The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

EXPAT MOMENTS: Finding your tongue

Continuing our food-themed posts of September, here’s an Expat Moments post on unexpected encounters with local cuisine.

Kyoto reveals itself to you, a source of delight for the curious of spirit. Alien yet unintimidating, you lose yourself in this ancient city, confused and disoriented as only a contented traveler can be.

But with all that wandering comes hunger. You look around for a restaurant to try. You aren’t entirely sure where precisely you are. It’s not that you’re lost, you know you are somewhere near the centre. You can see in the mid-distance Kyoto Tower. You know you only have to walk in the direction of the tower to find yourself back at your hotel. It’s by no means late, but everything here seems to close unfathomably early. Nothing appears to be open. You had expected the streets at night to be awash with neon advertising hoardings in kanji, but that is not the case here. Your assumptions again proved incorrect.

You spot a salaryman, the only other person on the street apart from you, and see him go into a small building. You follow, but stop at the doorway of the building. There are no windows for you to peer through. There is no sign. You can smell something intoxicating inside, but is it a restaurant? Is it the entrance to an apartment complex that the salaryman lives in? Is it something altogether more illicit that you would be ill-advised from entering? Curiosity combined with hunger gets the better of you and you step into the building.

Walking through the hallway, you discover that it is a restaurant, a tiny one. In the center of the restaurant is an open kitchen where a chef cooks. Who you immediately assume (though why you assume this, you’re not entirely sure) is his daughter serves the food. Three salarymen are sitting there, eating and smoking. The assumed daughter smiles at you. She goes over to the side of the room and rummages through her menus looking for that English copy that they had made. When she has finally located it, she hands it to you with a smile and the only English phrase she will say to you other than a “thank you” as you leave. “For you,” she says, and hands you a laminated menu.

You take the laminated menu. Reading through it, you notice that there is only the one ingredient that they cook – beef tongue (gyutan). Not what you were expecting, or what your stomach was grumbling for. The assumed daughter smiles expectantly at you. You smile back and pick from one of the dozen gyutan dishes available and you wait. The smell of the cigarette smoke from the salarymen irritates you, gets in your chest. As you wait, you read through that laminated menu again and notice that they have included a print-out of the English language Wikipedia page on gyutan, saying hat it only became popular during the occupation after World War 2. You read on, irritated that the Japanese still allow smoking in restaurants, not knowing that you are about to eat one of the most unassuming — but most delicious — meals in your life. Beef tongue, grilled and served with rice.

Assumed daughter and father will say “thank you” as you leave, but you have no Japanese to tell them how much you loved what they offered. All you can give is awkward smile and utter an even more awkward, tongue-tied attempt at “sayonara”.

STAY TUNED for next Monday’s post.

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Image: MorgueFile

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