An Acquired Taste of Japan – Nameko!

We want nameko!

What are they, you ask?

Mushrooms!

Specifically, the small, amber-brown fungi that have a thin, gelatinous layer on their caps. Technically named Pholiota Nameko, these mushrooms are typically used in miso soup, nabemono or Japanese style hot pot and stir fries and the viscous coating on the caps form a lustrous glaze when they’re cooked. And considering how slippery they are, it makes perfect sense that the name literally means “slippery child” in Japanese!

These mushrooms grow on the sides of trees, in clusters that look like small woodland creatures wearing helmets. (In Japan, there’s even a smart phone game inspired by how cute nameko are!) Mushrooms are a type of fungus, characterized by stems, caps and gills on the underside of the caps. They also have an inner structure unique among fungi, allowing them to gather nutrients from their host, such as a tree, soil or other plants. Nameko, and other Japanese mushrooms, certainly benefit from that!

Nameko mushrooms can be foraged in the wild, but most often are cultivated on dead deciduous trees. The trees are brought to the ideal temperature and moisture level and are then inoculated with nameko spores. These dead trees, called bed logs, are laid out in a crisscross pattern so that they form a field that has proper aeration for the mushrooms to grow on. The spores are encouraged to grow, first extending the stems of the mushrooms and then maturing with well-formed caps.

Nameko have a nutty taste and impart a great deal of umami, or deliciousness, to foods. Along with using it in miso soup to impart a savory flavor and a creamy texture, nameko is cooked fresh with grated radish, stir fried with vegetables and meats, and added to soba noodles as a delicious topping.

This mushroom, while not widely known outside of Japan, is lovely and delicate and we hope you try it during your next adventures with Japanese food. Be sure to leave us a comment with your experience!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Narezushi!

Nigiri or maki?

Your choice or omakase?

Sushi is a favorite Japanese food the world over, but where does it really come from?

Narezushi, or fermented fish sushi, is considered by many to be the progenitor of modern-day sushi. According to historians, narezushi was a dish that was brought to Western Japan from Southeast and South Asia in the 4th Century BC. These regions experienced heavy monsoons and intense heat, and the people of these regions devised a way to ferment and preserve local fish, supplying necessary food and nutrients during harsh seasons. By the 8th Century (Nara Period), artefacts indicate that narezushi was being made in Chikuzen, present-day Fukuoka Prefecture.

So, what is narezushi?

Narezushi is made of three components—fish, salt and rice.  Various fish can be used for narezushi including fish from the carp family—such as dace, loach and three-lips—as well as sweetfish and salmon. Today, narezushi is not as commonly made as it used to be, but in Shiga Prefecture, a type of narezushi called funazushi can still be found. Funazushi is made using nigorobuna, a type of carp native to nearby Lake Biwa. The fish is caught in spring, just as lake waters warm up from winter. Upon catching, the fish are descaled and gutted, and their gills are removed. The gill cavity is then stuffed with large amounts of high-quality salt. The salted fish are placed into containers, typically wooden barrels, and then weighted with tsukemonoishi, or pickling stones. The salted fish are left for about six months, during which time the salt destroys harmful bacteria, softens the fish bones and causes excess water to be released. Once the fish has gone through the salt preservation, it is rigorously rinsed, dried and then put back into a container along with cooked rice for at least a year to ferment. Some funazushi artisans further ferment the fish by pickling it with a second batch of fresh cooked rice. The double fermentation is said to remove any pickling odors from the fish and augment its flavor. Once finished, the rice used to ferment the fish is discarded and the narezushi is served simply, without cooked rice or condiments.

The process for making narezushi hasn’t materially changed since ancient times. Because of the intense effort it took to produce narezushi, it became custom in the Muromachi Period (1333-1568 AD) to give it as a gift to samurai and the aristocracy. Narezushi was also offered to the gods during older Japanese times in the hopes of good harvests. In Shiga Prefecture, you can still attend festivals where funazushi are ceremonially sliced in a ritual called Sushikiri Jinji.

Narezushi isn’t as commonly eaten today as it used to be. Lack of a bountiful carp harvest and palettes that prefer the modern-Edo Period-version of sushi have limited its popularity. But as a traditional food, it is still enjoyed widely throughout Japan.

If you get a chance to try narezushi, be sure to savor it and don’t forget to share your experience of narezushi with us!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Fugu

Tetrodotoxin.

Sound appetizing?

It’s the fatal poison found in the liver, intestines and ovaries of the fugu, or pufferfish. An incredible delicacy, fugu is our feature in this month’s Acquired Taste of Japan, and we’re excited to (virtually) explore the ins-and-outs of this fish.

Fugu are bony fish, ranging from pygmy sizes weighing a few grams, to medium five-pound fish to large ones weighing as much as 20 pounds. These fish are part of the Tetraodontidae and Diodontidae family of fish, known for their ability to intake a large quantity of water and “blow up” in order to deter predators. They eat starfish, mollusks, snails and other sea creatures that contain vibrio bacteria, which creates tetrodotoxin, and poison from these creatures becomes concentrated and stored in the liver, reproductive organs, intestines and skin of the fish.

The concentrated poison found in fugu is called tetrodotoxin and is 1,000 times more toxic than cyanide. It is flavorless, odorless, heat stable and deadly in incredibly small amounts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “the consumption of toxic amounts of tetrodotoxin results primarily in neurologic and gastrointestinal signs and symptoms. In severe poisoning, dysrhythmia, hypotension, and even death might occur. If a rapid onset of one of the following neurologic and gastrointestinal signs or symptoms occurs, the clinical description for tetrodotoxin poisoning has been met: 1) oral paresthesias (might progress to include the arms and legs), 2) cranial nerve dysfunction, 3) weakness (might progress to paralysis), or 4) nausea or vomiting.”

