I was raised on burgers. My dad owned a fast food restaurant called Molly’s until I was 18 years-old, and during the school year, I’d go there almost daily for lunch. Burgers, fries, soda, turnovers, and milkshakes. These were my five major food groups growing up. My mom tried to get us kids to eat fruits and vegetables, but unfortunately, I was hooked on fast food.
We rarely went out to eat other than to my dad’s restaurant, so I didn’t grow up trying different kinds of foods. One time, my dad took us to a Chinese restaurant, and I remember being repulsed and angered by the non-burger menu. This was the condition I was in when Michelle married me sixteen years ago, and slowly over time, she has exposed me to many different types of food. My food horizons have broadened greatly over the years, but I am still a recovering burgeraholic. And as you know, once a burgeraholic…always a burgeraholic.
This is the backdrop for my food experience in Japan last week. After a 13-hour plane ride where the flight attendants gently eased us into Japanese cuisine with endless rice balls and optional chopsticks, we arrived in Japan, and the Hills promptly took us to one of their favorite local restaurants for our first exposure to authentic Japanese food. Having eaten at the Samurai Japanese Grill here in Albuquerque several times, I was confident of my Japanese food exposure.
However, it was clear early-on in the restaurant experience that I was not really prepared for what lie ahead.
Chopsticks, Seaweed, and Raw Fish
First came the chopsticks with no fork option, and second came Leon ordering what he called “noodles with guts!” Not sure what that was, but I steered clear of that dish. To my surprise, I did enjoy the other dishes that the Hills ordered for us. However, I realized my chopsticks handicap was going to present a problem for me. Thankfully, raising the bowl or plate to your mouth and slurping is acceptable in Japan. Without this concession, I believe I would have starved!
Along with lots and lots of rice, there is a common theme that runs through almost all Japanese food dishes: fish – and most of it is raw. You walk into the grocery, and the first thing you see is a large fresh (raw) fish section. You walk into 7-11 for a snack (I saw no Slurpees), and you’re immediately greeted by the smell of raw fish. Yes, raw fish on sale as a snack at 7-11! And to top it off, many of the dishes of rice and fish also contain a sizable portion of seaweed. There are even snack crackers available containing shards of seaweed! Raw fish and seaweed were the hardest things for me to swallow, and as much as I could, I avoided swallowing those two items.
Soup, Salad, Raw Eggs and Raw Fish – for Breakfast
Within 24-hours of arriving in Japan, we found ourselves on a chartered bus heading north for the Kaisen Church Network annual festival (more on this in an upcoming post). We arrived at the conference in time for dinner, and we were treated to a traditional bowl of Imoni for dinner. Imoni is a soup containing beef, potatoes, tofu, and cabbage and is quite tasty. After the evening session, we retired to a local hotel for what turned out to be a comfortable night of sleep.
Jet lag woke me and Michelle up around 5:30AM the next morning, and we hungrily prepared ourselves for the hotel’s breakfast which began at 6:30AM. The only thing we were told about the breakfast the night before was that there would be no bread served with it. Other than that, we had no idea what we were in for.
We entered the dining area just after it opened, and were met with – you guessed it – the smell of raw fish! We grabbed our trays and proceeded to walk through the food line. Once my tray was full, I realized that not only was there no bread, but nothing I had come to love and rely on for breakfast was on my tray either. My tray included a bowl of rice, a cup of brothy soup with mushrooms, a cabbage salad, another bowl of salad-like substances that I had never seen or tasted before, and a slab of raw fish. Raw eggs were also available at each table to crack and drain onto the rice, and to top it all off, there were packets of fermented soybeans called “natto” on the table that could be added to the rice for flavor and girth. No Frosted Flakes. No Pop-Tarts. No Donuts. This was by far the most difficult meal for me on the entire trip.
Burger Boy Meets the Sushi Conveyor
Overall, I really did enjoy the food we ate in Japan. The Hills made sure we experienced authentic Japanese food while providing us with a nice mix of Western meals as well. Michelle and I ate well and truly enjoyed our Japanese food adventure.
There was, however, the dreaded sushi meal. I knew it was coming, and I knew Michelle was really looking forward to it, so I tried as hard as I could to act excited about it when it was announced that Thursday’s lunch would be at a sushi bar. Praise be to the Lord as His face was shining upon me that day because we began the day with a hearty egg and bacon breakfast at Denny’s! I made it a point to clean my plate that morning, and I also downed a large order of thick toast as a pre-sushi filler.
The sushi restaurant we ate at was quite fascinating. Yes, the strong smells of raw fish were pervasive, but to see the way in which the sushi was served was worth enduring the smell…and even the taste. Conveyor belts ran throughout the restaurant, and a constant flow of sushi, rice bowls, and desserts flowed out from the kitchen. If there was something that looked good as it rolled by your table, you grabbed it. If there was something you wanted that you weren’t seeing, you ordered it off of the computer screen on the table, and within minutes, it came to you. Each plate was embedded with a microchip, and so the screen would flash as your plate approached.
The technology was cool, but what was a burger boy like me to do about all the sushi that rolled by? What is a recovering burgeraholic to eat at a Japanese sushi bar?
Well, again, the Lord’s face was shining on me that day as around the conveyor belt corner came the perfect dish for one like me: a plate containing two rice balls covered with – yep, you guessed it – hamburger patties!