I’ve written about it, talked about it, documented it on film and have tried coming to terms with it; I am truly a very picky eater. When at home, in the safe confines of my kitchen fully stocked with Matt-appropriate food, it obviously isn’t a problem. But when I venture out into the world, as I often do, it can at times be embarrassing and at other times a major hindrance. No one destination frightened me more though than Japan.
How am I a picky eater? Well, the first thing that tends to thoroughly confuse people is my total and complete aversion to fish and seafood of any kind and in every form. I have tried watery delights from around the world, and I haven’t liked anything so far. I hate the smell, taste, texture – everything really about fish and seafood. Even after talking about it at great length though people still 1) can’t believe it and 2) try to convert me. “Well, you obviously have never had…” Yes, actually I have and I hated it. Sorry world, but I hate seafood and nothing is ever going to change that. I’m not alone either; after writing my original post many stepped up to admit their fishy deficiencies. I would love to enjoy seafood, everyone looks so happy when consuming it, but it’s just not for me. Sadly, seafood is a major menu item around the world however and it has caused some issues for me in the past.
Although it’s been tricky at times explaining my hatred of seafood (I now lie and just say I’m allergic, it’s easier) there is almost always an alternative I can eat and enjoy. Even in places where I didn’t think I would have a lot of options, I did in fact have many. No destination scared me more than Japan though and it’s not just because of my anti-fish ways, but also because of the other ways in which I’m a picky eater.
Blaming my parents for not exposing me to more foods at a younger age would be an easy cop-out and one that I’m not sure is entirely accurate. I was a difficult child to feed (shocking I know) and I seemed to have had an aversion even fear regarding certain foods from birth. Even though I’ve made great strides since then, as I float through my late-30s I still find myself cringing at certain foods, namely vegetables.
I eat some vegetables; I’m not a complete Neanderthal. I enjoy salads, with cheese and croutons, and certain vegetables that one would call basic. Corn, carrots, green beans and so on. I am not the guy though who will eat zucchini, asparagus or any of what I call ‘adventurous’ vegetables. Now that you understand the facts behind my strange foodie ways, maybe you can start to understand my hesitation about visiting Japan.
I’ve always wanted to visit Japan and when I had the chance to spend three days there on the way to Thailand, I jumped at the opportunity even though I knew the time would be short. I would say though that my knowledge of Japanese culture, namely its food culture, was built on a finely constructed pyramid of stereotypes and old episodes of the original Iron Chef. Images of being forced to consume raw fish and natto filled my head as I disembarked the ANA plane in Tokyo.
I was gently ushered through my original foray into Japanese food by my hotel, the Ritz Carlton, that offered up foods that seemed more like a warm hug than a violent plunge into the unchartered waters of Edo-inspired dishes. My first real attempt at eating Japanese food came the next day, when my partner and I wandered around town sightseeing and looking for a decent place to eat lunch.
Over stories of noshing on seaweed and puffer fish, what gets lost in the Japanese food shuffle is the fact that they do in fact eat meat; a lot of it. While Japanese cuisine may have a definite bias towards seafood and weird vegetables (I firmly believe all Japanese dishes are based on dares), they also have a strong tradition of chicken and even beef dishes. This comforted me as I strolled the alleyways looking for lunch, but the real problem with eating in Tokyo quickly emerged and it was something I hadn’t adequately considered – the language barrier.
The Japanese language is daunting for most Westerners. Everything, from the sounds to the characters used is completely and utterly foreign. I may not speak Italian, but when confronted with a menu in Rome I can generally figure out what I want. Even in Croatia it really wasn’t an issue. But I had no point of reference in Japan and was at first completely and utterly lost; until I found the restaurant display windows.
Fake food production in Japan isn’t just big business, it’s even been elevated to an art form. Restaurants hire artisans who painstakingly reconstruct samples of the menu items to display in their shop windows. I suppose the idea is to entice would-be customers with a representation of their offerings, but it has an added benefit to tourists who have no idea what they’re doing, like me. I spent almost thirty minutes walking from window to window, trying to figure out what the ingredients were supposed to represent. A brown lump was meat of some sort, while the seafood and vegetables were easy to spot.
Once I was confident in my choice and fairly certain I wasn’t about to eat something I would consider disgusting, I took a picture of it and entered the restaurant eager to show the waitress my choice. I was the only tourist in the place, which is a great sign but also led to a little confusion. After a few minutes of sharing photos, pointing, clucking like a chicken and finally using hand gestures the waitress left with what I thought and hoped was a reasonable idea of what we wanted.
I experienced one of my proudest travel moments when the food arrived and after that first, tenuous bite I was able to confirm to my partner that we had done it! We ordered the chicken! It may seem like a small victory, but for me it was huge. The delicious plate of tonkatsu affirmed in that instant that not only could I enjoy my culinary time in Japan, but I could manage it all on my own. It may have been a little more time consuming than ordering entrecote in Paris, but the meal tasted all the sweeter for that simple victory.
After my brief foray in Japan I have been a lot less fearful of entering countries that I think may prove problematic for me, and so far I haven’t had any problems. Avoiding fish in Sweden was easy thanks to their meat eating traditions and even on an island in Croatia I successfully navigated away from the yucky, yucky seafood.
Not everyone will be able to relate to my picky eating ways, but I’m sure you can all relate to conquering travel food fears and maybe now you’ll be willing to visit a new place you may not have considered before like I did.
Have you been somewhere that surprised you with their food?