The girl who had stayed with them before me didn’t like soy sauce. She had been in Kariwa-mura, Japan, as I was, for a one-month homestay program as a part of my town’s annual sister city exchange program. But my predecessor didn’t try the sushi, the cold soba noodles, or even the ramen. She ate one thing and one thing only: rice. And contrary to popular American custom, she didn’t even eat it with soy sauce.
As a visitor in a country with such a variety of foods so different than our usual menu items here in California, it made me sad that she tried none of it. In fact, it wasn’t a sticking point with only me – it seemed to be the main thing my hosts remembered about her.
“She didn’t even like soy sauce,” they told me every time they found themselves shocked that I would eat something. I made it my personal mission to try every food I could.
I ate a lot of weird things: a snail as big as my nose (not my thing, it turns out), unusual Japanese hamburgers, and even surprise octopus (that’s when you don’t know what you’re eating until you’re eating it). But I ate lots of not so weird things, too: the best ramen of my life, life-changing sushi, and grilled homemade noodles. Japan was a culinary adventure, but I think my eating experiences are best summed up with one story and one story only.
At the end of my first week in the country, my host family took me to a special restaurant as a treat. The small family-run Japanese restaurant had separate rooms for each dining table. We slipped our shoes off as we made our way into our private room and sat down on the rush mat floor, cross-legged.
My host father said a few words to our server and within moments he came back with an oyster for everyone. I don’t eat oyster (ever), but it was the largest one I had ever seen. And it was raw. The kitchen had cut each serving in to two pieces, but I still wasn’t sure I would be able to get it down. When everybody else picked up their halves, I did too. I put the oyster in my mouth and chewed. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten raw oyster, but let me give you a tip: don’t chew.
It only took a moment for me to realize that if I continued with the chewing method, I wouldn’t succeed. And so, I swallowed. It was rough, but I reached for the second half. I had pledged to eat, or try to eat, whatever was on the plate in front of me and I wasn’t about to let raw oyster beat me and my Japanese eating challenge. Almost as soon as I put the second oyster half in my mouth I knew it was a bad idea. My mouth was full of oyster that was slimy, cold, and full of inner bits I didn’t want to know about.
Without warning, I gagged.
Now, before I go any further, let me remind you of our nice little restaurant. There were six of us seated around the table, nice cloth napkins, and no menus. The oysters were the first course, but the Japanese are experts in designing meals with a dozen small dishes, sometimes brought in one at a time, and the oyster was only the very beginning. Just as I was deciding that perhaps I didn’t like raw oyster even a little bit, our servers brought in the next dish.
Grilled fish, styled on the plate to appear as though it were still swimming through the river, with its eyes still on and wide open.
It was in this moment that I gagged and turned away from the table, hating oyster. I managed to swallow the rest of my oyster bit, but when I turned back to my homestay family, the fish had disappeared. When my host dad saw me gag, he sent the fish away with a single sweep of his arm and a quick and harsh word to the server. I tried to regain my composure and faced the table.
‘It wasn’t the fish!’ I wanted to say, but I was too busy trying to keep my stomach in order. A moment later, the fish was back. It was still laid out on the plate in the same swim-like manner, but there were no eyes staring back at me: the chef had hacked off the fish’s entire head and returned it without a face.
For the rest of my journey in Japan, I too had a food reputation. While I ate more than rice while I was there, it was generally understood by everyone at the dinner table that no matter what else I could eat, fish eyes were just too much for me to handle. My host dad would introduce me to everybody with that story.
“Snail? She ate it,” he would brag. “Raw sushi, cold soba, fermented beans, raw oyster… she’ll eat it! But the eyes on a fish? Of all the things, it was only the fish looking at her that she couldn’t handle!” He would laugh out loud, I would laugh to myself, and I would be officially considered introduced.
The irony? I won’t eat an oyster ever again, but that fish was the best food I ate in Japan. Hands down.