vegansaurus!

05/11/2011

Guest post: Five freaky and fantastic vegan Japanese foods you must eat now!  »

Japanese food is awesome. It’s light and healthy and after eating it, you usually feel pleasantly satiated rather than weighed down (unless it’s tempura, or okonomiyaki, or—let’s just move on, shall we?). But did you know that Japan is home to some seriously freaky shizzle? If your palate is begging for variety and you need your culinary world to be rocked, we invite you to check out some of these funky Japanese foods. You will not be disappointed.
1. Devil’s got your tongue? Check out crazy konyaku!

Sometimes translated as “devil’s tongue,” konyaku is a gelatinous paste made from yams. You can sometimes find it in big gray blocks with black flecks in them (which just may be one of the most unappetizing forms a food can take), and occasionally in little ribbon shapes that are tied into a bow. If you’re feeling brave enough to try the block, you can rinse it off, and then do whatever you like to do with weird gelatinous substances. You could throw some into a stir-fry or soup to make things more interesting, or even bread and deep-fry it for a batch of “down-home country-fried devil’s tongue.” It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

2. Can’t get enough of that jelly-like weirdness? Kick it with kanten!
Kanten is another freaky-deaky Japanese substance. Sometimes called agar, sometimes agar-agar (isn’t that the best?), this algae-derived white powder can be cooked up to solidify stuff and make some very interestingly textured jellies, custards, puddings, and aspics. This is also super-popular as a diet food in Japan because of its high-fiber, low-calorie content. So you can eat as much as you want! Just as long as you don’t mind, uh, going to the bathroom later.

3. It looks like a booger, but it’s snot. Yamaimo, y’all! 
Maybe it’s not polite to talk about boogers at the dinner table, but it’s really hard not to talk about snot when we’re talking yamaimo, or “mountain yam.” On the outside, it appears to be a long, thin, shaggy potato (picture Shaggy from Scooby Doo in potato form). However, once you start grating it, it turns into a white, gooey, mucous-like substance, which you can use to bind various things together, or you can just take it as is and throw it on top of a bowl of soba noodles for a dish called “tororo.” Which is probably more fun to say than it is to eat. Just sayin’.

4. Yes, it smells like feet, but it’s GOOD for you. Nasty natto!
Can you tell I’m not the biggest fan of the fermented soybeans known as natto? However, I’m adult enough to recognize that some people can actually get past the funky smell (like feet!), and texture (slimy, sticky, AND stringy!) and enjoy this stuff. Renowned for its probiotic properties, natto is said to help build a healthy digestive tract, and is even sometimes used to clean out bacteria-infested water. Well, like the old saying goes, “Good enough for bacteria-infested water, good enough for me!” If that describes your culinary philosophy, wrap some up with sushi rice in sheets of nori for nattomaki, or mix it with kimchee and rice (some people swear by this pungent combination).

5. Rockin’ renkon (a.k.a. lotus root)!

Compared to the other foods on this list, lotus root is rather mild. It doesn’t have a super-strange taste or texture, but just take a look at this and tell me it’s not freaky. Sure, the outside looks like a potato, but slice through it and you get a crazy cross-section that’s as beautiful as it is bizarre. Plus, lotus root is almost as versatile as its cousin, the potato (My apologies to any biologists who are shaking their heads in anger as they read this). You can deep-fry lotus roots for some kick-ass “potato-cousin” chips, toss them in the rice cooker along with whatever grain you’re cooking to add some variation to the mix, or chop them up into tiny pieces and put them in your rice for a crunchy and fun take on inari. Do you have any favorite recipes for these freaky foods? Feel free to share them here!

Melissa Feineman is a Japonophile writer and editor who is looking for work. You should totes hire her. Or just check out her shizzle on her rad website. You must especially read her AWESOME Japanese dating advice column, Let’s Dating!

[Renkon and kanten photos from author, natto from snowpea&bokchoy, konyaku from alecvuijlsteke!]

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