Although Japanese food is known the world over and Japanese restaurants can be found in almost any major city these days, many people may not be aware of a few of the finer Japanese delicacies–such as the creepy creatures from the bottom of the sea–that you can eat.
When you think of the seabed, if you think of a place that is dark, murky, and full of scary creatures such as giant squid and sea monsters, then perfect! Because today we’re going to meet some of those guys’ roommates.
Join our not-so-intrepid island reporter who prefers to pass when it comes to dining on the low-life relegated to the muck on the seabed. She skips out on the taste tests and instead grabs an unsuspecting foreign visitor to try out some of Japan’s more esoteric treats.
Having lived on Shiraishi Island in the Seto Inland Sea for 17 years, I’ve had a chance to sample some strange aquatic creatures. I’ve eaten raw stuff, still crawling stuff, and recently deceased stuff. And I’ve had enough of all that!
In Japan, such foods that have an acquired taste are said to be otona-no-aji, which means “adult taste.” Surely this is because youth has to endure years of training and peer pressure to be convinced that such foods are delicious.
Sea urchin, for example. is a spiny, globular animal that surely no one in their right mind would ever think edible.
The first time anyone had a go at eating sea urchin must have looked a bit like a dog who has run into a porcupine.Luckily, however, it’s not the echinoderm itself that the Japanese eat. It’s the bright orange eggs inside the urchin that are sought after.
And did you know that some sea urchins can live as long as 200 years? Just food for thought the next time you’re wolfing down a bunch of baby sea urchins-to-be.
I’ve never been so repulsed by an innocent sea creature as when I first saw mategai. They were in a bucket of salty water oozing in and out of both ends of their shells. The English translation is “Gould’s razor shell,” but I can tell you it’s a barely edible bivalve mollusc. Here on Shiraishi Island, the minshuku owners dig them up out of the sand in the littoral zone at the highest tide of each month.
▼Another one of those things that makes you think that the first person to discover they were edible must have been a lone human shipwrecked on a deserted island who had nothing else to eat.
Tsubugai a small snail-like creature is another local food eaten here on Shiraishi Island. They’re hunted by the locals at sunset along the seawalls.
▼Yuki, on Shiraishi Island, waves to me as she snorkels along a sea wall to collect tsubugai. She puts them into the red net bag she’s holding in her right hand.
▼This is what they look like when served at the restaurant.
▼A piece of metal shaped like a hook is used to evict the resident before ingesting it. Just one swallow does it!
But why let all this good food go to waste on someone like me who doesn’t appreciate the in-depth gastronomic pleasures of the bottom of the sea?
So I looked around for someone who might like to delve into it. Other than my Australian husband, who also has his limits, the only other foreigner on this small island of 566 people is my 20-year-old nephew Evan who is visiting for the summer. It’s his first time in Japan, so he would have no previous experience with these creatures. Furthermore, he has eaten chicken heads in China and he loves all kinds of food. As if that doesn’t qualify him right there, he further impressed me on a recent trip to Manabe Island when he voluntarily ate fish eyes after hearing the locals rave about them.
Octopus is prosaic fare for the average Japanese so I thought it would be a good food for Evan to start with. I’m a bit partial to octopus after octopus hunting and learning how to turn octopus heads inside-out last week. But nonetheless, these creatures live at the bottom of the sea and are a mainstay of island fare, so he had to try them!
▼Octopus after, on the plate.
Let’s find out how Evan likes octopus…
So far so good. The next “thing” I had prepared for him to try was namako (sea slug), a echinozoa, characterized by a globoid shape with no arms.
This time, we give Evan a bit of time to get to know his food first.
▼Namako after: Sliced up raw, soaked in vinegar and served with shredded daikon radish.
Will Evan be able to stomach these?
Our last item is sazae, which is often translated as “turban shell.” It’s really just a huge snail.
▼Here it is out of its shell.
Do you think Evan can eat this? After the last episode, I’m really not so sure…
Notice that I’ve left sea urchin, mategai and tsubugai untested. I’d hate to spoil the fun for you, so the next time you’re near Japan’s sea side, be sure to try taste-testing them yourself. Good luck!
Images: Amy Chavez/RocketNews24 unless otherwise noted.