But they might like them anyway.

Depending on where you developed your love of Japanese food, you may or may not think of “spicy tuna” as one of your favorite examples of the cuisine. That’s because even though raw tuna seasoned with spicy chili oil has become a menu mainstay at Japanese restaurants outside Japan, the dish is something that originated overseas, and isn’t at all common within Japan.

Still, Japanese society is always on the lookout for tasty food from abroad, and is regularly fascinated by how Japanese culture is received and interpreted overseas. So if you walk into a branch of convenience store Family Mart in Japan and see that they’re now selling “Spicy Tuna” onigiri (rice balls), you might think this foreign-born favorite has now established a foothold in Japan.

▼ スパイシーツナ = Spicy Tuna

The truth, though, is more complicated. First things first: if you’re buying this expecting it to be a handy grab-and-go version of the “spicy tuna” you’ve been ordering at your favorite Japanese restaurant in San Francisco or London, you’re going to be quickly disappointed, but also possible eventually satisfied.

That’s because Family Mart’s Spicy Tuna isn’t an attempt to replicate overseas sushi bars’ “spicy tuna.” For that matter, it’s not sushi at all – the rice isn’t vinegared, and the fish isn’t raw. At the same time, the Family Mart Spicy Tuna is a result of Western culinary influences, because in addition to fish, there’s mayonnaise inside.

This isn’t so shocking, since “tuna mayonnaise” has been an onigiri staple in Japan for quite some time, with a filling similar to what you’d get in a Western-style tuna sandwich. For the Spicy Tuna onigiri, Family Mart has added green chili peppers to the mix, and our taste-testing Japanese-language reporter Mariko Ohanabatake says the result is exquisite. The green chilis are spicier than the red ones more commonly used in certain Japanese dishes, and while the Family Mart Spicy Tuna onigiri isn’t punishingly fiery, it’s definitely a step up in intensity from mere mild spice. That stimulating piquancy combines with the creaminess of the mayo to form something that feels more special and satisfying than either would be on its own, and Mariko can’t recommend this 165-yen (US$1.15) rice ball enough.

This isn’t the only spicy new arrival to Family Mart’s onigiri shelves, either. There’s also the 149-yen Saba Mala, or Mala Mackerel.

This isn’t as spicy as the Spicy Tuna, but still provides a pleasant sensation of heat, and brings with it a complex and captivating mix of other spices and seasonings.

There’s even a bit of a crunchy texture, which Mariko thought might be garlic chips. Looking at the photo of the list of ingredients from the back of the wrapper that she snapped, we can confirm that there’s garlic here, along with rayu chili oil, black pepper, red chili pepper, and sesame.

Speaking of the packaging, there’s something unusual about the wrapper for the Spicy Tuna, which is that…

…the English labeling calls it “bonito.”

This is a bit of a headscratcher. The packaging’s Japanese text uses ツナ, read “tsuna” and written with the katakana script, clearly showing that it’s meant to be the English word “tuna.” In the common Japanese vernacular, ツナ/tsuna is commonly used as a stand-in for the indigenous Japanese word maguro, which translates as “tuna” and refers to bluefin or albacore/longtail tuna.

Bonito, on the other hand, is the fish called katsuo in Japanese. Specifically, katsuo is arctic bonito, which is another name for skipjack tuna. But while this means that katsuo is, technically, a kind of tuna, ツナ / tsuna generally isn’t used to refer to katsuo, since katsuo tastes different from maguro, is prepared differently, and used in different dishes.

Unfortunately, Mariko didn’t snap a photo of the ingredient list for Family Mart’s Spicy Tuna, so we can’t say for sure right now whether the “tuna” it contains is of the maguro or katsuo variety. Hopefully, since she liked it so much, she’ll be buying another soon and we can have her check then.

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