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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogHorse Meat and More: Five Unusual Foods to Try in Japan!

Horse Meat and More: Five Unusual Foods to Try in Japan!

James LauJames Lau
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February 14, 2024
A plate of horse meat sashimi and ground horse meat.

Have you ever gone beyond the usual tourist food? While known for sushi and ramen, Japan has some unique delicacies waiting to be discovered. Among them, horse meat stands out as a popular option. Let’s discover food that is only found in Japan!

Basashi (Horse Meat Sashimi)

Basashi is a popular delicacy from Kumamoto, made of thinly sliced raw horse meat. Its name comes from “baniku” (horse) and “sashi” (sashimi). There are three varieties: “Toro” from the rib meat, lean meat with marbled fatty streaks, and “Futaego” from the neck, known for its crunchy texture and high-fat content. Despite its unusual nature, basashi is loved in Japanese cuisine, and Kumamoto produces 40% of Japan’s horse meat.

A plate of horse meat.
Horse meat taste similar to beef. Image via Shutterstock

Served with soy sauce, fresh ginger, and other condiments, basashi is raw or lightly cooked and often served with sake. Basashi is famous for its lean protein content and unique flavor profile, like a blend of beef and venison. In Japan, eating basashi is accepted and considered a healthy choice due to lower fat and calorie levels than other meats.

Geiniku (Whale Meat)

Whale meat has a long history in Japan, from 800 AD, and became especially important after World War II thanks to its protein content and low price. However, these days, the whale is considered a luxury item. One of the most popular dishes that include whale meat is harihari nabe, a hot pot dish made with whale meat and mizuna mustard. Many people who eat whale meat say it tastes like duck or chicken.

A bunch of whale meat sashimi.
Whale meat is relatively rare these days. Image via Shutterstock

Despite its significance, the whale meat market has fallen over the years. Whale meat consumption is less popular now, with a poll revealing that 95% of Japanese people rarely or never eat it. Japan’s whaling industry has started promoting whale meat as a tourist attraction. As a result, they rebranded it as something to try and even used vending machines to make it more accessible to consumers.

Gyutan (Beef Tongue)

Gyutan, or beef tongue, is a popular Japanese dish that began in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture in 1948. Its name comes from the Japanese words “gyu” meaning cow and “tan” meaning tongue. Traditionally, gyutan was seasoned with salt and served with barley rice, tail soup, and pickles. Over time, it gained popularity across Japan, especially in yakiniku restaurants, where it’s commonly enjoyed grilled over charcoal!

A plate of beef tongue.
Beef tongue is especially popular at shabu-shabu restaurants. Image via Shutterstock

Despite a local legend suggesting it started with leftover tongues from occupation soldiers, gyutan’s origins lie with Sano Keishirō, who founded the dish at his restaurant, Tasuke. Today, gyutan is enjoyed not only grilled but also in various forms, such as donburi, curry, and beef stew, often accompanied by oxtail soup and barley rice. Beef tongue slices are grilled to perfection, resulting in a tender, melt-in-your-mouth bite!

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Torisashi (Chicken Sashimi)

Torisashi from Kagoshima prefecture features thinly sliced raw chicken meat that is sometimes lightly seared on the outside. Despite worries about eating raw chicken, torisashi has become popular, particularly in Kagoshima, commonly served with ground ginger or soy sauce. In other regions of Japan, sesame seeds, salt, green onions, or wasabi accompany torisashi, offering various flavor experiences.

Chicken sashimi.
Chicken sashimi is a delicacy in Kagoshima. Image via Shutterstock

Torisashi includes various parts of the chicken, including hearts, gizzards, breasts, thighs, and liver, and requires precise handling and preparation to reduce health risks. Unique slaughtering methods and immediate refrigeration make sure bacteria are kept at bay. While torisashi is a regional specialty in Kagoshima, it can also be found in izakaya bars across Japan, giving diners a chance to try this daring food.

Horumonyaki (Grilled Offal)

Horumon refers to offal meats, including intestines, kidneys, hearts, and more. Beginning in the Kansai region nearly a century ago, horumon reflects Japan’s commitment to reducing waste. This offal cuisine has evolved from humble beginnings in rural Japan to becoming a meal enjoyed in specialized barbecue restaurants and noodle dishes across the country.

Horumonyaki on a grill.
Offal meat may prevent food from going to waste. Image via Shutterstock

Horumon cuisine includes a variety of offal meats. Popular varieties include “hatsu” (heart), with a chewy texture and mild flavor, and “rebaa” (liver), known for its strong taste. “Mino” (tripe) has a unique texture, while “shiro” (intestine) has a crispy, slightly spicy taste. While these dishes may not be for everyone, they show Japan’s creativity and cultural respect for nature’s bounty.

Why should you try unusual fare like horse meat?

Japan offers unique and unusual foods that challenge taste buds and culinary norms. From basashi to horumonyaki, each dish shows Japan’s culture and creativity in using every part of the animal. Despite initial worries, these delicacies have gained local and international popularity, interesting adventurous eaters.

Tataki tuna sushi on a plate.
What kind of unusual meat have you had before? Image via Shutterstock

With careful preparation and precise handling, these unique dishes allow you to go past sushi and ramen and enjoy Japan’s finer (and stranger) food! So, for those looking for an unforgettable dining experience, Japan promises to satisfy you! Have you ever tried any of these meats before? Which one did you like the best? Let us know in the comments below!

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