There are many “firsts” for expats in Japan, and even if you’ve been here for a few years, you still make silly mistakes now and then. One of these silly mistakes turned out to be quite painful (yet delicious), and it involved a local specialty of Kumamoto called karashi renkon.
Karashi (辛子) is a type of very spicy mustard, generally used in very small amounts, and renkon (蓮根) lotus root is a tasty food used regularly in Japanese cuisine. Karashi renkon is a special food that involves filling the many gaps and holes in a renkon with copious amounts of karashi, and then wrapping it in a sort of batter. You can buy it almost anywhere in Kumamoto, and it sells at a low price. Not wanting to miss the chance to try this delicacy, in accordance with the advice given to me by my Kyushu guidebook, I picked up a pack of two handmade karashi renkon and took them back to our hotel in Fukuoka.
That night, after a can of chu-hi or two, we decided to try eating one. But how does one eat a karashi renkon? we both asked. (My travel partner and girlfriend, despite being Japanese, was from Osaka, so this food was also new to her.) I, not being the kind of person who likes to do rather than over-think in this type of situation, decided to dive right in and just eat it. Yes, that’s right. I picked up a karashi renkon, filled with about twenty times the normal amount of head-exploding-spicy mustard a person would ever consider eating at once, and took a big ol’ bite out of it.
There are very few occasions in which expletives and screams of agony will simultaneously issue from my mouth in such high concentrations. Agonizing spiciness. On the up side, the cold that had rendered my nose useless for weeks was instantly cleared up. I can’t say I’ll ever look at mustard the same way again after that experience.
The lesson here: karashi renkon is delicious, but you should definitely slice it up before you eat it.
Note: Second image provided by Wikimedia Commons.