Friday, August 23, 2013
One of the delights of international travel is experiencing a totally different culinary experience. "The grub be grubs!", you might say.
I came to Japan as part of a training group of 13 people (thank god crossing the int'l date line meant we landed on a Saturday...), and by the time we hit our temporary digs, it was 11pm and we just wanted to drag our jet-lagged butts into bed. The next day we were told to get out and explore and left to our own devices until Monday morning.
Thank Julia Child (anyone remember the old SNL skit about her?) that most Japanese restaurants have plastic food models in a display window at the front of the shop. There's a whole cottage (cheese) industry of folks making plastic sushi, ramen with chopsticks hanging in the air, beef and chicken bowls. Parfaits that make you fat just looking at them and soft-served ice cream cones that won't melt unless you burn the place down.
But I digress. We couldn't read squat, couldn't say anything in Japanese that sounded remotely like Japanese, but hit the town, anyways. I teamed up with a couple of guys to see the castle, then we tried to find some eats. We hit the jackpot - our restaurant had menus with pictures (it's like being a kindergartner again) and the names of foods in English letters. I still didn't know what damn near anything was, but at least I could sound it out (I wasn't kidding about the kindergarten effect). I played it safe and for the very first time had ramen that didn't come in a freeze-dried 6-for-a-dollar pack (who didn't live on that crap in college?). Very tasty!
Meeting back at the dormitory, we talked to two of the young ladies in our group who weren't as lucky at lunch. They went into a place with no plastic models and no pictures, only English-letter titles above kanji character descriptions. To their great joy, the place had "Taco Salad" on the menu. And they were quite surprised when their dish came, with lettuce, cold seaweed, thinly sliced cucumber and boiled octopus tentacles in a vinegar sauce. "Taco" is Japanese for octopus, you see, and the Tex-mex delight are actually called "Tacos" and are very hard to find.
I have experienced many new foods over the years, including not only octopus, but also raw squid; raw shrimp so freshly killed that the salt of the soy sauce triggers nerve receptors in the body so that it dances its way across your tongue and down your throat; even some sea critter that looks like a giant silverfish with far too many legs. Sea urchin jelly, crab brains, deep-fried shrimp with the shell still on. Fermented soy beans, sweetened bean paste, mountain potato paste (don't ask), they're all new experiences.
After all these new experiences, the stretching of your culinary boundaries requires a chance to step back, have one of your comfort foods, reset your tastebuds. Aahhh, there's the rub.
You see, my biggest shocks, food-wise, have always come when I find a comfort food, open the package, and find that I was totally, horribly wrong.
Found a can of beans one day and thought "Cool! Time for chili!" Nope! They were sweetened beans, with about a cup of sugar in the can... "Hey, look, chocolate milk!" Nope! Coffee Latte, and I despise coffee... "Chocolate pudding!" Nope! Blackened sesame seed pudding (this one was a lucky accident; it's quite good). "Pistachio ice cream!" Nope! Green tea flavored... "Cinnamon candy!" Nope! Pickled plum...
I can't wait to take someone out for some Rocky Mountain Oysters....
I beg your pardon (I'm sorry; my apologies; mea culpa; I'll never do it again, Mommy!) for all the italics (squiggly, bent over, 'EiReen' letters) in this missive (not dismissive, just a note from Daddy). Heh, heh, heh, heh!