Foreign Foods: Exploring Fishy Frontiers in Kyoto
If there’s at least one thing to master in a foreign country where English is not spoken, it’s finding delicious food. Here in Kyoto, Japan, I have a host mother who cooks up a storm for me twice a day, both challenging me to eat authentic Japanese dishes and treating me to food that foreigners know and love. There are also countless restaurants and open markets where I just buy food that’s packaged adorably (it’s Japan, duh) or just looks so weird I have to try it.
After three weeks, it still feels like I have Monopoly money in my wallet instead of yen given the expensive exchange rate. However, experiencing an entirely new cuisine shouldn’t be the first thing to remove from your budget—especially not in Japan, where many students skimp on their meals in order to do other “cultural activities” like karaoke and nomihoudai (an all-you-can-drink in 90 minutes for about eighteen dollars).
I’m not saying everyone should be Anthony Bourdain when they are abroad, but part of immersing yourself in a culture is doing things like drinking a soup in which little fish are still swimming, or going to the open market and eating pickled vegetables so sour your face contorts. Granted, being able to socialize with the locals is important as well, but why not engage with them through food? After all, meals are a universal social activity.
So I’m going to tell you about my experience eating a fish—literally an entire fish. It’s not like at a restaurant where there is a large, whole fish from which everyone takes pieces. Instead, I came to the dinner table and each of us had a whole fish sitting there on a plate next to a bowl of rice, pickled vegetables (tsukemono), and miso soup. Although my host mother had shown me the fish beforehand and asked if I wanted something else, I had said no, thinking she was going to fillet the fish rather than bake them whole and serve them as is.
In the picture below, you’ll notice I successfully ate the fish. I’m still not as comfortable as my nine year-old host sister who, as soon as she sat down, picked the eye out with her chopsticks, said, “Itadakimasu,” and ate it. However, I think I have reason to be proud of myself.
It’s experiences like this one that make the semester-long adventure worthwhile. As I discover new places to eat and try unique and exciting dishes, I begin to feel more and more like, well, a Japanese Anthony Bourdain.