I’m sometimes asked if I’ve tried any crazy ice cream flavors found throughout Japan. Well… no, not that weird. Or at least, I don’t find them weird enough to write home about.

Let’s make it clear that Japan is not usually as weird as the Internet would have you think it is. Plus, the “weird” food that Japanese people are actually crazy and excited about don’t seem to be quite as much of a focal point on the English speaking side of things. Allow me to fix that by having you see Youka Medama Oyaji from spooky Sakaiminato. Go. Look. They’re awesome.

Anyway, I cannot deny that there is a trend throughout the country of taking the local speciality–be it a fish or fruit or ramen–and presenting it in ice cream form, often for the sort of cringe-worthy results you’d expect to find at a US state fair, with each fried food stand trying to out do the others with a deep-frying some new combination of mega-calories. I don’t think many people choose to eat these ice creams for the sake of eating them, but rather for the sake of being able to say they’ve eaten them.

I’m not innocent of trying some strange things just to have the experience–I’ve probably had chocolate with everything but bugs, only because I haven’t had the opportunity yet. But when it comes to the specialities each region of Japan is so proud of, I figure I’d rather try them with my lunch, and just enjoy my ice cream as ice cream.

Then every so often you wind up finding an interesting spin on ice cream that really can just stand to be its own flavor without the fear-factor appeal. I’ve mentioned the soba-flavored ice cream before, but that was nice enough that I’d totally order it again just for the sake of having a refreshing little ice cream. It turns out I had two more ice creams that day, too. We were feeling adventurous and there is always room for more ice cream.

To quote myself from the soba entry:

I tried this at a new Michi-no-Eki (a fancy style of road stations or rest stops throughout Japan, many of which are sights in and of themselves) in Unnan, located south of Izumo and Matsue (together with Okuizumo and Yasugi, these five cities/towns make up what is commonly know as the “Izumo region”). This Michi-no-Eki is called Tatara-ichibanchi and has a special focus on introducing local mythology (especially the Yamata-no-Orochi 8-headed giant serpent, which resided in Unnan), with the help of Shimane’s volunteer tourism ambassador, the scowling Yoshida-kun (whose day job happens to be attempting to take over the world). (Recall that Yoshida-kun and company have also volunteered their villianous services in telling Lafcadio Hearn‘s “Kwaidan” ghost stories.)

We left the soba restaurant for the Tatalover counter. In addition to spicy ramen and soy milk soup with mochi, they also had two kinds of soft serve: Orochi-no-Tsume and Otamahan.

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, “Orochi” should sound familiar, but in case it doesn’t, you can start reading the legend of the Yamata-no-Orochi 8-headed serpent, or cut straight to how Unnan was the beast’s hometown. Orochi-no-Tsume–that is, “Claws of Orochi”–are a kind of chili pepper grown in Unnan. They are about three times longer than the more commonly known Taka-no-Tsume (“Claws of the Hawk”), so they are not quite as spicy and it’s easier to enjoy the sweetness of chili peppers–provided you’re okay with the afterbite. You can read more and see more pictures here and here.

Click for source

As for Otamahan, does the term Tamago-kake Gohan mean anything to you?

This is known as Japanese soul food, and although I don’t claim to know food culture from around the world in as much depth, it’s hard to think of another culture that so thoroughly enjoys raw eggs. Completely raw, not just runny. Besides being a folk cure for hangover and other ailments or serving as dipping sauce for sukiyaki hot pot, there is something wonderfully comforting about a simple, tasty bowl of Tamago-kake Gohan (sometimes abbreiviated TKG, like US PBJ). Literally, it’s cooked rice with egg added to it. I had heard of it and had raw egg here and there–I don’t really mind it–and had heard how big of a thing it is in Unnan, but one of my deepest impressions of the dish was when I was traveling with my naginata group to the Western Japan youth competition (I was tagging along to root them on!), and along the way we stopped for lunch at a Michi-no-Eki. One of the mom’s of the group was preparing this dish for her 3-year-old, and asked me if I ever had it, and then started gushing about the comforts of this particular kind of soul food, abruptly stopping herself wondering I would find the idea too gross. When I indicated I was fine, she offered me a taste. It was pretty much what I expected.

This is Otamahan style, click for source.

The following morning we all had teishoku breakfast together (teishoku is a set meal with multiple little dishes already planned by the host), and it included a raw egg for this dish. The thing about TKG is that you can’t use just any eggs, you have to be sure they’re really fresh, reliably tasty eggs (the local source of the eggs is a big part of Otamahan, which we’ll return to). After cracking that egg open in the dish provided and pouring it on to your rice, you add some soy sauce–this is essential–and stir it all together, and enjoy. Then again, you could mix the egg with soy sauce first, or you could add the directly on top of the rice, you could dig a well in the rice for the egg, or you could even use some cold rice… it’s really up to taste and habit. Some spins on the dish will include seaweed or green onions or whatever strikes their fancy.

Confident in my egg-cracking skills, I added my egg directly to the rice and only added a little bit of soy sauce so as not to drown out the flavor of the yolk. Sitting across a few different tables, the mom I had been talking with before asked her 7-year-old if I was trying the TKG, and she loudly announced that I was. This drew other’s attention to my breakfast and my first attempt at making this seemingly simply dish.

“There’s a lot of egg white left in your shells, Buri-san… you sure you got enough in your rice?”
“Did you add soy sauce? It looks like you need more soy sauce.”
“Is it good? Of course it’s good. Doesn’t it make you just feel so comforted and happy and satisfied?”

Well… it’s no PBJ. It’s just another aspect of normal life in Japan that tastes very Japanese. So sure, it’s good. While I’m happy with it if that’s what’s on the menu, I wouldn’t go out of my way to make it myself. I’d be happier with some Orochi-no-Tsume, thanks.

And now, back to Unnan.

Obviously, Unnan is not the only place that appreciates some nice, fresh TKG with just the right proportion of all of the ingredients. But perhaps not every small town takes as much pride in their local TKG place, Unnan Otamahan Cafe.

Click for source and more photos

It’s a place everyone knows, but like most well-known restaurants displaying local character everywhere from Unnan to bustling business districts of Tokyo, they tend to take holidays on the more inopportune of days. Thus, also my friends in Unnan have thought taking me there many times, the timing never quite lines up right. I’ve nonetheless heard plenty about this neighborhood hangout. Although they offer a fuller menu now, the heart of the shop its TKG, and the beauty is in its simplicity–koshihikari rice from Izumo, Tanabe-no-Tamago brand eggs from free-range chickens in Okuiizumo, and star of the establishment, preservative and additive-free soy sauce specifically created for TKG, sold elsewhere under the Otamahan brandname (with scowling Shimane ambassador Yoshida-kun making appearances and comments on some labels).

Now, back to the ice cream.

The Orochi-no-Tsume ice cream was sweet and had the flavor of chili peppers, and just as you start to think “this isn’t so spicy” you get hit with the aftertaste. I mean that in a good way, so long as you enjoy spice.

As for the Otamahan, it’s not made with raw eggs or rice, but rather the ice cream is flavored with the Otamahan soy sauce. It’s drizzled with caramel on top.

It wasn’t bad, but my friends and I agreed that we preferred the Orochi-no-Tsume. There was one other soft-serve ice cream flavor available at another counter that day that I think was more of an eggy flavor, but I didn’t get around to trying it–yet, I suppose.

Well, that fun. Now I want to go find some ramune or black sesame flavored soft serve. There is a wonderful world of perfectly normal Japanese ice cream flavors beyond green tea!