Being a food explorer in Japan was certainly an experience. For the first time, I was able to feel how many of my patients felt. Being presented with new foods, a language barrier and the cultural politeness of at least trying foods rather than refusing presented a new challenge for me.
Now I am an adventurous eater generally but some things like raw fish and meat as well as big tasting fish are still a learning journey for me. As a feeding therapist, I often remind parents that learning about new foods is a step by step process and food exploration is an important part before the actual eating comes.
So using the experience of a degustation meal in a traditional Japanese Hotel, I wanted to share with you how an adult would move through these steps – it’s not much different to what a child would do with you at home when presented with new foods.
Setting the scene: We stayed in a beautiful hotel in the mountains of Japan recently, this hotel gave us traditional clothes to wear and even had private and public hot springs (called onsen) to relax in.
Now back to my food explorer meal… part of the package for this hotel was a Japanese degustation meal…here we go!
Course 1: Chef specialities vegetable with homemade sauce
You can’t see the sauce in this photo – it was a delicious miso dip and a white creamy chive like dip. The very lovely waiters had to use google translate on our phone to help us if we had any questions, so we only asked a few so as not to bombard them!
How beautiful does that vegetable platter look – it’s all raw, eating Japanese capsicum tastes like a cross between a green chilli and a green capsicum in texture, their orange capsicum and carrots were deliciously sweet and best of all – their white corn was out of this world! I’m a big vegetable fan so this first course was greeted with pure enjoyment.
Step achieved – this one was easy for me – I ate it.
Course 2: Vegetable parfait: simmered plum, conger sushi, mountain asparagus, pumpkin cake and sweet green capsicum.
The white asparagus with miso paste on it was delicious (but I do love the umami flavour of miso), the simmered plum was unexpected and delicious but at this point of the meal, I became a bit anxious… see that beautiful vegetable parfait? Here is what it looked like when I touched it:
It was slimey!!!!! And texturally in my mouth, it was slippery and slimey and not really sweet or savoury. I found out later that it was a jelly but in my head, jelly isn’t slimey. And before I knew it was a jelly, I was worried it was something fishy, so I smelled it, licked it, tapped it gently on my lips then took a tiny bite and left it.
The reason my anxiety was already rising because we google conger sushi – it’s eel, yep eel… fishy fishy eel.
Now I’ve never actually had eel, so my husband encouraged me to take a bite, I did, he did, we left it on the plate. What made me take the bite was that I was craving my safe food in Japan – rice. And after the slimey vegetable parfait, I wanted rice to clear my palate. But paired with fishy eel, nope, my appetite for rice was gone.
Step achieved: touch and taste, I wasn’t ready to eat it yet.
Course 3: Suppon soup
We had to ask the waiter about this – was it fish again? No, it wasn’t! instead it was soft shell turtle. Yep turtle…
Now I’ve never eaten turtle so I thought the white long bits on top of this soup was turtle. I had eaten the tofu (I love tofu) and mushrooms (I love mushrooms) with gusto but I keep on apologising to the white long bits before nibbling it. It was yummy but firm in my mouth. Google translate with the waiter – guess what? The white bits – they were bamboo!! Not turtle. Lol Did you see how my mind clouded my judgement? As soon as finding out they were bamboo – I took big bites and said yum!
The turtle aspect was the broth – cooked and strained. Again – mind over matter, I sipped on the soup but didn’t drink it all, I kept visualising the little gentle turtle in the warm broth.
Step achieved: taste – some small and some big.
Course 4: Assorted Sashimi platter; tuna and butter fish
Now I’m a fan of sushi but my version of sushi is thinly sliced tuna on sushi rice. The food step I pushed through here was taste and texture. The texture of thickly sliced fresh tuna made me want to gag a bit – it was too thick and too “meaty”. My husband enjoyed my serving. How beautiful is the presentation of food in Japan? Just art work each time… stunning!
Step achieved: touch – the sensory “meaty” taste wasn’t for me.
Course 5: Conger dumpling cake
You see if I didn’t know what conger meant, I might have eaten this, but knowing it was eel and when poking it with my chopsticks, the texture was congealed slightly, I refused to eat it. Knowing my husband didn’t eat it, I didn’t feel motivated to try. But in fairness, neither of us are big eel fans.
