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.

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Inago and Hachinoko!

Natto is an acquired taste. Fermented fish, fungi and vegetables are acquired tastes. But eating insects? Now that is a truly unique experience for much of the world!

Japan shares a heritage with other Asian countries where certain insects are eaten as a nutritious food source. There are a few common types of insects eaten in Japan including inago (rice grasshoppers) and hachinoko (wasp or bee larvae). Eating these insects has a long tradition, especially in Gifu and Nagano Prefectures which are located in the mountainous regions where fish were not abundant, and livestock was limited. These particular edibles are known to provide beneficial fat, protein and B vitamins.

Hachinoko

In lean times, inago and hachinoko supplemented many people’s diets, especially during their harvest in the cold months of winter and after the devastation of World War II. Following the mid-1900’s, when industrial pest control became more prevalent and when high-quality food was substantially available to the general population, the tradition of consuming inago and hachinoko lost favor. Today, consuming both of these insects is enjoying a resurgence, as they are readily available in packaged form and as artisanal chefs are looking at them as a sustainable and delicious food source.

Inago prepared as tsukudani, a traditional way of cooking with soy sauce, sugar, and sake, make crunchy snacks. They are often enjoyed with beer, sake or tea and as side dishes accompanying more traditional main dishes. Connoisseurs find inago have a mild, nutty flavor. Similarly prepared as tsukudani, hachinoko are softer and can be served with rice in dishes called hachinoko gohan and hebo gohemochi.

Inago

Both inago and hachinoko can be found online, at retailers, and sometimes even in vending machines in Japan. But the best place to eat them are at matsuri, or festivals, specifically celebrating these cultural traditions. In November, the Kushihara Hebo Matsuri held in Ena, Gifu Prefecture, hosts a competition among beekeepers as to who can cultivate and harvest the most hachinoko. The competitors show off their harvesting skills and ultimately, sell the fresh larvae to festival-goers. Plus, street food vendors make the best hachinoko dishes! The Tokyo Bug Eating Club is the place to sample inago, and they have events throughout the season where one can catch, cook and consume the grasshoppers.

No matter where you get them, we’d love to hear your story about the first time you sampled inago or hachinoko. Be sure to share it with us. And happy crunching!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Kusaya!

The tradition of eating fermented fish spans cultures from Scandinavia to Europe to Asia. We know of famous examples like garum, from ancient Rome, where small local fish were salted and fermented until they almost liquified. And of the famous Swedish surströmming, where Baltic herring are caught in the spring time, lightly salted and fermented in barrels for months.

Japan’s rich food culture, which prizes fish in all of its varieties, is famous for kusaya, a fermented, dried fish that has a mild taste but a most-definitely acquired smell!

Kusaya is made from small flying fish or mackerel. When made using traditional methods, the freshly caught fish is descaled by hand and then flayed open. The bones, entrails and blood are removed, and the inside of the fish is scrubbed many times in fresh water to remove any remnants. The opened fish is then soaked in a salt brine called “kusaya-jiru” for about 24 hours, then dried in the open air and hot sun for up to two days, before it’s stored in jars. Kusaya is unique in that the brine used to begin the fermentation process is the key to preserving the fish. Every family that makes kusaya in a traditional fashion closely guards their brine recipe. The brines are made of water and small amounts of salt to begin with, then reused for each batch of fish, with some brines lasting as long as 100 years! The brine smells of decay, similar to feces, and an overgrowth of bacteria, lending kusaya the aroma that many who have not grown up with this dish find hard to tolerate.

Fermenting fish is a wonderful way to preserve it and to augment and release the umami in the flesh. The fermentation process for kusaya uses the microorganisms in the salt brine to release glutamates from the proteins, sugars and fats in the fish’s meat. These glutamates are the building blocks of umami, the fifth taste in Japanese food culture, and a building block of dashi. Many Japanese eat kusaya with sake or other alcoholic beverages, as it is high in protein and calcium and pairs well with sharper flavors.

Kusaya can be purchased almost anywhere in Japan, most generally in canned or packaged form. But if you’re lucky enough to visit a traditional kusaya maker, overrule the smell around you and try this delicacy!

And don’t forget to share your story with us!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Natto!

We all know that Japanese food is delicious, that it’s based on a culinary tradition that produces such delicacies as sushi and ramen, kaiseki ryori and shojin ryori, that reveres the umami and inherent goodness of food.

But do you know about the more unique foods of Japan?

We start off 2018 with a new series about Japanese food—all about the dishes that perhaps take some time to be loved! Natto is one of those dishes, and is a food that any child raised in Japan is familiar with.

Natto is a dish made of fermented soybeans, full of probiotics, B & K vitamins, fiber and minerals. It’s traditionally eaten along with rice for breakfast… and is a most acquired taste!

There are multiple varieties of natto produced in Japan, and the most commonly prepared type is called itohiki natto, or “stringy natto”. The strings are a result of how the soybeans are prepared. Raw beans are first soaked for several hours, and then steamed until softened. The beans are inoculated with either Bacillus natto or Bacillus subtilis and then allowed to ferment for about 24 hours at around 104°F. When removed from the fermentation container, the beans have a pungent aroma, similar to mild ammonia, and are surrounded by gossamer threads of biofilm, giving them a sticky, slippery texture.

Slippery and slimy. It’s no wonder that legends abound about its origin! Some say that natto was discovered accidentally about 1000 years ago, when warm, cooked soybeans were placed in a sack made of rice straw and transported by horseback. The warmth of the animal fermented the cooked beans, and when the sack was opened at its destination, natto was inside!

Natto is being studied by modern food scientists and microbiologists because of its superfood properties and long-term health benefits experienced by people who traditionally eat this unique food. Dr. Ralph Holsworth, a biomedical researcher, has coauthored several studies about the enzyme nattokinase, a byproduct of the fermentation process, that have shown that the enzyme assists in the prevention of arterial plaque formation. Dr. Ann Yonetani, a food scientist and microbiologist, has also studied the benefits of natto on the human microbiome, stating that although more scientific data needs to be generated, the probiotics found in natto are more likely to survive through the digestive tract and colonize the intestines with beneficial bacteria, compared to other probiotics.

Japan isn’t the only country that lays claim to natto, although it may be where the dish comes from. A version of natto is found in the “natto triangle”, including Thailand, Northeastern India, Korea and parts of China. Commercial manufacturers and artisanal cooks make natto in the US and numerous varieties can be found at Japanese markets.

Natto is a must-try unique dish of Japan! Check it out and tell us what you think!