of ocean fish in brine, then letting them ferment in the sun for a few days. Which actually sounds pretty good, right?
But there’s a twist.
Instead of refreshing the fishy, sticky liquid remaining after each preparation, it is re-used again and again, year after year after decade, enhancing the delightful harbor-meets-gym-sock aroma with each turnover. In fact, it’s traditionally handed down from generation to generation like funky family jewels.
The result? Super-powered stank. If you want a picture of the flavor, imagine a rotting fish stamping on your tongue -- forever.
Apologies to aficionados, of which there are many. But this is one that even I have a tough time choking down.
Where to find it: Virtually any drinking establishment in the Izu Islands. I can personally vouch for Otomodachi on Izu Oshima -- 1-17-3 Motomachi, Oshima-machi, Izu Oshima, +81 (0) 4992 2 0026.