As a kid growing up in St Kilda, eating could be a terrifying experience. Almost all of my inner Melbourne, Windsor Primary schoolmates were recently arrived immigrants: Italians, Greeks, Maltese and Germans, mostly. How often I would find myself at these friends’ houses, trapped at a dinner table, staring at the food on my plate, trying to figure out how I could shuffle aside or hide the weird things I was being served… or eat them. Plenty of times I would go home with damp pockets stuffed with pieces of fish or strange meat.
I’m in my mid-fifties, a product of the classic, ‘white-bread’, Aussie upbringing. I’m not alone either. Many of my vintage recount similar experiences – such was the culinary schism between us, the established, British-Irish and the ‘new’ Australians. Ours were the Anglo culinary staples: lamb chops, peas, mashed potatoes, sausages, and, under protest, Brussels sprouts. Tinned peaches with
ice cream made the occasional appearance, as a special dessert treat. These were foods I understood.
A lot of our time was spent playing on or around the beach, and I remember watching the Greek and Italian fisherman catching octopus or scraping mussels off the pier. I felt sorry for them having to eat such terrible foods.
To be fair, we did branch out occasionally in our home. There was Australian-Chinese fried rice, and I vaguely recall take-away pizza having been introduced sometime around my early adolescence. Chicken? I don’t remember eating it in my youth. The first KFC outlets started to appear when I was well into my teens; here was chicken as fried fast food, and still I had trouble joining my friends as they tucked into the stuff. Fish? Fish was something Catholics ate on Fridays.
How ironic then that at this later stage of my life, I have come to crave a diet far broader and more adventuresome than most of my countrymen will ever know. Not only that, my collection of spices, chillies and variously mouth-searing condiments and sauces is worthy of envy and terror both. Sharing meals with friends meanwhile, is probably my favourite pastime.
And then there’s Japan.
The Au-Go-Go Records label I established in 1979 had its origins in the punk-new wave scene of Melbourne music’s halcyon late seventies. By then, I had managed a number of young bands, started a punk fanzine, Pulp, and worked at Missing Link records – so that my underground bona fides were well established. Au-Go-Go released many local and overseas artists. Late into the eighties we signed Sonic Youth, who after their first Australian tour, headed off to Japan. The tales they recounted, of the people they met, of the music they heard and saw, and of the adventures they had, intrigued me so much that I made a trip there myself soon afterwards. I’ve been going there regularly ever since.
These pilgrimages took such a hold of me that I ended up combining my obsessive predilections, with the result that I have now worked with many Japanese musicians, helping them release music outside their country. In a culinary sense though, those first few trips totally threw me. I adored the culture, the people, and the sense of history hanging over everything, but the meals… well, daunting doesn’t even begin to describe it.
I first encountered the 22.214.171.124’s in a Japanese music magazine, in 1990. An all-female Japanese band with kinked out, leather-clad stage personas and what I would later discover to be a deep appreciation and knowledge of old Japanese culture – they had taken out an advertisement for their first EP. Intrigued, I called the phone number at the bottom. We met up on my next trip. They arrived in kimonos and took me to Asakusa Kannon Temple where I spent the afternoon learning about Japanese Buddhism, then to a small restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo that specialised in kusaya.
Kusaya is a traditional fish dish from the nearby Izu islands. Eating fish was still strange to me at this time but the chance to try something different while hanging out with new friends was irresistible. What I didn’t know was that kusaya (a derivation of the Japanese word for ‘stinky’) is a fish cured in vats of brine that are passed down within families, without change (or cleaning) for generations. It is then dried
in the sun.
The result has a smell so intense that even in a restaurant known for its kusaya, there were people gasping and gagging as the dishes were brought out. I may have been the only unsophisticated foreigner in the restaurant, but a fair few Japanese people seemed to be looking just as discomfited as I.
The band members meanwhile, kneeling daintily on the tatami floor, happily tucking in, were entirely oblivious. I found the only way I was able to get this food to my mouth was by pulling my sweater over my nose, taking a deep breath and then eating while holding my breath. I can report that kusaya tastes deliciously soft, salty and buttery – just don’t breathe while consuming it.
When alone in Japan, I am happy to find one of the multitude of vending machines that adorn her big city streets at regular intervals, grab a can of corn soup, wash it down with a can of sickly sweet coffee and get on with my day. Put me in an izakaya with Japanese friends though and suddenly, instead of looking for the blandest, most Western items on a menu, I challenge myself to eat the most exotic dishes I can find. It’s as if an unspoken, unacknowledged, invisible gauntlet is thrown down. When a Japanese friend tells me something might be too strange for me, I take it as a call to culinary arms. Which is not to say I always enjoy the taste, not by
a long shot, but I do love the thrill that comes when I manage to empty my plate.
It isn’t only the thrill of adventurous challenge that spurs me on. Sitting at a table, surrounded by friends who are relaxing and tucking into their food without a second thought, I’ve found a very real satisfaction in confronting my ingrained prejudices. Often I still have to cajole, persuade and will myself merely to get my hashi (chopsticks) up to my mouth… but, a gauntlet is a gauntlet.
I’m not quite sure when precisely this came about; when it dawned on me that playing it safe by opting for the most nondescript items on the menu didn’t cut it. What a dilettante I must have seemed on those first visits, pretending my way through an exploration of Japan, picking and choosing those parts of the culture, including the food, that suited me, and ignoring the rest. It had been all comfort zones and culinary safety nets – certainly no way to genuinely immerse oneself in a culture and discover its secrets.
