Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Picky Eating in Japan

"I don't want to eat it" are words a parent dislikes hearing at the dinner table. Taking your child who is a picky eater to a foreign country with unfamiliar cuisine is probably one of the concerns for traveling parents. But this isn't one of those blog posts packed with tips for eating globally with your kids. What if your meal suddenly causes you to reevaluate how you view your own self?

"I don't want to eat it." That's all I could think as I gazed down at my plate.

It was my own fault I was in this situation. After a long day of sightseeing in Tokyo, I dragged my family of picky eaters to a yakitori restaurant. Yakitori is grilled, skewered chicken. What could possibly go wrong with that? I hungrily waited for them to bring out our food and watched them set down the platter in the middle of the table.

Almost everything on this yakitori plate looks yummy.

Neat skewers circled the plate. Succulent thigh meat, tasty white meat, chicken wings, and — wait a minute... what's that — chicken innards. Lying innocuously among the morsels that would probably suit my family just fine without complaint was a single skewer with a chicken heart, liver and gizzard. In general, I like a wide variety of foods and consider myself an adventurous eater. But I find offal just awful. (Sorry, couldn't help myself with that pun.) I can take my chicken liver in pâté form, and I've been known to enjoy a deep fried gizzard, but this slender spear didn't look at all appetizing to me. I knew that if anyone else got it, that'd be the end of the meal for them. So, like any good mama taking a bullet for the kids, I grabbed it.

"Eat it," I told myself.

Suddenly, it was as if every single argument my kids had ever given me over food came flooding back to me. All the points I've ever countered with came back, too. My psyche split in half and began a heated debate with each other.

"But I don't like it."

"How do you know you won't like it?

"Because I didn't like it the last time I tried it."

"Well, try it again. It's been a while. You might like it now."

"No, I really don't want to eat it. "

"Sometimes, it takes trying something 20 times before you start to like it."

"No way am I trying this offal stuff 20 times!"


Traveling in a foreign country brings out a childlike sense of wonder in me as I gaze at unfamiliar surroundings. Not knowing the language, I'm reminded of my early days before I learned to read. I gain a better appreciation of the huge knowledge leaps we constantly ask of our young kids. Apparently, international travel also brings out the rebellious child in me, too.

After moving to Malaysia, we encountered tons of unfamiliar meals when dining out. As the foodie risk taker in the family, I was charged with the task of tasting dishes, identifying what was in it, and then predicting whether it fell within my family's preferences.

My husband once summed up the differences in our reactions to strange culinary offerings. I'm afraid that if I don't try it, I'll miss out on something good. His assumption, on the other hand, is that it's probably something bad, and it's better to be safe than sorry.

Sometimes, my willingness to try new foods gets me into trouble. I vividly remember my first taste of sushi. It was a California Roll, a rather safe initiation into the world of sushi eating. I took a few bites before the food allergies kicked in. My throat began to close up, and my ear canals itched like crazy. I had to stop eating. My reaction didn't reach the level of requiring an EpiPen, but it's always in the back of my mind when we eat at Japanese restaurants.

Perhaps I'm a pickier eater than I thought and just didn't know it. As the Queen of the Household, I'm the one who sets the menu at home, does the grocery shopping and cooks the meals. When I flip through recipes, I bypass the ones that don't interest me and pull out the ones that seem tasty. Basically, I'm never in the situation that I constantly put my kids in. You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit.

My sense of self was beginning to break apart. Am I really who I think I am? Is this the heart-thumping dread my kids feel each time I glibly tell them, "Don't be so picky"?

What if I'm not as adventurous palate-wise as I consider myself to be? How else can I explain why I've always declined my dad's offer of balut, a Filipino delicacy of partially developed duck embryo boiled in the shell, cracked open and swallowed whole. There's something about the tiny beak, semi-formed eyes and miniature, claw feet pressing up against the yolk sack that really turns me off.

