Kama, Shirako, and Other Culinary Delights

December 21, 2010

I spent most of Sunday at a monthly art auction, where I typically find a few woodblock prints to add to my collection. This time out, the auction was heavy on ivory carvings, for the most part quite old. I am not particularly an ivory aficionado, but the workmanship on these pieces was pretty spectacular, even to the dilettante (and when it comes to ivory, and probably lots of other art, I am but an apprentice dilettante!). Note in the first picture the artfully crafted “insect damage” to the leaves; the second item, a pole boat with fishermen hauling in their nets, was carved from one tusk!

Afterwards, I went out to supper with several attendees, the auctioneer, and Saki. The first restaurant we went to, our usual post-auction haunt, featured a half-hour wait, and we were all kinda hungry, so we set out for option number two. That turned out to be a no-go as well, closed on Sundays. Our third choice was a sashimi place where none of us had ever eaten before, but just happened to see en route to somewhere else. Past the neon-illuminated “love hotel” (4900 yen for the night, or 2900 for a “shorter stay”),

down an alleyway one would think twice about entering in any other city, up a narrow zigzagging staircase, and in through a sliding shoji screen, we found ourselves in an old-style Japanese establishment that looked like it dated from before the war. The beery clientele, cheerful and slightly raucous, told us in no uncertain terms that this was the sort of place we had been looking for.

The biru came first, followed by a squat bottle of shochu (a Japanese liquor that packs a sneaky punch); then we were ready to order some food. There was the usual assortment of sashimi on offer: yellowtail (hamachi); tuna (meguro); shrimp (ebi); oysters on the half shell, and so on. But of course the fun part for Japanese folks is seeing what weird stuff they can get the gaijin to eat, and this group of inveterate jokers decided to put me through the wringer.

First up was kama, fish heads, quite the delicacy, they assured me. In fact, the fish cheeks were good, soft and flavorful. “Eat the bones,” I was told. Not bloody likely, I thought. “Eat the eyes,” I was further instructed. I respectfully declined, and Saki promptly popped one in her mouth, crunching it like a malted milk ball. “Yummy,” she said, grinning. Yeah, right, I thought.

I gamely worked my way through crunchy daikon and gelatinous konyaku, and some root veggies whose name I don’t know (but which were quite tasty). I added liberal amounts of wasabi, occasioning one of the attendees to remark that at least where wasabi was concerned, I was a true Japanese.

But of course, in time-honored tradition, they saved the best for last. When the bowl arrived at the table, I had to take a picture of it. Does this not look delicious?

The colors, pottery, the simplicity of the presentation—all were superb. It smelled pretty good as well. “Try this,” I was urged. “What is it?” I asked. “Shirako,” Saki replied. Kind of a pretty word, I thought, like a Japanese girl’s name. “What’s that?” I asked again. “It comes from inside the fish,” she said, looking at our companions for some help; none was forthcoming. “I don’t know how you call it in English,” she said, shrugging. Normally, I am not a big fan of things that come from “inside” the animal (heart, stomach, liver, intestines), but I thought, what the hell? So I tried it, and it was pretty good. Slightly tart, with just a tiny amount of the liverish taste that characterizes innards. “Not bad,” I offered. Everyone cheered and clapped, chattering in animated Japanese, of which I understood only “Bruce-san”, followed by appreciative laughter. I knew then that I was the unwitting butt of some cosmic Rising Sun comedy. And that was the moment thatToyoshima-san, a warugaki (mischief maker) whose English is pretty decent, chose to tell me the English name for shirako (you can see this coming, right?): fish testicles.