Bear Meat, in Japan?

One of my favorite aspects of eating in Japan is the department store.

Hold up, what?

Whereas department stores may be terribly dull in most of the western hemisphere, places like El Corte Inglés in Spain, and KaDeWe in Berlin, and many, many choices in East and Southeast Asia’s biggest cities do more than just delight the average clothes shopper.

Japan is where my first memorable introduction to department store food halls occurred, at the Daiwa Korinbo in Kanazawa. While living there for the summer of 2000, I’d get corn bread — that is, buttery bread stuffed with corn kernels — at a place called Don Q., and an apple almost everyday, always in the basement section.

Years later, I realized that Japanese department stores sometimes had food festivals in their upper floor event halls; some focused on a specific prefecture (let’s say it’s like a state or province), whereas others covered the entire country.

Last week, at a Hokkaido Food Festival — Hokkaido being Japan’s northernmost prefecture, known for its dairy, miso ramen, salmon, and melon, among many other edibles — I found an exotic (for me, anyhow) treat to sample:

Brown bear, known in Japanese as 羆 (ひぐま/higuma). Although brown bears were historically hunted by the indigenous Ainu culture, they also have greatly influenced Ainu life for generations, with both having shared the often frigid and remote terrain of Hokkaido. (link in Japanese)

n.b. bear meat can also be found in Aomori prefecture, the one atop Honshu island most famous for apples, but Hokkaido is where its consumption is just a bit more common. (link in Japanese)

Want to know how it tasted? Check out my YouTube video!


During My Last Visit to Japan, I Had Poisonous Fish

In the wide world of Japanese cuisine, Shimonoseki, Japan is particularly famous for something particularly controversial:

Shimonoseki - Sewer Cover fugu
Manhole Cover with Fugu Design in Shimonoseki, Japan

Blowfish.  Pufferfish.  Swellfish.  Delicacy.  Jimmy.  No matter what you call it, there are still…plenty of other words to call it.

River pig (河豚).   鰒/フグ, pronounced fuguふく fuku, which means “good fortune” and which serves as a pun on fugu, the official name for the venomous fish.

Hire me to remove the eyes, ovaries, and in particular the liver, and you won’t be around to read my next post.  Nor will I.  I’ll be in jail.  You really need to find the right chef at the right time.  Or, cower out and try the poison-free version.

Shimonoseki isn’t shy about its most famous resident.  I had never tried fugu before visiting that city, but a visit to one of Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores, called konbini, changed all of that:

Shimonoseki - convenience store fugu
Convenience store (konbini) fugu! — There really was a slight tingling sensation after taking a bite

Do Japanese convenience stores keep humans in mind? Fugu, bread stuffed with chocolate and margarine and pocket-sized cans of sake really make you wonder if we are their main source of revenue.  Then again, have you ever had the displeasure of breathing in at a 7-11 in the US?  Those stores must be one of the many layers of Buddhist hell.

For a short history lesson, immediately following the end of the Meiji Era (~1868-1912), Shimonoseki was the first city in the country to allow legal consumption of fugu. It’s not even the region where most fugu are caught; yet, due to its trend-setting stance on allowing people to eat blowfish, Shimonseki became the venomous fish’s main distribution port.

Anyway, let’s take a brief tour of Shimonoseki.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market exterior
Exterior Shot of Karato Market, Shimonoseki, Japan

Japan’s most famous fish/wholesale market is undoubtedly Tsukiji Ichiba (市場/いちば/ichiba = market), located in Tokyo.  However, for a much more relaxing yet equally delicious market visit, check out Karato Ichiba in Shimonoseki.

For which marine product are they most famous?

Take a wild guess.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market fugu sculpture
Is that a float? Imagine that during Mardi Gras

That’s English for fugu, and Japanese for fugu.

canned fugu supermarket
Canned Fugu and Whale Curry in a Shimonoseki Souvenir Shop

Someone went a little overboard here.  Fugu (Japanese-style) curry, boiled fugu in a can, raw fugu in a can, even whale curry tags along…who says Japan and China aren’t alike?

Would you try fugu?  What if it were a birthday gift?

