Iron Chef: Japanese food/culture question

I’ve been watching old Iron Chef episodes and I’m hoping someone here is familiar with Japanese culture and food preferences.

I’m going on the assumption here that the voiceovers/dubbings are at least vaguely accurate. They’re clearly written to make the word choice sound silly* but I suspect that the basic gist of their comment (“too salty” or “very subtle”) is more-or-less what they’re saying.

That said, one comment that comes up time and time again is that such and such ingredient has a “strong” smell or flavor and they judge the contestants positively if they cover up or mask the flavor. Note that they’re not talking about things like limburger cheese or durian. The most recent one I saw where they did this was a lamb battle–not mutton, they specifically said it was young (ergo, non-gamey) lamb. And the more the chef “disguised” or “covered” or “masked” or “hid” the strong flavor, the more the tasters liked it.


  1. Is this accurate? I’d assume it was just “funny” translation, except the concept of covering up the taste of the food you’re eating keeps showing up in episode after episode.

  2. If so, for heaven’s sake, why? Why would you want to hide the bold tastes of your expensive theme ingredient?

*I hope. If they’re not dumbing down the words and are doing really accurate word-choice translations, apparently several generations of Japanese people have been eating lead-paint chips.

All I can say is that my wife and in-laws (all born and raised in Japan) can’t stand turkey - they say is smells awful. They all love natto - go figure.
I guess it just depends on what you’re used to.

Japanese culture says that lamb smells bad, like western culture says brussel sprouts taste bad.

It’s not just lamb…over and over and over they’ll have ingredients described as delicacies and over and over they’ll talk about hiding/masking the taste or smell.

Also–zoid: any idea what natto tastes/smells like? I just saw a natto battle and I gotta say that it looks disgusting. To me, one of the least visually appealing foods I’ve ever seen. (for what it’s worth, I think rice krispy marsmallow squares are equally gross. Excluding melted cheese, food shouldn’t make threads like that. :wink: )

My wife and daughters eat it all the time.
To me it looks and smells like rotted soybeans, which it pretty much is. Seriously, it smells like death.
Never worked up the nerve to put it in my mouth.

This is actually quite common. Mutton/pork is often termed “smelly” in Chinese cooking as well.

We call it a “porky” taste, but really it’s just meat that’s not been prepared in a certain manner, and not the innate taste of pork. Just as you wouldn’t blame a brisket for being tough if the cook didn’t prepare it well, so you would blame a cook for not removing the “porky” taste of pork.

The best way I can describe it is that it’s a very musky taste/scent/aroma? Like gamey, but in a very particular way. Like if you had the animal in front of you, that smell, translated into a taste.

It’s commonly removed by blanching the pork before cooking. I think it’s got something to do with the fat, as the smell really is found in the fattier parts of the pig.

Mutton has similar issues, and I think is more directly related to being gamey. Certain breeds of goat/sheep are less “smelly”. We don’t eat mutton regularly, so I don’t know the techniques for removing the smell, but when I was in Morocco none of the mutton I had had that smell. I was informed that it was due to the breed of the sheep, but maybe it was some other technique used by the cook.

I’ve never had natto, but I used to live in Japan and when I first moved there it seemed like everyone – children, old ladies, everyone – was asking me if I’d tried natto yet. I hadn’t even heard of natto previously, so I asked an American coworker if it was a local delicacy or something. Her reaction was…memorable.

“NO! They are TRYING to TRICK YOU! Don’t eat it!”

Another American coworker who’d spent a year studying in Japan when he was in college said he’d had natto in the college cafeteria and that, while he’d eat just about anything, he didn’t exactly recommend it. He told me I’d be able to recognize it if I ever encountered it because “It looks like beans but it’s stringy, and it smells like feet.”

Smoked turkey legs have been a hit at Tokyo Disneyland for years.

My question is, where are you watching them? I haven’t seen an episode in years, and I miss them. Where are they?

Allez cuisine!

Lots of old video-tapes I made.

