The Japan Series: An Ode to Ika

I always figured I could make a successful business helping the Japanese correct the English on their packaging and signage. That intuition was only reinforced on our recent trip to Japan, who’s sensational and rather wacky culinary culture I shall explore in a series of posts beginning with this one.

Squid cracker package

Helpful squid-centric Japanese observation #1: A good way to keep your kids from eating the rice crackers you brought back from Japan: Choose squid flavored.

You would be unlikely to find a squid-flavored cracker in the United States, unless you were at a Japanese market. There are entire squid restaurants in Japan, as well as squid stores — selling frozen squid, fresh squid, dried squid and, yes, squid crackers.

There are many kinds of stores in Japan you wouldn’t see in the U.S. — seaweed stores, selling nothing but seaweed; tofu stores; shaved dried fish stores (these are very popular).

We spent a short week in Tokyo, and then boarded a ship in Yokohama to explore the Japanese islands. After tooling around the south for another short week — including a fascinating visit to the city of Busan in South Korea — we headed north for Hokkaido.

Immy in Hakodate

Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island, the least populated and most wild, is a gorgeous and fascinating place. It is known for its abundance of fresh seafood, including the world’s best uni, and a healthy population of squid. Ground zero for squid culture and consumption is the beautiful city of Hakodate.

Helpful squid-centric Japanese observation #2: When the cheerful fish vendor in Hakodate tells you to pick up a squid from his tank, assume he’s got an ulterior motive.

Squid in a tank

I took the bait, and reached for a large squid in the tank. It was easier than I expected; the cephalopod gave no resistance. Upon raising it from the water, it proceeded to send a forceful firehose blast of water all over my son Flynn, who screamed as the squid vendor (and Flynn’s sisters) roared with laughter.

“Aghhhh!! I’ve got squid butt juice all over me!” he lamented — but was calmed somewhat when I explained that it was just a jet of sea water which the squid propels out in an attempt to escape.

Squid, apparently, swim in massive shoals in the bay outside Hakodate. It’s hard to get a meal in Hakodate that does not include squid. At a squid ramen restaurant, I tried to find something my squid-squeamish kids would eat. The waitress didn’t speak English, my Japanese could kindly be described as “limited”, so I was pointing at pictures in the menu.

“Look kids,” I said, “Here is a bowl of rice with some tofu and chopped egg!” That looked good enough to them, so I ordered two. The “tofu” turned out to be butter, and the “chopped egg” was thin slices of raw squid. My wife and I ate them.

Manhole cover in Hakodate

There was a black ramen on the menu that looked both daunting and delicious — colored with squid ink, and featuring a variety of different types of squid preparation. I wasn’t hungry enough to eat a bowl all to myself, so we opted to share a shio ramen.

The best squid dish we had, or rather I had, was across a short strait of water separating Hokkaido from Honshu, the main island, at a street vendor in the city of Aomori.

Helpful squid-centric Japanese observation #3: The best way in my family to ensure you get to eat an entire dish all to yourself? Order the squid.

“Anybody want to try some?” I generously offered my wife and kids as the vendor from the street stall delivered my dish. The man had been sitting at a small grill, cooking large, fresh butterflied squid over glowing hardwood coal. The family recoiled and returned to their apple spring rolls (Aomori is famous for its apples) and grilled pork belly. Not even my sushi-obsessed 7-year-old daughter, Imogen, wanted to try it. I had the squid all to myself.

Squid on the grill in Aomori

It was sliced and served with a delicious Japanese mayonnaise and a sprinkle of shichimi togarashi chili pepper/sesame mix. And it was pure unadulterated heaven.

At a sesame seed store near the waterfront in Hakodate, I picked up a bag of special shichimi togarashi that I could use to attempt the dish myself at home (shichimi togarashi, by the way, is also delicious over rice, eggs, soup or just about anything else you could conceivably put something over…)

As there are only four ingredients, the key to this dish is the freshness of the squid. Oh, and the quality of the mayonnaise and the presence of the shichimi togarashi. In other words, good luck.

*    *    *

Aomori-style street squid
serves 2

1 large squid, cleaned, body butterflied
1/4 cup Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise
1 tbsp. Japanese shichimi togarashi chili spice mixture
a couple lemon slices

Heat some charcoals on a grill, you want the fire to be good and hot. Cook the squid — the butterflied body and the tentacles — over high heat, turning frequently, for about 2 – 3 minutes, or until beginning to blacken and crisp up around the edges. Remove from heat.

Slice the squid body in 1/2-inch-thick strips, and the tentacles into 2-3 pieces, a few tentacles each.

Squeeze lemon juice over and serve with mayonnaise sprinkled with shichimi togarashi for dipping.

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Aug 31, 2017 @ 23:41:31

    Thanks Sean super interesting!

    Reply

  2. Mom
    Sep 01, 2017 @ 00:25:09

    Num! I love squid, I even love octopus but I was sick for 3 days recently from 2 pieces of tuna sashimi..at a very good restaurant. It could be a while before I go back to raw.

    Reply

  3. Michelle
    Sep 01, 2017 @ 01:45:31

    I look forward to this series. How fun! (And, yes, I like squid. The ink not so much though.)

    Reply

  4. Amanda
    Sep 01, 2017 @ 13:38:01

    Great read! I love squid! Never had it grilled, but I’ve had octopus grilled and it was super delicious so I imagine squid would be as well when prepared that way.

    Reply

  5. Trackback: The Japan Series — Totoro, We’re Not In Hokkaido Anymore | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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