Feast logo

17 Strange Japanese Foods

That Are Actually Pretty Good

By S.A. OzbournePublished about a year ago 13 min read
Shirako (Source: olive-hitomawashi.com)

Japan, of course, is famous for sushi, sashimi, and tempura which might sound weird to some but have become so popular and available worldwide that they no longer seem strange.

But once you arrive in Japan and have an opportunity to check out all the different kinds of restaurants and food they have you will realize there are way weirder foods than raw fish.

Natto (Source: Pakutaso)

1. Fermented Soybeans - Natto

Anyone who has been to Japan or talked to Japanese people will know that natto is a popular food all Japanese people have grown up with and is usually part of a Japanese breakfast.

Natto is fermented soybeans and is a gooey, sticky, slimy, smelly mess of food that all Japanese people tout as the healthiest of Japanese foods. The soybeans are steamed, fermented, and then refrigerated for about a week. The easiest way to eat natto is plain or on top of rice.

You can usually buy a three-pack of natto for less than 100 yen ($1) so it is cheap and easy to prepare. Adding some soy sauce and Japanese mustard, the mixture is mixed vigorously until it is sticky and gooey.

Some people don’t like the smell or taste but for me, it’s the texture that does it. Most Japanese love natto and many foreigners do too but I have not been able to conquer this food!

Raw horse meat (Source: Pakutaso)

2. Raw Horse - Basashi

You’ve heard the term “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” but I never thought people actually did. And not only is raw horse eaten in Kumamoto, the south of Japan where it is quite famous, but all across Japan, you can find restaurants serving it.

Like fish sashimi, horse sashimi called basashi is available at many izakaya and yakiniku restaurants. Similar to fish sashimi, it is dipped in soy sauce and eaten raw or sometimes grilled over a flame-like beef in yakiniku restaurants.

It looks very similar to raw cuts of beef so I was a bit hesitant to try it but after eating a few strips I was impressed. The meat usually comes with garlic on top and is not chewy but tender and doesn’t have any gamey aftertaste like goat or lamb meat.

Also, apparently, if you eat it, it gives you energy, strength, and stamina in the bedroom if you know what I mean. I definitely need to eat more of this!

Image by マサコ アーント from Pixabay

3. Bitter Melon - Goya

Goya or bitter melon is a zucchini-like shaped vegetable from Okinawa that has a bitter taste and is popularly used in the famous Okinawan dish called goya champuru.

When I went to Okinawa and ordered the goya champuru dish, which is egg, tofu, soy sauce, meat, and vegetables stir-fried, the combination was great and the goya only had a slightly bitter aftertaste which made the dish taste even better and more unique.

Goya is said to be a superfood and goya has been used around the world traditionally for many medicinal purposes to help with digestion, lowering blood sugar for those suffering from diabetes, and is in the clinical stages for its ability to fight cancer cells.

Okinawa is known globally to have one of the longest life expectancies and houses the highest number of citizens over 100 years old. Goya and other Okinawan foods could be one of the reasons Okinawans live such long lives?

Raw Chicken Sashimi (Source: Tripadvisor)

4. Raw Chicken - Tori Sashi

It would be unheard of in North America for anyone to eat raw chicken, let alone have a restaurant serve it on purpose. Lawsuits and health risks with eating raw chicken make it hard to believe that in Japan not only can you find raw chicken sashimi in restaurants but many people eat it and it’s delicious.

In other countries where eating raw foods may seem strange, here in Japan the art of cooking, or not cooking things has made dishes using raw meat popular. Raw chicken is taken from the inner part of the chicken’s breast which has the least chance of contamination and is slightly cooked for less than ten seconds.

I had a chance to try it at a local izakaya in my town and it tasted great. It wasn’t chewy or rubbery like I was expecting but had a similar texture to tuna sashimi.

Mentaiko (Source: Wikipedia)

5. Tarako & Mentaiko

These sausage-looking things are actually a sac of cod roe that has been salted and spices are added. A thin skin membrane keeps all the cod roe eggs together and when eaten raw has a very salty taste.

When cooked, the tarako actually becomes more sausage textured. It is often eaten as a side dish or put into rice balls. Mentaiko is popular as a topping for pasta in many restaurants as well. Because of the salty-spicy taste, mentaiko is also a good dish accompanied with sake or shochu alcohol.

Recently you can find many mentaiko flavored dishes in Japan from mentaiko chicken nuggets and butter spread to mentaiko flavored potato chips and mentaiko mayonnaise.

Shirako (Source: olive-hitomawashi.com)

6. Shirako

Shirako is basically umm, fish semen.