What is Katsuobushi? (Japan)

What is katsuobushi (鰹節/かつおぶし, or okaka おかか)?

Take a skipjack tuna, also known as bonito.

Gut it.

Dry it.

Ferment it.

Smoke it.

If you were a student in an introductory course to the food of Japan, you probably already knew that fish was going to be a common theme.  But katsuobushi, or more specifically, its shavings, are key.

Larger, thicker shavings are called kezurikatsuo and combined with kelp (brown seaweed, or kombu), are vital in preparing dashi (だし), a fish-based soup stock.  Those of a smaller, thinner variety are hanakatsuo.

These plucky condiments are frequently found crowning okonomiyaki, hiyayakko (a cold tofu dish) and takoyaki, and most unusually, are reborn when in close contact with heat;  save a little for Sunday school.

Tokyo - Katsuobushi (2)
Katsuobushi Processing Machine – Basically, you throw the prepared fish into it, and out comes fish shavings.

I saw this machine in Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.  What do you do with it?  Shove one of those katsuobushi bricks into it, and out comes…

Tokyo - Katsuobushi (1)
Katsuobushi Fish Shavings

If you don’t have access to those heavy-duty machines, then how is katsuobushi made?  You could buy a katsuobushi kezuriki (鰹節削り器/かつおぶしけずりき) and do the labor yourself.  These days however, it is easy enough to find the end product in Japanese/East Asian supermarkets.

Not Ice Cream, But Ice Crin (Japan)

While studying abroad in Tokyo years ago, thanks to an article in an expat magazine, I had come across Namjatown, in the district of Ikebukuro.  Namjatown was a theme park, with carnival games, arcade consoles, and food-themed areas, namely a gyoza (dumpling) section, and an ice cream “stadium.”

Ice Cream Stadium used to have flavors such as “salad,” “garlic,” and “beef tongue.”

Namjatown is still there, though greatly diminished both in quality and quantity.  That is to say, as much as I love eating gyoza, what really sold it was the ice cream  stadium, which no longer exists.

Viper (マムシ mamushi) Ice Cream

Ironically, I don’t eat ice cream much – it’s too good.  But just as I would to unique flavors of other foods, I acquiesce to seldom seen flavors of ice cream.

Kudzu (Arrowroot) Soft-Serve Ice Cream, Nara, Japan

Take Yoshino Hon Kuzu (吉野本葛) as one example.  Whereas to botanists in the Southern US, it’s an invasive species, to chefs, it’s a horse of a different color.  Kuzu, kudzu, or arrowroot, is a tuber best known as a thickener for soups and sauces, and as a primary ingredient in wagashi (わがし 和菓子), or traditional Japanese sweets customarily eaten with tea.

Fast-forward to 2019, after a stint volunteering at a restaurant on the artsy island of Naoshima.  I spent a few days in the small but extremely appetizing city of Kochi, where I discovered that ice cream wasn’t the only chilled dessert in town.

At Hirome Market in downtown Kochi, as I was weaving through the cramped aisles filled brimming with good eats, I was struck by this sign:

Ice Crin (アイスクリン), a Kochi, Japan-Specialty

The sign read “ice crin.”  What???

Apparently, ice crin is a Kochi specialty, made with eggs and powdered milk, though clocking in at less than 3% butterfat, it’s a bit less “unhealthy” than the heavy cream and milk combo that composes ice cream.  Ice crin is also somewhat crunchy, which makes it a cross between ice cream and shaved ice, or kakigoori (かき氷).

For some backstory, Japan had known about ice cream since the 1860s, when a Japanese delegation was introduced to it on a boat while visiting the US.  Although the frozen treat spread quickly around Japan, it was through the ravages of World War II, when certain foodstuffs were in short supply – in this case, fresh milk – that gave rise to ice crin.  With the post-war proliferation of cars, ice crin stalls were set up along highways, further adding to its appeal and convenience.

One cool aspect of Kochi is that it’s subtropical, so the local flavors that can be added to ice crin – yuzu (a citrus fruit), my favorite, green tea, tangerine, and pomelo – are all fresh.

Have you ever tried ice crin?

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