I still remember my first time coming to Japan, when my host family sat me down for dinner with nothing but chopsticks to tackle an entire grilled fish complete with head, tail, and everything in between. They watched me expectantly as I stared down at my plate, unsure of where to start. Was I supposed to eat the head? Should I scrape the scales off first? Was it customary to bite into the middle, bones and all?! I hoped that one of them would start eating first, to give me some sort of clue as to what I should do, but they kindly urged me to dig on in, laughing heartily when my only response was a meek little, “How?”
It was an embarrassing experience and felt a little demeaning at the time, but the fact remains that Japanese cuisine features a lot of mainstream dishes that we simply don’t find in the Western world. While some cultural favorites like sushi, have more-or-less made their way onto the world market, common dishes such as zaru soba and shabu shabu are rarely found outside of Japan.
Keep reading for a look at some of the interesting reactions foreigners have to Japanese food, as well as some helpful how-to’s on how to proceed, should you find yourself faced with one of these unfamiliar Japanese dishes.