Do you push your food boundaries when you travel abroad? Would you fancy a glass of horse milk the next time you're in Paris? Could you match Andrew Zimmerman with his "beating frog heart moments" on Bizarre Foods?


It was time for me to take my own motherly advice. Time to stop throwing my silent, mental tantrum.

I slowly took a bite of the heart. Chewy. Gross. Disgusting. Can't spit it out, certainly not in front of the kids. Swallowing it, I pulled my best Meryl Streep, smiled at the kids, and remarked, "Delicious!"

Related Posts:
Japanese Vending Machines
A Lost Tooth, Black Eggs and Japan's Hakone National Park
Epic Day at Tokyo Disney

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox. Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. Hehe I understand what you mean. Luckily my kids are not really fussy eaters and would try almost everything. Think we'd give balut a miss though.

    1. I always like how the pictures on your blog show how much your kids enjoy their food. You are very fortunate.

  2. Interesting post. So love your writing and story telling. Made me wonder what kind of eater I am. I guess by majority's standard I'm a picky eater. I don't eat meat but I eat fish. I don't like fried, package and processed food. I pretty much stick to the same rule whee on the road. Keith eat the same when we're home but is much more adventurous when we travel. He ate balut and lechon in the Philippines, kangaroo and crocodile in Australia, etc, etc.

    1. I really enjoy lechon and am neutral on crocodile. I tried kangaroo in Australia, too, but it didn't rate all that high on my Meat list. It was a little dry, plus my son kept saying, "Some poor baby kangaroo is looking for her mama."

  3. Afraid that skewer would have been left behind with an excuse of "I am full already" if nothing else. Even we adventure seekers have to hold the line somewhere. Fun post!

    1. I might have tried that excuse if it wasn't the first platter out of the kitchen.

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks, Muza-chan. For some unsubstantiated reason, I assume that you're a pro at yakitori.

  5. Hahaha, sometimes you've just gotta take one for the team, Michele. Congrats, you did good!
    Great post, had me smiling.

    1. Sometimes, being a good role model for the kids is hard, and a little gross, too.

  6. My son will eat stuff I wouldn't touch but my daughter is not adventurous. I hate eating any offal - after being told to eat my liver for years as a kid - and literally gagging.
    Loved this post with you putting yourself in the position of your kids.

  7. I give you a lot of credit for going through with it. Maybe I'd rise to the occasion (I'm not a mother so don't know for sure), but I think I'd rather see if one of the kids would grab it first. :)

  8. I love trying new foods, and believe me there is stuff like this all over Korea. I really hate organ meat. I could not have done what you did. The duck embryo...ewwww! :)

  9. Thanks for linking to my guest post :) I am a picky eater but have learned to push my boundaries slowly when traveling. I've learned to try foods by taking small bites. My husband is the adventurous eater. I wouldn't eat balut if you paid me. My kids ate a lot of yakitori in Tokyo and they surprisingly liked it including some organs. I've done the whole pretend it's good for the kids sake too and secretly wiping my mouth to spit parts of it out. Shhh..don't tell my kids. You're a great mom Michele. Awesome job putting on the brave face.

  10. Great post!!! I have found myself in the same situation many times - I love that you wrote about it!

    Thanks for linking up!

  11. I admit. I'm picky. :) My kids are much more likely to try things than I am. I think it goes back to when I was young and traveled with my family. I remember trying food that I did not like and then required to "clean my plate". To this day there are still some normal foods that I can't even stand the smell of so no, I won't be trying any of Andrew Zimmerman's suggestions anytime soon.

  12. You are a better mom than I am, Michele - I wouldn't have eaten it! ;)

  13. So funny!!! My son has never traveled without trying everything set before him. He was far more adventurous than the rest of us in China, France and Mexico. I'm glad he's got a steel gut!

    I'm more glad that he inspires his siblings to try new things -- you know, rivalry CAN work for good!!! I'm off the hook.

  14. Picky eating is one of my biggest fears about traveling international with my kids.


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