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Image: Japan
  Photo: Rob Law
Image: Japan
  Photo: Juergen Sack

Fatty Tuna Eye Socket: Culinary Adventures in Japan
By Jason Phillips

“Jason, can you eat namako?”

Resisting the reflex to explain for the hundredth time that the verb “can” indicates potential or ability, and that the proper English expression would be, “do you eat…” I remind myself that I’m off the clock, take the question as it was meant and simply respond, “I don’t know. What is it?”


A typically illuminating response. I shrug my shoulders, say, “Ok, sure,” to the proposed mystery food in accordance with my “try anything once” policy and it gets ordered along with the more routine assortment of things raw, grilled, or fried. It’s another Wednesday night in Kawasaki, Japan, and I’m out at what has become our usual spot, the Izakaya Shoya, with a group of students and teachers from the local branch of the McLanguage School where I work. Izakaya are often described as Japanese tapas bars, and range from loud, smoky places with glossy picture menus and crowds attracted by cheap booze, to beautifully decorated establishments that serve dishes of the highest quality with truly artistic flair. Shoya is of the former variety, and features the Holy Grail of beer specials: a pitcher for a thousand yen, less than ten US bucks; and we’re talking real beer here, people, not hoppo-shu, that peculiar Japanese alcoholic near-beer.

Glasses of beer are imbibed and conversations around our table are carried on in various combinations of English and Japanese, from hopelessly mangled to fluent depending on who’s speaking which to whom. Soon, dishes start arriving and the evening’s experiment makes its appearance. Namako, turns out to be fairly innocuous looking-- small, brown and black, crescent-shaped, vaguely mushroom-like pieces of meat, doused in a thin brown sauce and topped with flying fish roe.

“Here, Jason, chance namako.”

Again, the resisted impulse to correct a choice bit of Japanese-English. Using my oft lauded chopstick technique (expect to be complimented by Japanese if you can manage any better than barbaric two-fisted stabbing), I pick-up a piece from the proffered bowl, making sure to get ample sauce coverage and a few roe, and then, as a hush falls over the table and with all eyes upon me, I chance it. Hmmm… salty, chewy, I savor the delicate popping of the flying fish roe, but there’s also an algal flavor that makes me think I’ve discovered what it must be like to lick the inside of a dirty fish tank. Overall, It’s not disgusting, but it’s not an experience that I’m in any hurry to repeat either. I tell my rapt audience that it’s ma-ma (so-so) and, amid much laughter, the spotlight moves to the other foreigner at the table, Josh-sensei, for his turn. He tries it, has a similar reaction albeit with a pronounced nose wrinkle and decides to get to the bottom of things: “So, what’d we just eat?”

Nobody at the table seems to know the English word for the recently masticated sea critter, but after a minute of consultation somebody pulls out a small notepad and draws what looks like a cute little slug, complete with a smile and antennae festooned with googly eyes.

“A slug?”

Srugah?” Hideo almost gets it on the first try, miming a baseball swing and wondering if he has found a funny homonym.


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