It’s unheard of to begin any article about food at a baseball game without mentioning peanuts and Cracker Jacks. So we’ll start there, with two foods that—thanks to an inordinate amount of time spent with braces (master’s degrees have been issues in the amount of time it took to straighten my teeth)—I’ve never enjoyed. But I do appreciate the sentiment of the song, particularly the bit about shoving food in your face. Do I care if I ever come back? Depends—are there vegan hot dogs?
This is why I agreed to go to the Koshien Stadium in Osaka, Japan, to watch the Hanshin Tigers play the Tokyo Swallows. The appeal wasn’t about having a dramatically different experience in a country I’ve never visited, but rather watching common vocabulary play out in a language I can’t speak. That was the case when Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” blasted before the opening pitch; mascots Lucky and her boyfriend To Lucky danced for the audience (and then bowed reverently after); and young women with friendly smiles climbed the stadium steps with large tanks of Asahi beer strapped to their backs.
If Japanese baseball is a communal experience, stadium snacks act as its glue. In addition to stands serving more traditional fare, KFC—the park’s only name-brand fast food—was available in the outfield. (Even if they do inexplicably offer a tomato cocktail topped with traditional Japanese sweets called wagashi, a mix I never saw anyone buy.) But some options weren’t quite as familiar.
I bypass cups of sliced Japanese cucumbers and end up eying plates of fried buckwheat noodles (yakisoba) and takoyaki—fried octopus balls. The latter is a snack Osaka claims to have popularized, created when a street vendor named Tomekichi Endo attempted to improve the dumpling. Both dishes are served with green onions and enough mayonnaise to service a Midwest church potluck. For our first course, we opt for the Osakan-born takoyaki, and even though I’m generally averse to tentacles, I’m pleased when it proves to be one of the more portable snacks of the evening, even though any tasting notes are overwhelmed by temperature (somewhere near molten lava) and extreme chewiness.
The flyer we received at entry advertised bento boxes promoted by Hanshin Tiger players who happily hold various forms of tempura aloft with chopsticks. Unable to wade through the legion of plastic food outside of each stall (English translations in the stadium are non-existent), I opt for a beef bowl topped with a soft-boiled egg. Since we’re within eyesight of Kobe, where cows are famously fed beer and massaged daily, it felt like another obvious pick. While my photographer, Joshua, breaks the runniest egg yolk in existence, I attempt to not think about Gudetama. The tofu on the side is so bland tastes like it could have benefited from a pint of beer and a spa day. I baptize it with egg, which improves the taste tenfold.
A terribly unphotogenic pile of rice and sauce, this Japanese curry is served more sweet than spicy, so at least I was able to enjoy it without breaking into my characteristic white girl sweats. Forgotten by the time the plate hits the trash can, as though this were some kind of tastebud time out before the seventh inning stretch. A fan wearing a souvenir Tigers jacket spots us ordering and takes it on himself to high-five the obvious outsiders… after confirming that we’re rooting for his team.
The night of many carbs continues. Although plenty of eating is happening around me in the stands, I notice that noodles seem to be a food strictly reserved for consumption at snack bars. Fans stand grouped around small tables, guiding udon into their mouth by moving their chopsticks down each noodle as they politely slurp. It’s a culinary dance I completely fail to recreate. I also realize too late I shouldn’t have brought my seaweed and bamboo-shoot ramen soup back to my bench. A heavy wind picks up and I am rewarded with a mouthful of my own hair. Even when seasoned by my own ponytail, this is easily the winner of the night, its simple blend of veggies and crunchy rice topping a flavor profile I’ll find myself chasing the rest of my time in Japan.
In Japan, the holy trinity of basic ice cream flavors is comprised of chocolate, vanilla, and—where most Americans would expect strawberry—green tea, a taste that’s been a part of Japanese culture since the 12th century. I order a double scoop and enjoy the grainy, mildly sweet feeling of the matcha on my tongue. It’s not Starbucks green tea latte levels of sweet, but its general earthiness does make a satisfying dessert. (Later, I’ll have a tea master laugh for implying Starbucks serves “real” matcha. She was not wrong to do so.)
Although my will to try okonomiyaki, Osaka’s signature pancake, is strong, the flesh is weak. Instead of sampling Japan’s beloved noodle-pizza hybrid, we wash everything down with mango soda served from a soft-drink gun, topped with both fresh mango and strawberry, and served in a player-branded cup. Having swallowed the uniquely American belief that Diet Coke is the path to good health, only to later pledge allegiance to La Croix, I’m pleased that this low-sugar, high effervesce beverage actually tastes like the fruit it claims to be.
It was probably just carb-induced euphoria, but I’m also pleased to report that for the first time in my life I actually found myself enjoying what was happening on the field—so much in fact, I almost spilled on the fan next to me when an almost-home run was thwarted at the warning track. I would hereby like to thank the man next to me for laughing along with me, making me feel like I belonged for a moment. Yes, I know noodles and fried octopus balls doesn’t equal adoption—but it’s certainly reason enough to root root root for the home team.
すごい = sugoi = awesome!