Join me on a trip to the local sushi bar.
|Try The Uni|
Sometimes what constitutes as a culinary delight can be a choking nightmare to an unsuspecting palate. I refer, of course, to Japanese sushi--a raw piece of fish, about the size of a hacked-off finger, stretched across a scoop of sticky rice.
Mmm-mmm...sounds good, doesn't it?
Actually, sushi is quite wonderful in all its exotic flavors and names, and I quickly learned that there is an art to eating it--a mixing of specific seasonings to mask the actual taste of raw dead fish. For this, a variety of different condiments are provided: Japanese horseradish (wasabi), vinegared ginger (gari), soy sauce, and of course, sake (sa-ki)--lots and lots of sake.
You must also learn the names of what it is you wish to order--and guess what?--it's all in Japanese. But that's just a small part of what I deem as the ‘sushi experience'.
I have seen many a ‘sushi gourmet' sit and rattle off a wide variety of fish in Japanese, and then offer a smug look as if to say, "You are a simpleton (a dotard) and you wouldn't know what to order if it swam upstream and bit ya."
The first time I ate sushi was in this fancy Japanese restaurant in Hollywood, California. A young girl, with her face painted white as snow, met me at the front door. She bowed graciously, wearing all the traditional brightly colored Japanese attire and making me feel a bit awkward as to whether or not to return her bow (I have to admit it's been a while since I last watched ‘Shogun'). Then she asked, in broken English, if I wanted traditional sit-down dining or the sushi bar.
Well, anything with the word ‘bar' in it can't be all bad, right? "Sushi bar!" I cried overly loud, my voice carrying above the traditional Japanese music delicately playing in the background like a drunken musician strumming on an out-of-tune banjo with a screaming cat.
The geisha-looking gal led me through an archway that had these small Japanese curtains hanging across it, which I had to either duck under or push out of my way. I chose to duck beneath them just as a waiter rushed by--he immediately stopped and bowed to me. I bowed back in return, and he bowed again. I bowed back, and I could see the confusion on his face, so I left him in mid-bow and hurried after my hostess who was wrapped in a rainbow burrito.
As we entered another room, there was a large round table, or island, in the center. The sushi chef (or (Itamae-san) stood in the middle of this island preparing sushi, while the customers sat around the outer edge. The girl motioned for me to sit next to several Japanese executives who obviously, from their conversation, spoke absolutely no English at all. Then she bowed to me and rushed away.
I looked around feeling awkward and flummoxed, but I couldn't help but notice these really cool little Japanese boats sailing around in a moat that encircled the entire table. I watched as the Itamae-san sliced up the sushi placed it onto the boats, and then the customers would choose whatever they wanted as the food sailed by. It was a charming gimmick, and the variety of undulating dishes appeared to be never-ending.
The chef approached me. "You want something to drink?" he asked.
"Uh...sure, how about some sake."
"Hai, sake," he said in a deep resonating voice and then yelled at a passing waiter. "One hot sake!"
"One hot sake, hai!" the waiter yelled back, bowing curtly, and then rushed off to fill the order. I'll never understand why they yell like that when they are standing right next to each other.
Anyway, I examined the raw dead fish manning the boats, and really had no idea what to eat. I noticed one ship had an orange-looking piece of fish on it that looked a lot like salmon, while another was unmistakably raw shrimp. I quickly snatched them both from the boat like a wave washing the crew overboard.
I watched the Japanese man next to me and noticed that he smeared his fish with green mustard (wasabi). Then he covered it with a slice of ginger, dipped it into the soy sauce, and then threw the whole thing into his mouth.
The waiter brought and poured my sake. It was like hot tea, served in this little cup. I sipped at it, and immediately felt its warmth surge through my body. It was delicious and stimulating. I poured another and stared down at the fish I had chosen.
My stomach was telling me that if I ate raw fish it was going to personally see to it that I went home with puke all over my lap. But life is an adventure--nothing tried, nothing gained.
