Whatever you think this is, it’s probably not what you think it is. You dirty thing.Image

Chikuwa is a processed Japanese phallus fish cake made from a fish paste called surimi. Surimi itself is usually made from white fish Foreigners most often come into contact with surimi in the form of fake crab (krab!) or kamaboko, a popular udon garnish – often in the form of an unnaturally pink half-moon shape. In Japan, kamaboko, chikuwa, and other fish cakes are used in a variety of dishes – in fact, I once ate a kamaboko course meal on a company trip. (After the kamaboko nigiri and the kamaboko nabe, I was pretty much done with the stuff for the next few months.)

Chikuwa is something I buy every so often. I first encountered it in my school’s daily kyushoku, where it’s been in everything from soups to salads to an interesting main dish topped with an oily seaweed-cheese-gratin. Easily identified by it’s hollow tube shape, chikuwa is made by wrapping the surimi mixture around a bamboo pole and then cooking it until the outside blisters. The texture is chewy and a little rubbery, though not elastic or glutinous like mochi. This makes it perfect for boiled dishes, because it won’t disintegrate. Maybe this is why chikuwa is most visible in the winter months, when people like to add it to oden and noodle soups. If you live in Tottori, there’s a good chance you eat chikuwa quite a bit – according to Wikipedia, consumption is significantly higher there (I’ve never been to Tottori, but I’m guessing this means that chikuwa is a “Tottori specialty!” pushed at omiyage shops). Most of us, though, just walk right on by it at the store, as it’s usually in the Aisle of Mysteries, which is what I like to call the refrigerated row adjacent to the produce in Japanese supermarkets – where you’ll find the natto, the pickles, a million types of tofu, and fermented god-only-knows.

But unless you’re vegetarian, you should try chikuwa. Here’s why:

  • It’s low-fat.
  • It’s high-protein.
  • It’s pre-cooked. Just add it to whatever you’re cooking so it can absorb the flavors.
  • It’s cheap. During winter, I was buying 100g for ¥100. Prices have gone up lately. Yesterday I bought 130g for ¥168. The stick in the picture is about 33g, a little more than an ounce.
  • It’s relatively healthy, depending on how you feel about certain ingredients. I’ve often thought about the processed aspect of fish cake. To be honest, it’s not something I know much about. The basic ingredients are ground fish, egg white, some sort of starch, and – yes – MSG. I’m not as worried about MSG as other people, so this isn’t a dealbreaker. If you’re trying to stay MSG-free in Japan, my advice would be to learn the kanji and check all labels and then, I don’t know, probably starve because that sucker’s in everything.

How to Eat It

I’ve only begun to scratch the springy surface of the fish-cake world, but here are a few ideas:

  • Chop the tube up into rings. Add it to your soup while boiling.
  • One of my favorite ways to eat chikuwa is to simmer it with vegetables in dashi as a bastardized version of nimono, which is the word for vegetables boiled in broth.
  • I also – shockingly – add it to stir fry as a source of protein.
  • You could even stuff the holes with filling before heating them in a pan or microwave. If your filling of choice is cheese, may I suggest plugging each end with a tiny piece of carrot to keep the cheese from melting out.
  • You could also chop it into half-rings, boil it with greens, drain and cool. Then top with sesame seeds and a little rice vinegar. Voilà, a salad!
  • Chop it up, sautee it with yaki-sauce, and put it on top a bowl of rice or sauteed noodles.

Suggestions? Do you regularly eat chikuwa? Did you mistake it for churros and swear you’d never touch it again?