Going food shopping in Japan can be an adventure, especially if you don’t speak the language. You’re reduced to looking at the pictures on the packaging and using that, along with the context provided by other nearby goods, to make an educated guess as to what is inside. Sometimes the guess isn’t very well-educated. Sometimes its flat-out wrong. And the only way to find out for sure is to see what it tastes like.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m sometimes the author of my own misfortune in this regard. If you want to be sure of what you’re eating, there are usually options which are both obvious and safe. It’s hard to go wrong with frozen pizza, for example (although even there you could end up with some surprises). I’ve deliberately decided to try regional dishes and things that would be classed as “weird” in New Zealand, and sheer boredom has driven me to conduct some cooking experiments of my own. But that’s not the same as being ambushed by something you weren’t expecting, and that has happened more than once.
Case in point: anko. Anko is a sweet red bean paste, and it’s a very popular confectionary filling and flavour in Japan. If you’ve watched anime set in modern Japan, you’ve probably seen characters eating buns filled with it. I can’t see why people love it so much, to be honest – it isn’t actually bad, but I still don’t like it. Apart from anything else the texture is sort of floury and gritty, it’s all in all decidedly uninspiring. Especially – especially – if you’re expecting something else.
I was at a train station selecting a snack for the journey ahead, and saw what I thought was a delicious pikelet filled with chocolate cream. “Neat,” I thought, “Just what I want! This will go very nicely with my tea as I watch the scenery slipping gently by”. The filling was of course anko, and I still distinctly remember the feeling of betrayal when I bit down on it and realised the truth. How could something that looks so much like chocolate not be chocolate? Well, now you know. One of the ways anko is particularly insidious is that, depending on preparation, it can look like lots of things. As a result this is not the last time anko will appear in this article.
Every so often, my willingness to try things without knowing precisely what they are works against me. One of my adult students was talking about traditional Japanese foods, and had some recommendations for me to try. Natto and jakoten were mentioned, and I pronounced my intention to sample them. Then ika no shiokara was brought up, and even though I didn’t know what it was I figured I might as well give it a go. Those of you who speak Japanese are probably chortling already, but all I knew was that it was something to do with squid. How weird could it be?
As it turns out, the answer is “pretty weird”. Ika no shiokara is pieces of raw squid packed in fermented squid entrails, and I really wish I was making that up. The whole is then packed in spicy salt before being served as a complement to various other foods. Especially when drinking, which makes sense once you taste it.
I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of squid to start with. Even cooked it requires a fair bit of chewing, and although the flavour isn’t bad it also isn’t particularly good. Shiokara doesn’t do anything to improve the situation – raw squid is even chewier, and the squiddy taste is significantly more pronounced. But it’s the paste the squid is packed in that really defines the experience. Even a small amount tastes as though it contains twice your daily recommended salt intake, and there’s a powerful taste of rotten fish combined with a strong and sharp chemical tang. This disappears fairly quickly once you swallow (thankfully), but then you’re left with an aftertaste which is precisely as appetising as you might imagine. Taken as a whole shiokara is definitely an acquired taste, and I’m using the term loosely. If you really really like chewing old boots flavoured with rotten fish and mineral oil then you should definitely give this a try, but I certainly won’t be seeking it out.
Back in New Zealand, home-made nachos were one of my go-to meals. Easy to prepare and with simple ingredients, they suited me very well. Once I got to grips with local supermarkets here in Japan I naturally started thinking about how to recreate one of the tastes of home. I had located corn chips and mince, found appropriate seasonings, and acquired what I thought were tins of tomatoes and red kidney beans to bulk up the meal. The tomatoes were okay, but instead of red kidney beans I had actually purchased (you guessed it) anko. I only found this out when the meal was mostly complete, and I have to say anko gives nachos a decidedly peculiar taste. You can do things to counteract it, but the meal is never quite the same afterwards.
As summer gave way to autumn, the usual round of coughs and snuffles started circulating. When I felt a cold coming on, I took all the usual precautions – plenty of garlic and citrus fruits, you know the sort of thing. Since my job also involves a lot of speaking I also invested in some soothing throat drops. And one more thing: a kind of ginger tea, to help my throat recover. But as soon as I poured it into the cup I realised something was wrong. It wasn’t ginger tea, it was ginger coffee. Who makes ginger coffee?!?
Well, apparently Japan does. I’m not going to say it was bad – it wasn’t, although it didn’t taste much like ginger or coffee or do much for my throat. But if I was going to try it again I’d want some sugar, cream, and maybe just a pinch of cinnamon available to add to it.
As Clausewitz reminds us, “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” The same is true when you go shopping without speaking the language, and you have to expect accidents. I’ve been fortunate to get off as consistently lightly as I have. It certainly beats some of the other possibilities (“Is it a dessert topping? Is it a floor wax? Do I dare risking pouring it over my muesli?”). But there are quite enough problems when you move to another country as it is, and sometimes they’re things you don’t expect.
Question of the Post: Have you had any shopping misadventures in another country? What happened?