Step achieved: interacted – I found the sensory texture too tricky here
Course 6: Kuroge beef and seasonal salad
By this stage, the pressure I’m feeling is sky high. My appetite has dropped and I’m desperate for my safe food. Which in Japan is rice and it’s not until the next course (I know this because I keep anxiously checking the menu). When presented with this meat, my meat lover husband devoured it. I nibbled on it and gave the rest to him. Had I been served rice and soy sauce with this course, I probably would have eaten it. This reminded me of how my patients felt – when combining a safe food with a new food, they are more likely to try it (tomato sauce on a new sausage? Cheese covered pizza (covering the mushrooms and ham) – all similar situations that my little patients would be living). Apparently, Kuroge beef is quite a delicacy and is very expensive, my husband was more than happy to enjoy my serving. I ate the salad 😊
Step achieved: touch and taste – glad my husband was able to enjoy this food.
Course 7: Japanese steamed rice with corn, pickles and soup
What a sigh of relief I breathed when this course came along, I devoured all the rice (even if corn with plain rice isn’t something I would normally love). The fact that it was the “safest food” after course 1 and I was hungry, this bowl was finished in a matter of minutes. I can think of many of my patients who would finish a big serving of their safe food when they feel worried about eating everything else on the table.
Step achieved: eating – I was pretty hungry by now and this rice was delicious!
Course 8: Dessert: pumpkin pudding and seasonal fruits
Here is where my husband faltered, he is not used to combining pumpkin with a sweet and texturally, this mouse like cake pushed him (I think he was also heightened after course 2-5). Meanwhile, hungry me, devoured it and enjoyed it. Not as much as course 1 but sweet tooth me, didn’t even mind the air dried squishy pumpkin on top!
Step achieved: eating – a perfect way for me to end a meal!
You know what I learned through this meal?
- How your fear of new foods can change your perspective of what a food might taste like (enter turtle soup – bamboo pieces I was thought was turtle pieces)
- How not having a safe food meant that I couldn’t eat a new food because I couldn’t use the safe food to disguise the flavour (rice with rare meat)
- How texture played a big role in what I enjoyed and what I struggled with (vegetable parfait slimey feel)
- How what I was used to and expected (thin slices of raw tuna sushi with rice) changed how much I ate when it was presented differently (thick slices of raw tuna)
- But most of all, how the language barrier (communication difficulty), new foods and new styles of presentations increased my anxiety. I would classify myself as quite an adventurous eater, don’t get me wrong, I won’t eat cockroaches in Thailand but I will try cows tongue in India and I will definitely be open to enjoying lots of different cultural foods both here in Australia and overseas. But when my anxiety is heightened, I am less likely to be interested in new foods and more importantly, the heightened anxiety affected my appetite.
My message to you as parents? Celebrate the small steps with your child – they were hard for me to achieve with such a different meal, but if you asked me if I would do it again? The answer would be a clear YES. And if you maintain a calm and pressure free environment, your child might be open to a “YES” again with a new food. And with more exposure, more tasting comes more acceptance. A definite WIN in my books.
Wishing you happy mealtimes
Paediatric Feeding Speech Pathologist @ Let’s Eat! Paediatric Speech Pathology
This website and information on this blog post is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant or intended to replace Speech Pathology assessment and management nor medical or nutritional care for a child. It is recommended that you discuss any concerns or questions you might have with your Speech Pathologist and managing Doctor and develop an individualised team plan specifically for your child.
About the author of this blog post
Valerie Gent is an Australian based Speech Pathologist with 15 years experience in Paediatric Feeding. She has opened a private practice called ‘Let’s Eat! Paediatric Speech Pathology’ in 2013 for Newcastle based babies and children with feeding difficulties. Valerie is passionate about working in the area of paediatric feeding and special needs and has been involved in the teaching and training of Australian Speech Pathology University students and allied health professionals. Prior to starting her private practice, she worked in acute paediatric hospitals in neonatal intensive care units, feeding clinics and clinics for children with special needs for 10 years. You can find out more about Valerie Gent and ‘Let’s Eat! Paediatric Speech Pathology’ via her website www.letseatspeech.com.au and Facebook page www.facebook.com/LetsEatPaediatric SpeechPathology or email her on firstname.lastname@example.org