Top 10 Strangest Foods Found in Japan

Updated on August 9, 2016
Uni (Sea Urchin)
Uni (Sea Urchin) | Source

1. Uni

So what is Uni exactly? Well, it’s the Japanese name for the inside of a sea urchin, but particularly the gonads, which produce sperm or eggs for the urchins. The taste of uni is described as being briny and sweet, and the texture smooth and creamy. It’s commonly served as sushi or sashimi. While eating the sex organs of these spiky black creatures seems unappetizing to most people, it’s considered a delicacy in Japan, and its’ popularity is rapidly growing in other countries, too.

Sadly, environmental changes have caused the uni population to decline in Japan. For example, deforestation has created runoff, which in turn has overturned the uni’s delicate ecosystem. Global warming has caused acidification and temperature raises in the ocean, which has had negative effects on the early development and fertilization of sea urchins. Hopefully, the sea urchin population will withstand climate change, so that we can still enjoy the taste of this unique food.

Shirako (Fish Sperm)
Shirako (Fish Sperm) | Source

2. Shirako

If you think caviar is weird, then get a hold of shirako! This Japanese delicacy is the male counterpart to caviar, or milt, the sperm sacs of male fish. The type of fish used is usually cod, anglerfish, or pufferfish. The unassuming cream-colored sacks are commonly served in Japanese restaurants, where they are sometimes made poached with ponzu, a citrusy soy sauce, fried as tempura, or grilled and put on top of sushi . The flavor is described as being delicate and custardy, almost like tofu.

Some people consider shirako to be the most prized portion of a fish. For example, in one popular Washington D.C. restaurant, the milt, grilled simply with some salt, cost $100! The fact that diners are willing to pay that much for a fish’s sperm sacs is insane!

Fugu sushi
Fugu sushi | Source

3. Fugu

Fugu, or pufferfish, is one of the most dangerous foods in the world. This is because the fish contain a deadly poison, tetrodotoxin, that is many times more poisonous than cyanide. And to top it off, there is currently no antidote. Anyone who chooses to eat the fish plays a betting game with their life. Actually, since 2000, 23 people have died of poisoning after eating the monstrosity. How’s that for exciting?

In addition, cooks who decide to start serving fugu must pass many tests. First, the chef must serve an apprenticeship with a licensed fugu chef for at least 10 years. Then, they are given a 2 hour written examination, and must identify 5 species of the many types of fugu sold within 3 minutes. Lastly, the final test is for the chef to prepare a fugu safely from start to finish, within 20 minutes. Only after this tiring and difficult ordeal may a chef be deemed worthy of sharing the joy of fugu with a few daring foodies.

Natto (Fermented Soybeans)
Natto (Fermented Soybeans) | Source

4. Natto

Natto is a strange food, it’s clear to see. It looks like normal brown beans, until you stir it around, and discover the sticky threads that connect the beans together. However, natto is a completely normal breakfast food in Japan, made of fermented soybeans. It is produced by steaming soybeans until soft, then adding a bacterium to the beans. Then, they are fermented in a hot and humid environment for 15 to 24 hours. And thus, natto is made.

Actually, even in Japan, many people do not enjoy the taste of natto. However, many people still eat natto for the health benefits. Natto is a significant source of Vitamin K, which helps prevent bone fractures and osteoporosis. Also, natto contains 22% of the daily value for fiber, 38% for protein, and 48% for iron in a small 100 gram serving. It’s clearly apparent that natto is a nutritional powerhouse, which is probably why many people eat it even though it may taste strange.

Basashi sashimi.
Basashi sashimi. | Source

5. Basashi

You’ll never think of horses the same way again after learning about basashi, one of the stranger foods in Japan. So what is basashi exactly? Well to be straight about it, it’s simply raw horse meat, served like sashimi. It’s commonly served in Japanese pubs.

Even if the idea of eating horses disgusts you, it can’t be ignored that there are some health benefits to eating basashi. In Japan, the Kumamoto and Nagano Prefectures ranked highest in basashi consumption in 2012. It’s no coincidence that the Nagano Prefecture had the longest living people in all of Japan, with Kumamoto scoring 4th highest on the list in the same year. Horse meat also contains more protein, less calories, and reduced fat compared to beef and pork.

