Saturday, 17 September 2011

Octopus Culture

I came to Japan with a fantastic picture book in my suitcase called Oliver Octopus. It's about an octopus who becomes friends with a sea captain, heroically saves the day using his many legs, and is generally liked by everyone. I love it.

The problem with this story crossing over in Tokyo, I've found, is that once the story is over, the listeners are always surprised that the octopus stays alive and out of the cooking pot. In Japan, octopus - Tako - is food, not friend. When I was a kid the thought of eating octopus was a bit like this

Not so in Japan. On my very first day here, the weirdest thing I saw in the supermarket was this beautiful display of Tako, in its very own freezer compartment

On my first dinner out in Japan, I discovered that you get served raw octopus salad (Waza Tako) free before the meal arrives

Later in the meal, you might get something like this

or this, perhaps

Earlier this week, when I was in Odaiba, a part of Tokyo near the bay (where loads of Japanese people go on holiday in the summer because its the only place there's actually a breeze), after singing songs about spiders and kettles and Jack and Jill and doing my best yet impression of a very fat caterpillar, I ended up in the Takoyaki Museum. Takoyaki is a Japanese speciality which features - yup - octopus, fried in balls of pancake batter and then covered in Japanese brown sauce and mayo and seaweed

Everyone likes takoyaki. Honest. And it was one of the few Japanese fast foods I hadn't tried since I've been here. So I did. I still don't like mayo.

So with all this and more to choose from, I guess is as understandable that not even the teachers in the schools I visited this week believed that 'we don't really eat Octopus in the UK'. It's totally unthinkable! The book went down like a concrete-footed mafia victim. But it does always provide me with a conversation that I can actually manage in Japanese:

Me: I really like octopus, but did you know we don't really eat Octopus in London?
Them (kids AND adults) really? No!
Me: Yes.
Them: no!
Me: Yes!
Them: but what about [insert one of the foodstuffs above]
Me: nope [repeat].

I adore octopus as food, and I will miss it when I go home. But I'd still like to have an octopus for a friend.

Onward and upward!

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