I doctored the raw shrimp as I had seen the gentleman next to me doing, and then threw it into my mouth. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised--it tasted great.
I tried another piece--and another-then started throwing back sushi like a starving immigrant. I tried everything the little boats had to offer, and in the process, emptied several bottles of hot sake.
I started to feel pretty good--real good--and like a moron, I began a conversation with the Japanese executive next to me. He was eating what could only be described as brown phlegm cradled within a nest of seaweed; and every time one of his associates would slurp down this snotty substance, the others would laugh loudly and cheer him on. I became curious, wanting to join in on their fun, and asked the chef what they were eating.
"That is uni--sea urchin--it is good for long-time sex."
"Sea urchin, huh? You mean those round spiny things that roll around on the ocean floor--they're an aphrodisiac?"
"Yes, yes, very special--Japanese delicacy. You try?"
"Sure!" I said boldly. "Fix me up."
He smiled wisely and bowed. I felt honored as if I had entered into some mystical Japanese ritual. I watched in fascination as he painstakingly prepared the dish. First, he took a small glob of rice and molded it in his hand; then he made a little skirt of seaweed around it, scooped some uni, or snot, from a bowl, and then placed it in the center of the seaweed. Then he took this delicate little egg--like a bird's egg--and cracked it over the top.
"What's THAT?" I asked, my eyes growing large.
"This is quail's egg--very good for you."
"Raw quail eggs, huh? I never knew they were edible." (I still don't.)
Then he placed the plate in front of me and stepped back to watch for my approval.
Now, I had eaten raw oysters before, and the consistency of this stuff looked to be about the same, but the color was definitely different, and it glistened dully in the light like a fresh loogie.
I smiled thankfully to him, clutched the uni, and then, as the others had done, slurped the whole thing into my mouth.
I think I was smiling when the glob caught in my throat, and then let out a gag. A small one at first, that quickly changed into a loud retching sound. This attracted the Japanese executives who turned and stared at me in shocked surprise.
The uni, like a giant ball of thick phlegm, stuck in my esophagus and refused to let go. It hung on the precipice of my throat like raw pig testicles. (Another thing you'll never see me eat.)
At this time, I would like to take a moment to introduce you to ‘uni'.
Being so small, there is not much meat on a sea urchin. The creature's eggs (called ‘roe') and its reproductive organs are what is most commonly eaten--and it's a very big delicacy in Japan.
Uni has a strong flavor that is loved by many, but at the same time, disliked by almost as many. I can only describe the consistency of sea urchin as being salty and slimy--pretty much disgusting.
The sea urchin is completely covered in spines and contains no organs other than the anus found at its center. Its lantern-shaped mouth is located under the shell and contains five teeth. For obscure reasons, the mouth is sometimes referred to as ‘Aristotle's lantern'.
The edible portion of the sea urchin is located under the mouth and consists of the five sexual organs (the ovaries and the testicles of the unisexual animal) known as the ‘coral', as well as the liquid that surrounds them. This is why it is considered an aphrodisiac.
Okay then, so where was I? Oh, yeah...the barfing.
Needless to say, my stomach lurched and lurched again, and then a large missile made up of mainly rice and raw fish shot out of my mouth and hit one of the passing boats broadside. It tipped to its side, covered in mealy matter, and then began to sink. I quickly stood embarrassed, fished three twenty's out of my wallet, dropped them on the table, and ran out of the restaurant.
Do not get me wrong, I still eat sushi--love it, in fact--but I will never eat sea urchin again. I have to laugh every time I sit at a sushi bar and hear someone order the uni, knowing what is to come. I have seen even the stoutest of sushi aficionados high-tail it to the bathroom after attempting it.
In fact, that is how I get my kicks. Whenever I am at a sushi bar, I always pick some loud, macho wise-ass out of the crowd and convince him to try the uni. And to my enjoyment, they always try--and, of course, fail.