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"Chikuwa" - A Series of Tubes

You've just come to Japan, and you're hungry. Your Japanese knowledge begins and ends with "konichiwa," so it's not like you can just walk into the local restaurant and choose something from the illegibly handwritten menu. Thankfully, there's a convenience store nearby where you can get food without having to utter a single word. And on top of that, they actually have food you recognize, like sandwiches and french fries.

And then, next to that egg sandwich on the shelf, you notice something. Is it a vegetable? It's a sort of white, hollow tube, maybe 2 or 3 centimers in diameter and 15 centimeters long, and there are little graphics of bamboo shoots on the shrinkwrap package. They eat bamboo here, right? Well, heck, you're up for trying something new. I mean, that's why you came to Japan in the first place, afterall. So you grab the package and notice the slightly rubbery feel to the contents. Maybe it's been pickled?

What you don't find out until later, after you've devoured the sandwich and moved on to the strange looking bamboo shoots, is that they aren't bamboo at all. That rubbery texture is accompanied by a slightly salty, fishy flavor, and after a quick internet search for "japanese fish tube," you find out that what you just bought is a chikuwa, a type of fish cake popular in Japan.

Chikuwa is made from the meat of various types of white-fleshed fish that has been mashed, puréed, and otherwise pulverized into goo, and then combined with other ingredients such as salt, sugar, starch, and egg whites. The resulting paste is (traditionally) wrapped around a bamboo stick and steamed or broiled, which gives the final product its distinctive tube shape. And it's this shape that gives the chikuwa its name, literally "bamboo ring." It also explains why there are pictures of bamboo on the packaging.

Some westerners may be a bit turned off by the idea of fish paste, but this type of food has a long history throughout Asia. Besides being an efficient use of all available resources (i.e. leftover fish bits) it's also an inexpensive source of protein, something that people on a tight budget may be lacking. In the west, it mostly appears in the form of artificial crab or lobster meat, so thinking of the chikuwa as a hollow crab leg may help you get past the fish paste objection.

So before you dismiss this "japanese fish tube" outright, why not at least give it a try? You may find that you like it, afterall. And if not, at least its name is fun to say.


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