Nihon ryōri: how to make salsa in Japan

Tsukemono assortment
Nihon ryōri, or Japanese cuisine, is more than just fish and rice. A pickle vendor at a fish market in Tokyo sold just about every sort of tsukemono, from cucumber to lotus root to radish to turnip to tomato to myoga. If it was a vegetable and you could pickle it, it’d be here.

While it’s easy enough to locate pickled cucumbers, ginger, cabbage (and kimchi), or fermented soybeans (nattō) and miso, sometimes a girl wants a little spice in her life. Hot foods are a little harder to come by in Japan, but you can still find stores selling “spicy things”, as the kanji on the giant chili pepper reads. (They also had giant sticks of cinnamon for sale!)

Spicy stuff shop

The kaiten zushi (conveyor belt sushi) place in Utsunomiya even contained a warning about its “supaishi sarada” (spicy salad) roll. I found it to have a mild bite, but then again, I’m petrified of “Thai spicy” papaya salad, so go figure.

Still, in a world where fresh vegetables aren’t terribly common on dinner tables, occasionally you have to take matters into your own hands when it comes to eating something green and leafy that hasn’t been brined. Our research group at JAXA welcomed a new student the other week, and to celebrate, we threw a little dinner party in the lab. A perfect chance to subject a captive audience to new foods! Many of my labmates can’t cook beyond putting ramen in the microwave, so it was a great opportunity for the boys to learn how to prepare more dishes, and for me to see a little more of Japanese food outside of Kokubunji.

Jun-chan’s family owns a sushi company, so she brought sushi with eel, ginger, and egg, plus many other fish that I’d never heard of to the dinner.

Tatsuya assembled salads, but later covered them in canned corn and grated cheese. (?)

Being a little homesick, I visited local supermarket after supermarket until I found cilantro (yes, Summit carries coriander!), tomatoes that might pass as ripe in a parallel universe, a red onion, some “hot” peppers (more like tepid), avocados, a lemon… and set to work making salsa and guacamole.

Kebabs, sushi, guacamole, salsa, salads, more sushi
Surrounded by sushi, chicken kebabs, salad, and Don Taco brand tortilla chips, the guacamole and salsa could have been at home at any grad students’ dinner party back in the US. The boys were mostly confused, but they’re good sports, so they went about trying to dip chips for the first time and generally seemed happy, even declaring them “umai!” (Apparently girls can’t say “umai”; it’s a “boy’s word”. Do not utter around your host mother or any other woman over the age of 40 in Japan.) Itadakimasu!

The week prior, I’d taught them how to make s’mores while grilling at the riverside in Okutama. They all knew how to roast marshmallows… mostly, but the concept of making a “sando” out of marshmallows and choko with thin cookies instead of “pan” sort of blew their brains.

Japanese cuisine, especially celebratory foods, feature a lot of skewers, so the concept of s’mores wasn’t too hard for the fellows to accept. Takao-san’s vendors hawk dango, or gooey rice balls, roasted on sticks over a charcoal fire.

Papier-mâché dango in front of the real thing
Papier-mâché tengu with dango
Eating mochi on a stick
Continuing with the theme of food on a stick, someone acquired skewered chicken thigh meat, or momo (not to be confused with the Japanese peach or Tibetan dumplings), which proved rather popular. Gochisōsama!

All finished
The boys being, well, 23-year-old boys, there was always something more fascinating on their phones than on the tables.

Kodama-san, however, recognized the existence of the cameraman.


Another favorite food around here is shaved ice, drenched in a flavored syrup.

When Mimosa and Eugene visited the other weekend and we climbed Takao-san, Mimosa partook in a mango-flavored mountain of shaved ice to help beat the heat.

Mango shaved ice II
It took her a moment to decide whether it was worth eating the entire pinnacle. In short: yes, it was. (The fellow behind her agreed as well.)

Mango shaved ice V

Ubiquitously sold at tourists sites is taiyaki, a baked pancake filled with azuki, red bean paste. Traditionally, taiyaki is fish-shaped, but each shop I’ve seen has its own custom taiyaki iron. Takao-san features, you guessed it, tengu-shaped taiyaki.

Making tengu taiyaki
Tengu taiyaki, wrapped
In case you weren’t sure what they’re supposed to be shaped like, the taiyaki are labeled with kanji that reads, “tengu taiyaki”.

Back of the tengu taiyaki
In Miyajima, complicated robots have mostly automated the taiyaki-making process. Splurting batter onto heated momiji, or maple leaf, taiyaki molds, frozen azuki pellets are dropped into the batter, covered with more batter, then baked. A robotic arm grabs the fresh taiyaki from the irons for bagging, while either a human or another robot brushes clean the molds before the process starts again.

I wonder what the market’s like for taiyaki making machines—how often do they need to be repaired? Do Japanese taiyaki vendors request new shapes for the molds, or are they content to have the same fish, tengu, and maple leaves season after season?

Would a post about Japanese food be complete without mentioning rice? The Japanese have cultivated gohan for at least 2,000 years, and every scrap of available land inside and outside of the cities seems to be dedicated to this grain’s cultivation.

In Miyajima, they have a gigantic rice paddle, the design of which came to a monk in a dream. At 2.5 tons and 7.7 meters long, it’s the world’s largest rice paddle. You can buy smaller versions in the shops for good luck.


After writing all this, I really want wasabi ice cream again. Or green tea ice cream. Or nattō. I’ll wait until I’m back in the US to go in search of Mexican food. If you want even more photos of Japanese food, look no further than here.

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