During the day, the Wakayama University professors and I sat in a classroom on their campus, discussing the pros and cons of replacing their lectures with active learning experiences. To thank me, they invited me to dinner that night, replacing the Western food I’d so far been eating at restaurants around my hotel with authentic Japanese dishes.
We ended up at a little hole-in-the-wall place where pairs of businessmen were hunkered down for the evening deep in conversation, black suit jackets off, white shirts gleaming, ties still properly in place. We slipped off our shoes and took a giant step up to our tables, settling onto cushioned seats for our meal.
The profs asked if there was anything I couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. After assuring them that I am an omnivorous and adventuresome eater, the food began to arrive, tapas-style, in chunky pottery dishes, little tastes of the regional cuisine for us to share.
First on the table was a serving of egg, fish, and Japanese purple sweet potato, all of them porous enough to absorb the delicate broth at the bottom of the dish. The longer they sat, the tastier they got.
Wakayama is located on the Pacific Ocean, so fish and seafood played a major role in this meal. We sampled pike, clams, salmon roe, red snapper, sashimi and squid.
Our early dinner Asahi beers had long since disappeared so someone decided we needed some sake. Its smooth heat warmed my throat and I asked for a refill. “Easy to get drunk on sake,” one of the profs pointed out, so I turned my attention back to eating.
Egg cake and pike
There was one dish whose contents was a mystery even to the professors when it arrived – we could only guess at what the floured and fried shapes might contain.There was nothing else to do except take a bite and find out.
One by one, we played the identification game, finding chicken, mushroom, and fish. The woman sitting next to me took a bite of her surprise package, her puźzled expression quickly turning to disgust. ” Yuck!” she said, spitting out a pink glob into a napkin. “It’s Spam!”
At first, I thought I must have misunderstood. Spam, in a Japanese restaurant? Yes, one of the profs explained. It was introduced to Japan by the Americans after the end of WW II, and many people still eat it.
Two hours after the first dish arrived, we were absolutely stuffed, and it was time to call it a night. Which food was my favorite? someone asked. I couldn’t decide. But what I did know was that every dish had given us a reason to talk, laugh, and share a story, ending the evening a little closer to each other than when we’d arrived.