In the years since, I’ve made many discoveries. I have discovered that I can eat natto (sticky, fermented soy beans), fugu (poisonous puffer fish), items that translate as rectum-colon (apparently there is a difference), shirako (‘white children’ in Japanese, milt in English, sperm sack in the vernacular), and various organs, with (various degrees of) ease. I still sometimes come across things that test my resolve; those Japanese dishes so utterly strange that I half expect my friends to burst into laughter and tell me the jig is up and that they have just been fooling with me.
My wife, Adele, had just such an ‘are you kidding?’ moment on her very first trip to Japan, when the Zoobombs, an energetic band that mixes Parliament-style funk with raw blues, took us to dinner in a lively, student-frequented izakaya in Koenji. One of the dishes they chose for us was boiled tuna head sitting upright in a bowl of dashi. Odd as it may seem to be sitting in a restaurant, picking the meat from an intricate maze of fish face-bones, (incidentally, surprisingly delicious and tasting very much like lamb) the far more confronting moment of the meal came when the band invited Adele to partake of the most sought after part of the head, the eyeballs, explaining that this was an honour. She rose to the challenge, with a lot of beer to wash them down, and later admitted that she didn’t remember the taste as much as the texture; “like eating two small rubber balls covered in gelatine”.
And then there’s the rawness thing – in all its odd and unexpected incarnations.
The current popularity of sushi restaurants makes it somewhat easy to forget that the idea of eating raw fish was once very strange to people outside of Japan. What to make then of raw horsemeat taken minced (basashi – delicious) or thinly sliced (sakuraniku – so delicate), served always with spring onions, ginger and soy; or raw cow’s liver (rebasashi) served in a pool of its own blood; or…
The delicacy that really tested my resolve was offered up by my friend Hiro, guitarist-vocalist with surf-frat band Mach Kung Fu, during a visit to an old restaurant he’d invited me to, wanting me to try their special chicken dish. It was only when the food arrived that I discovered this particular restaurant served its chicken raw (torisashi), my only comfort being the ubiquitous raw meat accompaniment – spring onions, ginger and soy.
The texture was nothing if not gallingly slimy, but the taste wasn’t half bad. If it had been served amongst a fish selection on a sashimi platter, I may not have even realised I was eating a raw bird.
Another trip, another friend, another foray – this time an invitation from Kazu, tour manager for the garage punk outfit Teengenerate, to eat fresh squid. By this stage in my culinary education, I’d experienced enough to know that ‘fresh’ in Japan can have a very literal meaning. So it came as no surprise when upon entering the restaurant we found ourselves facing a large glass tank full of live squid. Nor was I surprised when the waiter, having scooped one out, proceeded to chop off the tentacles and place them in a bowl in front of us. Squid muscles are known for the strength of their neurons – the salty ions in soy sauce cause these neurons to react, even after death. I did not know this when the waiter poured soy sauce on the tentacles and they began to furiously wriggle around. “Quickly,” Kazu said, “we have to eat them while they are fresh.” I filled my mouth with writhing tendrils of squid, proud of my fortitude in not retching, as I watched the chef slice the cephalopod’s remaining flesh, still changing colour, into small pieces, and neatly serve it up on a large bamboo leaf. A squid ink soup followed. Still I held fast and endured.
My composure was only undone when I realised that the final course of the meal consisted of the squid’s remaining entrails. This included the hearts (three in total), kidneys (both) and other internal organs, served as
a warm mashed paste. Perhaps it was the taste, perhaps the texture, or the smell, or the way it stuck cloyingly to the insides of my mouth like stale pâté, but when I tried to eat it I gagged. Worse still, my beer glass was empty. It took all of my strength not to embarrass myself in front of everyone. Frantically desperate to rinse my mouth, I reached across, snatched Kazu’s beer out of his hands and drank it all in one go.
Oden, a traditional, near-ancient, Japanese workers’ dish, is a simple stew of vegetables and meat, prepared slowly in a dashi-soy broth and commonly found around busy train stations where people want a quick, cheap, hearty meal, especially in winter. A more commercial version can be found in most convenience stores, up front right next to the cash register. I’m not a big fan, partly because it’s served in places that are too bustling, loud and cramped for my liking, and partly because it looks extremely unappetising – invariably a sickly brown-grey colour. But if I’m with Japanese friends who feel the need to indulge, I won’t refuse.
A couple of years ago, a group of us met up at a crowded oden restaurant near Namba Station in Osaka. The chicken oden dish I ordered became a source of some concern to me when I noticed that sitting in the middle of the bowl was a tube, split lengthwise, with a series of small, ovoid objects attached. I asked, then regretted doing so when I was informed that this was a small hen’s uterus with various maturing eggs growing along its length. They call it chochin, ‘lantern’ in Japanese, because the eggs hang from it, and that’s what they look like… sort of.
Now, I eat eggs. Likewise, I eat chicken. Why then was this sight so deeply disturbing to me? Again, I found myself sitting in front of a meal, oblivious to the conversation around me, resting my elbow on the table such that I could nonchalantly cover the sight of the dish with my hand, desperately willing myself into bringing the food to my lips. The rubbery texture combined with the explosion of egg in my mouth ensured I left most of it in the bowl. My only solace the fact that here, finally, was a dish for which even the ordinarily literal-to-a-fault Japanese seem to prefer a euphemism.
The 126.96.36.199’s and I have enjoyed many rockin’n’rollin’ food experiences together since that first encounter. Still, there are times when that Aussie as Skippy, ‘white-bread’ upbringing gets the better of me and I just feel like slipping off to a Burger King. I tried it on a recent trip.
In case I forgot where I was, and true to its name, the Kuro Burger is entirely black – the bun, the cheese, the sauce. Coloured by charcoal, it tastes delicious but looks… As the Japanese would say, let’s go izakaya.