This week on Iron Chef America, the secret ingredient is…

Limburger Cheese


Canned Tuna


Cooking Channel was running the old episodes not too long ago, though it doesn’t look like the show is currently on their schedule. I miss seeing it, too.

The concept of covering up the taste of your ingredients is antithesis to the principles of Japanese cooking. However, balancing the qualities of an ingredient’s flavour is fundamental. In practice, when preparing meat or fish, this means bringing out the umami and toning down kusami. The first word is now used in English to refer to the taste imparted by glutamates which give off a sense of “meatiness,” but the second word refers to any unpleasantly strong flavour.

I don’t know what episode you watched but I took the time to look at Lamb Battle.

The judges compliment the chefs several times for the dishes’ strong flavours. The one expression that comes up a few times is nioi ga nai. Literally that translates as “there is no smell,” but Japanese has two words for “smell.” Nioi has neutral or negative connotations and kaori is always positive. Since bad lamb is associate with a strong, and, to some, unpleasant smell to say that a dish has no nioi is a compliment. If they had said that the dish had no kaori, then that would be a major criticism. As a matter of fact, in the video you can hear the judges use the word kaori positively to refer to the bold flavours; as in “you really brought out the lamb’s kaori in this dish.”

One comment that got translated as “doesn’t taste strong” is kuse ga nai. Kuse literally means a bad habit, or a distinctive negative trait. When you say of food that it has kuse, it means that its character is strong enough to be off-putting. Again, she’s referring to the strong taste and odour of bad lamb.

One foreigner’s perspective: lamb is definitely a “foreign” food, which for some Japanese may be an acquired taste. As such, blending it with more familiar tastes, or toning it down so it is not too prominent, would make it more palatable to them. I suspect this is true for some of the other surprise main ingredients. Jovan’s idea of balance is also important.

As for natto, one person said it smells like death, another person said it smells like feet. They are both right, it smells like dead feet.

Japanese love to trick foreigners into eating food that is perceived as challenging. If you already eat some of the more off-putting sushi, then they will move on to more exotic dishes, such as tororo (no taste, but the texture of nasal mucus) and natto. I have never eaten natto, but if I had to, I would wish to be stricken with my father’s inability to taste or smell food at all. Oh, yes, and if you are any good at it at all, they will inevitably compliment you on your ability to use chopsticks. I always wanted to turn this about by complimenting them on their ability to use a knife and fork.

not sure if it’s the same thing but, not being a cook so i can’t tell, fish that is either not fresh or not prepared properly has a strong fishy smell. the same goes for lamb, pork, prawns or beef. but mostly lamb and beef. is this what the OP is talking about?

I don’t know about the OP, but that is exactly what I was talking about in my post.

And, about natto, while I’m not a big fan, it’s not nearly as repulsive as it’s made out to be. It’s fermented and it smells like it is, but the scent is nowhere near as strong as many, many European cheeses. The taste is more nutty than anything – as a matter of fact it’s somewhat bland. Really, personally I find the sticky mouthfeel to be more off-putting than the scent.

Natto isn’t that bad. I mean, it’s not good, and I would have to double dared in a pretty devious way to eat it again. I’ve had it enough times either straight or in a sushi roll to satisfy American “honor” so maybe something like a dozen times.

Now, the weird thing is, I had a friend from Tennessee that was in Japan the same time as I was. He LOVED natto. His Japanese was pretty good too, and if he had wanted to, he could have almost made a living on natto bar bets. He’d go out for lunch and get a big bowl of natto on rice by choice and just chow down. And an American woman I know that married a Japanese guy liked natto okay (not a favorite but did like it) and would eat it occaisionally by choice.

tororo is aptly describe as being like nasal mucus. Again, not the end of the world but I will go out of my way to avoid it.

Squee!!! They have whole episodes on youtube!

Japanese Iron Chef is far superior to American Iron Chef. I used to watch the hell out of it when it was running on the Food Network.

I love Japanese Iron Chef! Too bad that the Cooking Channel messed up the music on their reruns of the show (I guess there was a licensing issue?)