I once thought natto (fermented soybeans) was Japan’s worst culinary bogeyman, but much nastier, nightmarish foods exist in the archipelago to tempt foreign fates. I’m from Australia, where the Japanese dining landscape is mostly dried seabeds of sushi and tempura bound by rivers of teriyaki sauce. The truly alien encounters await in Japan’s gastronomic world, from surreal sea creatures to pod-like akebi fruit.
There are 400 Japanese words just to describe food texture. Many are a charming onomatopoeia, like fuwa fuwa (fluffy) or mochi mochi (chewy). This, then, is my onomatopoeic eating journey.
Warning: These foods might confound your taste buds and mess with your psyche.
With that obligatory message out of the way, like a lightweight Anthony Bourdain, I’ll start with the mildly disconcerting and finish with the fully terrifying.
1. Beta beta yokan
I love pastries and buns. Too bad in Japan they’re often pumped with anko (also called an) most commonly, an azuki (red bean) and sugar paste. From manju (steamed bread) to mochi (rice flour cakes), Japan abounds in anko stealth bombs disguised as dessert.
Yokan are bouncy anko and kanten (algae jelly) blocks. It’s the specialty of Toraya, a wagashi (traditional sweets) empire founded in Kyoto circa the early 1500s and a purveyor to the Imperial Palace. You can buy yokan at Toraya department store outlets or cafés across Japan.
Yokan is rich, dense and (as the Japanese call it) beta beta (cloyingly sticky). As with peanut butter, anko fans like to debate the merits of smooth versus chunky, but for this Westerner, legumes as candy are weird because I think of chili con carne. It’s not unpleasant but won’t replace Pocky as my go-to snack.
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