So, why not give basashi a try next time you find yourself in Japan? It’s one of the healthiest meats, as the people in Nagano and Kumamoto can testify.

Kusaya is a stinky dried fish.
Kusaya is a stinky dried fish. | Source

6. Kusaya

The word “kusaya” means “stinky” in Japanese. That’s a fair enough warning to run as far away as possible when confronted with this horrible-smelling food. Kusaya is a Japanese dried fish, made by soaking fish in a brine for 8 to 20 hours, then drying them in the sun for 2 days. Kusaya’s stink comes from a lack of salt in the brine when making the fish. Typically, the amount of salt in normal fish brines is 18-20%, but the brine used for kusaya only contains about 8%. However, the brine that is used in the making of the fish contains many organic acids such as amino acids that add to the nutritional value of the dried fish.

Ironically, even though kusaya smells terrible, the taste is described as being quite mild. This makes sense, because the delicacy is made out of mild tasting fish, like mackerel and flying fish. Kusaya is very similar to the Swedish surströmming or Scandinavian lutefisk in terms of taste and way of preparation.

Whale sashimi.
Whale sashimi. | Source

7. Whale

Another strange and controversial item that some Japanese people consume is whale meat. Whales have been eaten in Japan for a very long time, and between the late-1940s and the mid-1960s, the largest source of meat for Japan was whale. However, in this day and age, whaling remains a distant memory of the past, where Japan could not afford to import meat from other countries. A miniscule portion of the Japanese population consumes whale meat. In fact, a poll conducted by the Nippon Research Center and commissioned by Greenpeace in 2006 revealed that 95% of the population never ate whale meat.

However, if people do decide to eat whales, there are a few benefits. The flavor is gamey, reminiscent of moose and reindeer meat. Also, the meat from the belly and tail has more protein and less fat and calories than pork and beef. Don’t go crazy eating whale though. It happens to contain high levels of mercury, which is definitely not healthy.

Chicken cartilage yakitori.
Chicken cartilage yakitori. | Source

8. Chicken Cartilage

Eating a chicken’s cartilage may sound unappealing to many people, but it’s popular in Japan, where it is called nankotsu. It’s served speared on skewers at yakitori restaurants, where it is grilled over charcoal. The texture is crunchy, and since cartilage doesn’t have much flavor, you’re free to choose which condiments to flavor the nankotsu with. Some popular condiments are a mix of Japanese spices, wasabi, and Sansho pepper. Why not get out of your comfort zone and try this crunchy treat when in Japan?

Shiokara being eaten.
Shiokara being eaten. | Source

9. Shiokara

Mmmm… a salty fermented mix of guts surrounding chunks of meat, all from the same sea creature. Sounds… interesting, right? It’s a Japanese food, called shiokara, and commonly made from either cuttlefish or squid. It has a very funky and salty taste, but shiokara commonly served with sake, because it complements the taste.

Shiokara is made by first cleaning the fresh squid, and separating the guts from the main body. Then, the “skin” of the squid is removed, and the body is cut into strips. Next, it gets sprinkled with salt and left to sit overnight, while the guts are pushed through a sieve. After a night, the guts are added to the squid slices and the mixture is left to sit for another night. Finally, seasonings such as sake and mirin are added, and ferment with the mix for another few days.

Sea cucumber sushi!
Sea cucumber sushi! | Source

10. Namako

Namako is Japanese for sea slug, or sea cucumber. In contrast to China, where namako is dried, it is eaten completely raw in Japan. Sea cucumbers don’t really have a taste, and are quite bland. To eat them, they must be soaked in water, and all debris inside the creature must be removed.

Interestingly enough, namako is actually a very healthy food, which is probably why the Japanese eat it. Sea cucumber has been proven to be a source of anticancer, anti-tumor, and anti-fatigue agents. They have been used in Asian countries for a long time as medicine, to treat many different types of illnesses. In addition, sea cucumbers contain many different nutrients, such as Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B3, and minerals like zinc, magnesium, iron, and zinc. All these reported health benefits are more than enough reason to start including namako in your daily diet!

Which of these foods would you try?

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