Breakfast Hot Dogs and the Hawaiian Pineapple Burger
Well, I asked for it. I walked into a tiny little mom-and-pop restaurant and said I felt like fish. They suggested salmon because it was easy to eat, and I said, "Oh, don't worry about that. I eat everything."
In that case, the old man behind the counter recommended sanma, mackerel. I agreed readily and the next thing I knew he had cut an entire fish in half and tossed it on the grill. I suppose I had been a little too cavalier, and had neglected to mention that I don't really like to eat anything while it watches me.
Whole fish, with a few exceptions, almost always creep me. It's the bones and the eyes and the possibility of eating fish shit, I guess. I have never really been certain that you're supposed to eat the guts of the fish as well, or which organs and how to tell the difference. Because one of those is the intestinal tract that you're eating, and, at least in America, even popcorn shrimp are de-veined.
The fish was small, maybe nine inches long, and a ribbon of something dark was oozing out of its center. It could have been blood, but my money was on fish shit. I figured it wouldn't kill me and resigned myself to the experience.
I wish this was the part where I said, "Wow! If I hadn't accidentally ordered that whole, shit-filled fish, I would have never known how good it was! I am hooked! Pun!" Sadly, no. It was edible but rather distasteful. Sanma is a naturally oily fish, so the Japanese typically just grill it with a little salt. The predominant flavor was the bitter taste of burnt fish skin. The fish had both dark meat and light meat. The sides were a brown, oily flesh and behind that and along the spine was a pale, less oily meat. These both tasted good, unless I got too much of the burnt, sour skin with them. But it was no mean feat trying to figure out how to debone tiny flecks of meat with chopsticks.
Along the underbelly, though, the innards were to be found. These had been grilled until they were essentially mush. Mush that didn't taste good. Like the skin, it was bitter and a bit sour, and I finally had to stop when I bit into a crunchy bit, like gristle. It was not a bone. Perhaps it was the remains of a charred gill. I don't really know, but that ominous crunch and the bitter flavor that flooded my mouth pretty much turned me off the rest of the fish.
Thankfully I had saved the guts for last, so when I shoved it aside and drained my beer to get rid of the flavor, the fish was pretty much gone, except for some grey mush and the eyes, which I'm told are delicious. Maybe if someone had removed the eyes for me and put them on a spoon and blindfolded me I would have eaten them. But I am a gentle person and I don't really have the courage to go prying fish eyes out with the tip of a chopstick just for the pleasure of putting them in my mouth.
Every other meal I've had in Japan has ranged from good to outstanding. Japanese food is really eclectic and surprising. Contrary to Japanese food's prim, minimalist image, many Japanese dishes are messy and lively and flavorful. Okonomiyaki, for instance, is one of my favorite foods in the world: a big pancake of cabbage, egg and flower with pork or shrimp or squid, topped with mayonnaise, fish flakes, seaweed sprinkles and Otafuku sauce (like tangy Worcestershire).
Oden is a translucent kelp broth in which various things simmer for hours. It is a winter dish, a sort of Japanese comfort food, though I believe you can buy it year-round in konbini (the Japanese shortening of "convenience store"). I was skeptical of konbini oden, but have been assured that it's fine. It looks a bit dubious, though: big tubs of steaming liquid with alien-looking items floating in them. Especially since I never see anyone change the liquid.
The floating items in oden vary widely, and are almost completely strange to Western eyes: octopus tentacles; konnyaku (rubbery, gray bricks of devil's-tongue root: 97% water and 0 calories); pouches of fried tofu with pork or mochi inside; fried fish cake, unfried fish cake, square fish cake, ball fish cake and fish cake substitute; enormous hunks of Japanese radish; huge puffy bulbs of flour and salt; tofu of every variety: fried, grilled, or crushed and mixed with anything imaginable into a cake.
There will also be a few more familiar floating items like potatoes, boiled eggs, and sausages. The Japanese love their sausages. You can always get sausages in some form of another. There's usually a half-sausage in any konbini lunchbox, for instance. (Also a few token strands of spaghetti, which the Japanese love as well [see: Italy, below].)
Or you can find sausages in one of the many different types of Japanese "breads". These are called "pan", which means bread and sounds reasonably healthy. In fact they are Japanese junk food, a soft, sweet bun with something in the center: cream, egg, bean paste, pork cutlet, curry, chocolate, ham and cheese, custard, sausage, spaghetti, or some combinations of the above ingredients. Frighteningly, none of these--not even the meat-based ones--need to be refrigerated. There's usually an entire aisle devoted to pan, next to the entire aisle of cup noodle.
And there are potato chips. Of course there are potato chips. The Japanese are no strangers to Western food, but they use it to make food that is still somehow very Japanese. They like shrimp-flavored potato chips, for instance, and miso, curry, leek, or um, "salad". The curry chips are good, actually, but unheard of in America to my knowledge.
The Japanese love foreign food, actually. Particularly Italian food, which in my extensive research (asking "What's your favorite food?" during the food chapter at Berlitz) is a universal trait among the Japanese. Italian food in Japan is probably not particularly authentic, but I've given up pretending that I know anything about authenticity. Any cultural superiority I might feel vanishes when I think about the "Little Tokyo" food-court chain that sells Chinese food.
It's all very well for me to say, "You're making that latte/burrito/curry/cocktail wrong!" but I can't say with any certainty that I would know the real thing. Or if there are any "real things" left in this world. Every culture, it seems, adapts food to their own tastes. Sorry, Italy, you lost the trademark on Pizza™.
Because I'm reasonably sure that in Italy there is no pizza™ with eggs, potatoes and mayonnaise on top, but the Japanese can't get enough mayonnaise so they slather it on. And onto everything else for good measure. During the whole-fish incident a guy sitting next to me ordered sanma (voluntarily! I think he was drunk) and ham salad. The ham salad, when it arrived, proved to be a mound of lettuce with several pieces of lunch meat ham folded on top, all lashed with mayonnaise. At this point I have stopped raising eyebrows. I simply shrug and think, "why not?"
Mayonnaise is so popular that it is now a staple in many traditional Japanese dishes, too--as are processed cheese slices. Many fried things are topped with mayonnaise, white American cheese, or both. The Japanese are quite happy to combine food, clothes or music in ways that seem strange to Western sensibilities. That sense of "why not?" is vital or you'll go crazy trying to figure out breakfast hot dogs and the Hawaiian pineapple burger. Although maybe the Hawaiian pineapple burger really is Hawaiian. How would I know?