I was never an adventurous eater as a kid. Eating in a restaurant made me feel ill. My vegetable repertoire was limited to corn (canned and on the cob) and frozen peas; potatoes if they qualify. Meat, some fish, pasta/red sauce, cheese typical US grown fruits, cereal and PB and J rounded things out. My exotic tastes ran to Chinese egg rolls and the restaurant provided dried, crunchy noodles without the dishes one would normally sprinkle them on. There are many foods to like in Japan and fortunately for me, my tastes have broadened.

My first introduction to Japanese cooking was at a Benihana-style grill restaurant. The center piece of those restaurants was the performance of the chef flipping knives and condiment containers into the air while deftly chopping and cooking the food on a grill surface that was part of the tabletop. These steel grills/pans are called teppan-yaki.

These venues are common here but without the theatrics. In addition to the expected grilled seafood and meat, they also specialize in okonomi-yaki. Isamu describes these as pancakes but they seem more like omelettes that are light on the eggs and heavy on the ingredients. They are brought to the table in bowls containing the egg on the bottom and other ingredients (e.g., meat, seafood, vegetables, sprouts, noodles) on the top. After mixing them and oiling the grill, you pour the mixture onto the grill and wait from them to cook. They can be eaten in one of several ways and of course there are usually several options to garnish and dress them with. In deference to me, we ate mostly vegetable mixtures. Sitting around talking and eating like this is a wonderful treat. This meal with a beer has become a precourse tradition for us.
Meals at our training facility are pretty standard fare. Every meal includes shredded cabbage, white rice and miso soup. The latter comes in about a half of a dozen varieties – clear or cloudy with varieties of tofu, seaweed, scallions, and other vegetables. There are garnishes like pickled vegetables, powdered seasonings, scallions, ground radish, and soy sauce. Soy sauce must be mostly for Westerners because I saw very few locals using it. They also offer a variety of noodles and sprouts that can be either hot or cold with meat, seafood and vegetables. There was always some form of seafood in croquettes, stew, deep-fried, or smoked but never raw. There are never desserts as we know them. The drinks include cold oolong or green tea, watery orange drink, tap water, or rice water. We were never served coffee and I did not see hot tea or milk.

There were no notable differences between any of the meals with the exception of grapefruit slices and nattō for breakfast. Nattō is fermented soybeans that usually come packaged in a plastic container along with some condiments. Most people eat it on rice. The consistency is somewhere between slimy and gooey. The smell is strong. If it is an acquired taste I am not sure how that would be accomplished. It must be good for you but the same argument was proffered to me about beets as a kid and I was never convinced. The Japanese love it.

I have included a youtube link on how to eat nattō and another with a picture of my typical breakfast, sans the nattō.  There are always plenty of vegetables and on the whole, the meals are quite satisfactory.


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