Visitors to Japan have an enormous variety of foods to choose from. Sushi, sukiyaki and tempura are familiar Japanese dishes to anyone with even a modicum of gastronomical inquisitiveness. But those who come to Japan can sometimes experience a few culinary surprises.
Imagine sitting down to a meal and suddenly thinking that you have brought something unpleasant into the restaurant on the soles of your shoes. What do you do? Rush outside and try to scrape the offensive waste off? Not if you are in Japan, you don’t. First of all, quickly and furtively cast you olfactory organ over the dish in front of you. If the smell seems to be emanating from your plate, remain seated. It could be that you have been served the traditional Japanese delicacy of kusaya, which means ‘stinking fish.’
If there were an award for the food that was ‘most difficult to acquire a taste for,’ Kusaya would, without doubt, be one of the contenders for it. But in some parts of Japan, it is considered a delicacy and eaten with gusto.
Kusaya is often made from mackerel, and the process takes months. First of all, the fish are soaked in a kusaya gravy that consists of a brine solution that is used over and over again. Some of this gravy is over 100 years old. When the kusaya gravy is not being used to process mackerel, a fish fillet is added to it to maintain the microflora that boosts the distinctive pungent aroma. When the fish are removed from the kusaya gravy, they are are dried in the sun.
Kusaya are usually grilled, and this is when the uninitiated start checking their shoes and looking around at other patrons. The stench is overpowering, but aficionados of the dish consider this a small price to pay for the taste, which is not as bad as the smell. But there again, it couldn’t possibly be.
On a positive note, there is no record of anyone dying after eating a kusaya, and any visitor to Japan who actually eats one will have something to talk about when they return home.
© Charles R. Pringle 2007
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