Burroughs Backyard

Backyard biology from a field ecologist's perspective

Lost in translation: food

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Heading to Asia, I knew that food would be an adventure.  In fact, the countries I’m visiting are renowned for their cuisine.  Think about sushi and ramen, Peking duck and Sichuan spices.  Bento, hotpot, mochi, matcha, and sake.  I also knew, not speaking or reading Chinese or Japanese, that what I ordered or put in my mouth might not always be vegetarian.  I was ok with that thought; I don’t want to unnecessarily miss out on cultural experiences, and also don’t want to be rude by turning away what’s in front of me.  Though my preferences are vegetarian, I assumed that I’d occasionally end up with fish, chicken, or beef on my plate, and that I would eat it with as much gusto as possible.  I’ll admit that it’s ended up a little more adventuresome than I anticipated.

My first day on this side of the world, during my long layover in Taiwan, I made it north of central Taipei to Beitou (I’d meant to get to Kangamingshan National Park for the day, but had bus confusion that delayed me too long…that’s another story).  Finally stopping to eat after wandering along a gorgeous river park for a while, a very kind man took my order for “one noodle”.  Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that dishes probably contain meat unless specified otherwise, so a gorgeous bath of brothy noodles came out topped with several chunks of carrot and several slices of beef.  The noodles were delicious, and the beef was tender and, well, it would have been delicious, I’m sure, if I liked beef.  I ate it anyway and went on my way.  An hour or so later as I boarded the subway that would take me back to the airport, I felt self-conscious as I tried to scratch an unwieldy number of bug bites that I’d acquired on my walk.  I didn’t want the people on the subway or plane to think I had bedbugs or fleas!  …And then realized that I wasn’t dealing with bug bites, but that I was breaking out in hives.  Oh, man!  Benadryl didn’t immediately solve the problem, but by the time I’d gotten on the plane my itching was gone.

This reaction was interesting to me: I hadn’t expected it, since periodically over the past year I’ve had meals containing venison.  If I’m not allergic to one red meat, I shouldn’t be allergic to another, right?  But something tripped my body off.  Probably a combination of the new food, perhaps its origin, combined with my lack of sleep, etc etc.  So I decided to be more careful about trying to keep meat out my diet for now.

Which (more or less, as long as we don’t count small bits of fish in some sushi) worked until 3 days later, on my day visiting Himeji Castle.  What an amazing site (and sight) to see!  I’d never been to a castle before, and this one epitomized defense tactics.  Layers of thick stone walls, topped with plaster walls with myriad holes for guns and arrows.  A keep in the middle with hallways and rooms lined copiously with weapons holders, and windows with trapdoors at the bottom to throw rocks onto attackers below.  It was like an over-fortified Lego castle come true!  I’m still not sure where everyday life was carried out, but was immensely impressed with the ability of the ruler to hole up! Himeji-jo

Anyway, having gotten carried away touring Himeji, I found myself wandering back to the train station around dinner time, not having had any lunch.  Not wanting to spend long, though (I didn’t want to get to Kyoto *too* late!), I looked around the arcade to find some food.  Everyone was eating these, and there was a picture I could point to without needing to know any food names in Japanese, so it seemed like a good option:

Fried octopus 1

The cooks were pouring batter into little trays that looked a bit like muffin tins and frying them.  I like fried food!  But when I was served, here’s who was hiding inside:

Fried octopus 2

Oh, man!  The taste wasn’t so bad, but the gooiness of the inner batter put me off a bit.  Oh, well.  You live, you learn!  It ends up these are a regional specialty, so I can say I enhanced my cultural understanding.

The next day was one of my intense sightseeing days in Kyoto.  I was visiting temples and shrines, and had a serious hankering to make it to another part of town to walk through a bamboo grove and garden before things closed at 5.

Arashiyama bamboo forest

Not wanting to spend the time for proper lunch, I ducked into a convenience store.  They’re everywhere here, and have a pretty wide selection of food, often including bento, packaged hot dogs, and boiled eggs.  This looked promising:

Surprise rice ball

Sushi-wrapped rice with egg and beans in the middle.  Yum.

Only they weren’t beans.  Maybe you guessed that by now.  They were bits of pork.  Luckily not too much; I didn’t break out, just had a minor stomachache for a bit as I rushed on to the Arashiyama bamboo grove.

But I’ve gotten better with this game.  I’ve learned to ask “Ego wakari maska? (Do you speak English?)” when there’s no menu with English subtitles, and try to ascertain whether something contains meat (“beef? Chicken?) or whether the picture was descriptive enough (“vegetable?” “cheesu?”)

Here are a few successes:

Mochi bites

I don’t know what these are called, but they’re gelatinous rice balls, sweetened, with different flavors.  The brown one has red bean paste on it; the green ones have matcha (green tea powder) mixed in.

Wild Vegetable Ramen

This was linner on a day that I did pause my touring to eat, and it was absolutely great.  Ramen with “wild vegetable.”  I couldn’t identify any of them but a small piece of fern, but it tasted delicious.  That pinkish blob on the right?  I think it was made of rice; regardless, it wasn’t made of meat!


When I felt myself coming down with the cold my friend’s toddler had shared, I thought some high-vitamin juice was in order.  Move over, V8 – this juice has not only 30 vegetables, but 3 fruits and also one other thing that I have no idea what the picture represents but it must be good.  Especially when paired with crispy snack things.

train food

Convenience-store food success!  These yummy rice balls indeed had egg and seaweed inside; no meat!  And the snacky things were rice chips with barbecue flavoring.  Also no meat!

Here’s to food!

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