I know this sounds scary and a little disgusting, but Japanese people love Shirako and it’s a quite expensive delicacy. This seminal fluid is served raw on sushi, with rice, or tempura, and is also popularly used in hot pot dishes. The buttery, creamy texture and the slight sea-like aftertaste are widely loved by Japanese people.

I tried this by accident at a work party. It looked like some kind of internal organs of a fish but everyone said it is really delicious and rich tasting and I should at least try it once. After I took a bite and found that it was quite buttery and smooth, I replied with a thumbs up.

Only later did I learn what I ate was fish semen. And now knowing what it is, I admit, I still like it!

Whale Sashimi (Source: Wikipedia)

7. Whale Meat - Kujira

A controversial food, whale meat was a big part of the Japanese diet post-war as traditional meat like beef and pork was expensive and in low supply. Many school lunches and homes used whale meat as it is high in protein instead.

However, more recently, whale meat is no longer eaten widely but only available in specialty shops. You will most likely come across a restaurant or a shop that sells or serves whale meat in more traditional parts of Japan and in areas of Tokyo like Ueno and Asakusa.

I tried whale jerky from a shop in Ueno on the Ameyoko street area. It was chewy but had a great salty-fishy flavor I quite enjoyed. It went great with a cold Japanese beer.

I also was introduced to whale sashimi and boiled whale dishes at an izakaya with some Japanese colleagues. The meat was thicker than regular fish meat. But the slightly grilled version was really good and melted in my mouth. You probably won’t be eating this dish much in Japan but it is definitely worth a try.

Grilled Horumon (Source: Wikipedia)

8. Intestines - Horumon

It might take guts to eat this food which is perfect because this is literally cow and pig guts. I thought the word horumon was based on the English word hormone so when I heard people were eating hormones I was confused.

But Horumon is derived from the Japanese Kansai dialect horu-mono which means things that are thrown away. This makes sense because most people remove all the internal organs and discard them rather than consume them.

Horumon is quite a popular and loved food in Japan. It is eaten mostly in two popular styles. One method, which was popularized in Osaka, is to grill it along with other meat at yakiniku restaurants. Horumon has a very different shape and texture than other parts of meat and is quite chewy and tubular. The taste is also a bit sweet compared to other cuts of meat.

The second most popular method, which comes from Kyushu, is to eat it in a hot pot dish called Motsunabe. A hot, salty boiling pot with garlic, leek, other vegetables, and meat along with horumon. The dish is quite inexpensive and has lots of collagen which is good for health and skin.

Nonkotsu (Source: Flickr)

9. Chicken Cartilage - Nankotsu

This is a popular dish served at many izakayas, which are Japanese pubs. I first popped one of these deep-fried breaded chicken cartilage in my mouth expecting it to be chicken meat.

But Nankotsu is hard and crunchy bone cartilage so I almost spat it out thinking someone had mistakenly deep-fried bones rather than chicken meat. I then learned that this was done on purpose and that topped with some lemon juice, this greasy, gritty plate of bones is actually a delicious bar food.

Nankotsu can also be served on a skewer in a yakitori style.

Sea Grapes (Source: Wikipedia)

10. Sea Grapes - Umi Budo

Another Okinawan specialty, sea grapes or Umi budo are not actually grapes but a form of seaweed found in the south of Japan. They resemble tiny grapes and are salty juicy bubbles that have a refreshing and delicious flavor that burst in your mouth.

Eaten raw and dipped in soy sauce, you will find Umi budo as a side dish in a lot of Okinawan restaurants and izakayas.

They are a cheap, healthy, and delicious dish that is perfect for vegetarians, those looking for healthy izakaya food alternatives, and those hoping to try traditional Okinawan delicacies.

Image by Dav Tres from Pixabay

11. Puffer Fish - Fugu

You probably heard about this fish like I did, on an episode of The Simpsons.

The dreaded pufferfish or fugu fish are known to contain a poisonous toxin that can lead to paralyzation and even death and is one of the most expensive and dignified dishes in Japan.

I feared I would be a victim despite the strict regulations placed on the serving of fugu and the fact that there are less than 6 deaths per year from eating fugu. And most of them were from eating fugu that was caught and eaten privately rather than at a restaurant.

The chefs who cut and serve the fugu also must earn a license and do a 3-year apprenticeship to be allowed to serve fugu to customers. I was served a nice hot pot stew with amazingly delicious fish meat that I thought was chicken.

It didn’t have any bones and had a chicken-like texture so I had two bowls of it before being told I was eating fugu. I panicked and my mind made me think I was becoming paralyzed but I was fine.

In fact, my fake brush with death made me remember the experience even more vividly and I have tried fugu (knowingly) many times after that. If you are paranoid like me, just make sure you eat fugu at a restaurant well known for it and that’s been in operation for a long time.

