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Saturday, July 31, 2004

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'Addams family factor' in Japanese food


When a friend of mine who is a Japanese cook offered to make me pizza, I have to admit that my stomach did a turn. I mean, this guy specializes in preparing sashimi -- would the pizza come with the sausage still twitching?

On my planet, the United States, I'd normally consider pizza a "comfort food." But in Japan, it has become a discomfort food. This is because you just never know what they'll put on top of a pizza here. Almost anything is game, and even live game is a possibility.

I attribute discomfort food in Japan to the "Addams family factor" in Japanese cuisine. Like the other day when this same friend had cooked a large grilled fish. Several of us sat around the table with the fish in the middle, and ate freely from it with our chopsticks, all the while talking and having a good time. Then, almost predictably, someone zealously dove in with their chopsticks to seize the fish's eyeball. Unfortunately, as the man paused to finish his sentence, the eyeball fell back onto the plate. I suppose this is natural, as the eyeball is a very gooey part of the anatomy. Nonplussed, he picked up the eyeball again, popped it into his mouth, and continued his sentence as if eyeball cuisine were completely normal outside the Addams family.

Another discomfort food for me is octopus and any other seafood with questionable body parts. I have no problem eating the hacked-off curled tentacles in a Japanese salad -- it's the live octopus I have problems with. Like the other day when my neighbor Kazuko showed me an octopus, still alive, that she was planning on serving to her relatives who had come to visit. It was no wonder she had chosen octopus to serve a large group: the octopus is prized in Japan because it is all-consumable -- there is no part of the octopus that is wasted. Not only does it come with those bonus legs, but you can eat the head too. If you can distinguish the head from the torso, that is.

The octopus was inside a bucket, but as it had plastered itself to the bucket with its legs (or are they arms?), Kazuko could carry the octopus around by its head. Naturally, the octopus was not happy about this. Every time it would protest by sticking up one of its tentacles, Kazuko would rub salt into its eyes so it would retreat.

Laugh at Japanese food, but at least we know what it is. Eyeballs, tentacles, fish eggs -- what you see is what you get. But with Western food, much of it looks nothing like the original. We do a lot of strange things with chicken, for example. It would be hard to even know what part of the chicken you are eating most of the time, which is why they label the meat in supermarkets.

Consider the folks at Kentucky Fried Chicken, who must constantly come up with new menu items made from chicken. Thus, they have come up with food such as Red Hot Chicken and Chicken Twist, as if we should know what these things are. Where do you suppose they raise red hot chickens? And chickens who twist? Despite all these new menu items, they waste all those chicken heads. And eyeballs. Or maybe not. Perhaps they send them all the Addams family house.

Personally, I think we should invent more universal comfort foods that would be able to bridge the gulf between Western and Japanese tastes. Jack Daniel's-flavored ice cream would be a start.

In the meantime, I'm not really looking forward to this pizza my Japanese friend is going to make me. I just get this feeling it's going to come with some kind of gourmet Addams family-type topping -- such as whale eyes.

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