A small fugu

And there is no antidote.

Thankfully, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Japan along with trained and licensed chefs know how to prepare fugu’s many delicious parts. The Ministry publishes regulations governing the sale and preparation of 22 of the hundreds of species of fugu for all of Japan, and even controls the export of fugu to other countries like the United States. Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture is the main distribution center for fugu as it is shipped throughout Japan and the world.

Fugu is typically enjoyed in winter, when the fish have fattened up to brave the cold waters surrounding Japan. Torafugu, the most commonly enjoyed variety of the fish, is generally served as paper-thin, translucent slices of sashimi, arranged in the shape of a chrysanthemum and garnished with daikon and negi onions and dipped in ponzu sauce. Because it is a delicacy served in winter time, hearty, moist chunks of fugu are also served in hotpot dishes called nabe. Fried fugu is eaten along with the fish’s milt, the shirako we wrote about last month. And the tail fin and mouth parts are often roasted and added to hot sake, imparting a light ocean-like flavor. New dishes like fugu burgers are even on the market!

Fugu hot pot nabe

Fugu has been traditionally eaten in Japan for over 2,000 years. Archaeological excavations from the Jomon culture (10,500 – 300 BC) have unearthed fugu teeth fossils from midden heaps. The first restrictions on fugu consumption arose during the Sengoku period (1467-1603 AD), when the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi prohibited eating the fish in order to prevent his troops from being poisoned. During subsequent periods in Japan’s history, the fish was either enjoyed publicly or banned and eaten in secret. Fugu is one of the few foods the Emperor of Japan is strictly prohibited from eating. Today, aquaculturists have begun experimental farming to develop potentially toxin-free species of fugu, in order to enable more people to enjoy it, without worrying about the poisonous livers and eggs, parts said to be especially delicious.

Today, gourmet torafugu is enjoyed at restaurants at the cost of around US$200 per entrée! Chefs are trained for three years and must pass an exam in order to be allowed to prepare fugu. More reasonably priced mafugu can be purchased at fish markets by licensed buyers, who then sell it to the general public in supermarkets.

Would you eat fugu? Are you brave enough to try it? Have you already had it? Share your experience with us!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Shirako

Shirako, called milt in English, are the seminal vessels typically harvested from cod, and sometimes from anglerfish, salmon, squid and pufferfish. The harvested sperm sacs are tube-like in shape, usually white or light pink in color, with the layout and consistency of brains. Shirako translates into “white children” in Japanese.

It’s served in multiple ways, raw, fried, steamed, and as a topping in other dishes. When served raw, the shirako is doused in ponzu and garnished with grated daikon, shiso or finely chopped scallions. In this form, the shirako has a mild, creamy texture with a taste like the freshest seafood from the ocean. Shirako is also served steamed, sometimes incorporated into chawanmushi, an egg and seafood custard, and other times served on its own. More popular ways to eat shirako include tempura-fried, pan-fried or grilled yakimono style. When cooked in these ways, the shirako becomes firm and defined on the outside and custard-like on the inside. Shirako can also be added to nabe, or hotpots, and as part of gunkanmaki, or battleship sushi, where it fills a depression created on rice with a nori wrap.

Gunkanmaki sushi with shirako

Shirako is harvested in winter along the cold waters of the Sea of Japan. It’s typically enjoyed as pub food at izakaya and sushi bars, with an alcoholic beverage. It can also be found at street food stalls in major markets around Japan, like the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. A popular version of shirako is when it’s served as part of a seafood mix, raw or barely charred, on the half-shell!

As an acquired taste, shirako is probably more easily tried than some of the other foods we’ve explored! But for those who love caviar or Russian moloka, shirako is a great variation on these kinds of foods.

Have you had shirako before? If so, tell us about your experience!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Shiokara

Did you enjoy our post last month? If not, this month’s exploration about an Acquired Taste of Japan might be more appetizing for us less adventurous eaters!

We’re diving into one of Japan’s traditional foods, shiokara. It’s known as “chinmi” or “a rare taste”, and once you learn more about it, you’ll be intrigued as well. Shiokara are seafood fermented in their own viscera, salted and seasoned. The most common shiokara, called ika no shiokara, is made from small squid that are plentifully available off the coast of Japan. Shiokara can also be made from tuna (“shuto”), crab (“ganzuke”), salmon (“mefun”) and sweetfish (“uruka”). Each type is a mix of salt, viscera found in the main body cavity such as the liver or intestines, and more fleshy tissue. Depending on the cook’s preferences, shichimi pepper, wasabi, mirin or grated yuzu peel are also added to the mixture for zest and flavor. But traditional shiokara is simply salt and seafood.

Ika no shiokara

Shiokara, especially ika no shiokara, is said to have become a popular dish in the 11th century as a source of protein, fats and vitamin D during winter months when food was scarce. The entire fermentation process took between a week to ten days, so shiokara could be replenished easily. Primarily eaten with rice, a small but complete meal could be had.

In modern times, shiokara is served at many izakaya or Japanese pubs. A small bite of ika no shiokara makes sake taste great! And the saltiness definitely makes you want to drink more of it!

Making ika no shiokara is straightforward, although it does require quite a few steps. We found this recipe requiring nothing by salt and squid. If you try it out, let us know how your preparation tastes! And if you don’t feel like making it yourself, then definitely give it a go at your nearest Japanese pub.