Sea Urchin (Image by vandijkies from Pixabay)

12. Sea Urchin - Uni

This food came to my attention on the tv show Lost. A round barnacle-looking sea creature with large, sharp spines, they are often called sea hedgehogs. The edible parts of the sea urchin are the innards and are quite an expensive and savory food.

Japanese people eat uni raw as sashimi and sushi. It is also popularly served on toast or pasta and has a very thick and creamy feel to it. It has a strong sea taste but has a texture like cream cheese and is quite rich so is only eaten in small portions.

Shirasu (Image by 浩之 梶 from Pixabay)

13. Shirasu

If the fact that Japanese love and are willing to eat fish semen surprised you, perhaps this will too. Shirasu or whitebait are tiny, immature fish that travel in schools and are soft and tender, meaning they can be fully consumed without removing bones, fins, or guts.

Shirasu is eaten as a topping on rice called shirasu-don, in salads, in ice cream, on ramen, as a topping on pizza, or just dried on their own. I find the taste is a very light fish flavor and more than flavor, the texture it brings to any dish makes it an easy-to-eat food choice.

Once you get past the fact that you are eating an entire school of baby fish in one mouthful, you will enjoy the subtle taste of shirasu.

Gyutan (Source: Pakutaso)

14. Cow Tongue - Gyutan

I never thought I would be tasting food that tastes me back, but cow tongue or gyutan is one of my favorite foods to eat in Japan. It is my go-to when heading to a yakiniku grilled meat restaurant.

Thinly sliced cow tongue, lightly grilled and dipped in lemon juice is the perfect combination with a bowl of rice. Beyond eating in the traditional grilled fashion, gyutan is also popular with ramen, curry, and stew.

Inago (Source: Wikipedia)

15. Locusts - Inago

Insects are a popular food in many parts of Asia like China, Thailand, and Indonesia but are not quite as prominent in Japan.

But one insect, the locust, was traditionally eaten in areas of Japan like Nagano and Fukushima during times of plague when all the crops were destroyed by locusts. Needing food, people turned to these locusts, which are high in protein as a food source.

Inago is not widely eaten or available but some izakayas and many smaller shops and restaurants in the Japanese countryside still prepare, sell and consume them.

Locusts are caught and kept in a box or bag for a day to remove all feces. Then they are boiled in soy sauce and sugar. To drain the water they are fried in a pan and then deep-fried in oil to make them crispy. The hardest part about eating Inago is the appearance.

Because the locusts maintain their original shape as when they were alive, the mind has to wrap around the idea of biting into a bug. But once you take a bite and taste the crispy sweet goodness that reminds me of grilled shrimp, it is hard to stop.

Monja-yaki Source: (Wikipedia)

16. Monja-yaki

There is no English word for this food but a good description would be runny batter. I am not going to lie but it looks like vomit on a grill. But despite that terrible description, monja-yaki is probably in my top five foods in Japan.

Popular in the Kanto region, monja-yaki is a pan-fried batter similar to Okonomiyaki but uses a lot more water making it runny looking. All the ingredients are served in a bowl.

Diners place all the ingredients on the flat table grill provided and using metal spatulas, chop up all the ingredients and add the liquid mixture and water to the grill. The scrambled mess slowly starts hardening on the grill. A small spatula is then used to scrape bits of the batter and eat them directly from the grill.

It all sounds so strange and messy but the taste is quite amazing. The bottom part is crispy and has a nice barbecue taste while the top of the batter is still soft and runny. The combination in your mouth is amazing and with so many variations of monja-yaki, it never gets old.

Some of my favorite monja-yaki ingredients are cheese, seafood, pork, mentaiko, and curry. Definitely an iconic Tokyo food that not many foreigners have tried but should not be overlooked.

Karinto (Source: Wikipedia)

17. Karinto

When I first saw these I thought they looked like my dog maple’s poop all dried up. I was hesitant to try it even though people said they are sweet and crunchy treats.

I finally ended up trying some and was quite impressed. I think the easiest way to explain it is it’s like eating sweet Cheetos. Karinto is deep-fried flour and brown sugar. The taste is sweet but not overpowering. I think it goes great with drinks like green tea or coffee.

In fact, karinto is often served alongside green tea during green tea ceremonies. You can get bags of these snacks at any supermarket, convenience store, or traditional Japanese sweets shop.

Well there you have it, 17 foods that are weird or strange in Japan that I have tried and most of them I would say I like and would eat again. And do eat often. So if you come to Japan, definitely go beyond the sushi, tempura, and noodles and try some more of the unique and sometimes bizarre foods Japan has to offer.

This article also appears here: https://medium.com/fml-or-bust/17-strange-japanese-foods-1d062417e106


About the Creator

S.A. Ozbourne

A writer with no history or perspective is a paintbrush with no paint!

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2023 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.