The Japan Files: Food!

Food.

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Cute food. Breakfast food. Snack food. Drinky food. Slurpy food. Raw food. Cooked food.

FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD.

Odds are, your characters eat. What do they eat? Food!

And boy does Japan have inspiration galore.

Let’s break this down a little bit. Street food tends to be stuff like the pink octopus tentacles up there. It’s a lot of whole tiny squid-on-a-stick, meat ripped off a huge column of stacked meat and fried, noodles, and it’s all really good. I love street food. I wish I could live off Japanese street food.

But the street food can be very different to what you would find in a restaurant–and this is the case just about everywhere, I’m not opening anyone’s eyes here. But the point is that many of the flavors were similar except the dishes were not as often fried and generally prepared differently and with more complexity.

In SAAFire, I have a very important scene take place amidst the main characters getting lunch at a circle of food trucks. I use this as a way to worldbuild–the trucks bring cuisine from all around the region, each which its own signature flair–but also to make the world feel more real.

I don’t like it when authors don’t take food into account or don’t pay much attention to it. Your people have to eat. So what are they eating and how can you use it to inform the reader? Is their local cuisine generally spicy? Do they eat a lot of sweets? Are they mostly vegetarian or does almost everything come with meat? Does their meat come from trade, animal husbandry, the ocean, or somewhere else (space or another planet)?

I want to write books that will inspire cookbooks from people more talented than I. My characters will eat food and, if I do my job well, you will want to eat it too.

One other thing to remember that, unless your fictional country is complete isolated, you will probably find foreign food:

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You can’t tell but this is at an Italian restaurant in Hiroshima.
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Japanese Starbucks has a soy apricot honey frapp that is divine

I’m not lazy for not cropping that image, I’m helping you experience the authentic feeling of being on that train (yay, trains!) with us. 

Highlighting how corporations and franchises infiltrate–I mean, integrate–your society can identify cracks in the society either through changing social norms, increasing consumerism, or as a way to insert something new so as to illuminate the old without sitting and pointing it out to your reader.

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All the sake you could ever want was in this one shop

And don’t forget about drinks! The picture to the right is from outside a sake shop and all the little rotund tubs are full of sake! I had no idea because I’m used to seeing drinks in some kind of glass or plastic container. This would be a really cool, easily-inserted detail in a marketplace scene.

Then there’s how people eat. One of the most difficult adjustments that I never quite made was learning how to slurp my food. Apparently, when eating soup and noodles or ramen or anything in a broth, you’re supposed to slurp it up. This is the complete opposite of what I’ve learned growing up so I am a terrible slurper. But it’s yet another little detail that can help make a world feel foreign or familiar, or contrast an outsider’s experience for the reader–this is kind of a common trick in worldbuilding but it’s useful in moderation.

 

 

Finally, since we’re talking about Japan…

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20160402_205408We gotta talk about sushi!

A few of Shae’s friends took us to this amazing sushi restaurant in Mie. Nobody spoke English, nothing was written in English, and we had to walk down a dark alley at night to get there. It was definitely an experience–and I’d only met these people that day.

But they were all incredibly nice and ordered a ton of stuff for us, including the platter and the vegetable tempura above. Since this was my first authentic sushi experience, once they set the platter down everyone else insisted I eat first.

Now, I had no idea what was on the plate in front of me (except for the shrimp, those were pretty obvious). So I picked up a piece of the fish on the top right corner with the red stripe (I have since forgotten what it is) and stuck the whole thing in my mouth with a table full of people watching.

Thank goodness it tasted good! Once approved, everyone dug in except Shae, who went to live in Japan for 2 years and doesn’t like fish (she had steak for dinner so it worked out). I tried everything on the plate–and these are large pieces, so I regretted a couple of those decisions.

One person with us ordered a dish that included shrimp, fish eggs, rice, and vegetables and I made myself try a little bit of it–surprisingly, it wasn’t bad, but I couldn’t do more than the one bite.

Eating the shrimp is also quite the experience as you’re supposed to suck out the meat–which leads to a lot of comedic moments all around.

All in all, that is one of my most memorable experiences from my trip to Japan and I am so thankful to have my friend Shae and her friends to show me the culture.

So put food in your stories and give us a taste of your world!

How does everything taste? 

For all of you who had never had the pleasure of tasting anything in the pictures gracing this post, I have some answers for you:

Cream cheese buns: As tasty as they are cute. The dough is pretty bland but I didn’t experiment too much with this, I’m sure there are different flavors of filling, too.

Grilled beef tongue (top left corner of topmost mosaic) is fantastic. It melts in your mouth. It tastes like steak. We found this random basement restaurant and were not disappointed.

Crepes — unfortunately, we never got around to trying those. I know! I’m sad, too. I think I was too busy with the adorable cream cheese buns, though.

Octopous — yeah, no. I’ve had octopus and it’s so stringy and tough to chew that I was not going to try that

Okay, I swear I ate a lot of food.

Horse sashimi: OKAY. STOP. This one I’ve got. You are supposed to chew this but the texture is exactly what it sounds like–cold, dead, raw muscle flesh–that most Westerners just kind of swallow it whole with a smile. Despite the size of the pieces, it goes down really easily. Shae ordered this for me without telling me what it was and I almost gagged trying to chew the first piece (thanks, Shae!).

The hot pot is split into two sections and Shae and I each took one. We each chose a sauce and split an order of raw meat, then you could get as many veggies from the salad bar as you wanted. You cook everything at the table and eat it fresh! One thing I really liked about this was that you’re actually charged extra if you leave too many leftovers! Imagine how much food we would save/money restaurants would make in America if you were required to pay for taking too much from the buffet!

 

Author: JA Goodsell

I write YA fantasy, blog about it, and then take my dog out for therapy. My current manuscript is ANATHEMA, a story of two sisters caught up in a war between the gods. Find me on Twitter at @JAGoodsell or Instagram at books_and_dogs

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