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Among the many colorful expressions in Japanese you’ll find kuwazu girai, which is used to describe a knee-jerk dislike to something unfamiliar before you’ve given it a fair shot. Kuwazu girai literally translates to “hating it without having eaten it,” and it was exactly the problem restaurateur Himi Okajima was having at his eatery, called Hakata Tonton, in New York’s Manhattan.

Okajima is a native of Fukuoka in southern Japan, and orders weren’t exactly pouring in from American customers for two of his hometown’s favorite dishes that were on the menu: pigs’ feet and cod roe.

Although pigs feet are popular across the Southern US, they’re not exactly common table fare in northern states like New York. Factor in Manhattan’s sizeable Jewish population, who are restricted from eating any pork by religious dietary customs, and Okajima was under considerable pressure to win the uphill battle of convincing those of his patrons who could eat pigs’ feet that they should.

To lesson the blow, Okajima hit upon the idea of listing the item on the menu under its Japanese name, tonsoku. Although tonsoku literally does mean “pigs’ feet,” the restaurant’s non-Japanese customers were obviously confused, then intrigued by the mysterious-sounding dish.

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“They’d ask me what it was,” says Okajima, “and I’d tell them, ‘Oh, it’s very simmilar to the French delicacy pied de cochon.” This was naturally followed with the question, “What’s pied de cochon?”

Only then would Okajima reveal that, in fact, tonsoku was pigs’ feet. “Then they’d say, ‘Hmm….well if it’s popular in France, I guess I could give it a shot,’” Okajima explains with a chuckle.

This isn’t Okajima’s only use of clever linguistics to broaden his patrons’ palettes, however. He was also having trouble moving orders of another Fukuoka favorite, mentaiko.

Menatiako is cod roe with spices added to it. Similar to the un-spiced variety known tarako, in Japan, mentaiko is put into rice balls, rolled into sushi, added to grilled chicken skewers, spread on sliced bread, and even mixed with pasta.

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Again though, in the US you’ll find far more people who think of fish eggs as bait than food.

While a few people ordered the “spicy cod roe” listed on the menu, it wasn’t anything near a hit. “People said it was ‘nasty,’” remembers Okajima.

Something then struck him, though. The concept of eating fish eggs isn’t completely foreign to Western gastronomy. Why is it that “cod roe” is nasty, but sturgeon roe is considered fine dining? Simple: we don’t call it “sturgeon roe.” We call it “caviar.”

A quick menu re-write later, “spicy cod roe” had become “Hakata spicy caviar” (Hakata being an alternative, classic name for the Fukuoka area). Suddenly, Okajima’s customers couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

Word of mouth spread, and now that Okajima’s offerings have gone from being called nasty to avant-garde, there’s a two-week wait for reservations at Tonton, which has been featured in Michelin’s New York guide for five years running. So once again, your parents were right. It’s good to try new things, and Okajima is happy to help. Just don’t expect him to do the whole “here comes the airplane” thing for you (it’s really hard to do with chopsticks, anyway).

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Restaurant information:
Hakata Tonton
61 Grove St
New York, NY 10014
Telephone: (212) 242-3699

Related: Hakata Tonton’s bilingual Facebook page
Sources: Jin, ALC
Top image: Osakana
Insert images: Livedoor, Tabelog, Beeboo, New York Keizai Shimbun