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Saturday, March 22, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The next taste treat is just a little bit fishy


When Julia Child retired in 2001, someone asked what she thought would be the next great taste treat to take the Western world by storm.

The renowned chef paused. And while her listeners anticipated the naming of some peculiar ethnic delicacy, Julia's face scrunched into an expression that spoke all by itself. Her expression said: "Look, you. . . . I'm a cook, not Nostradamus."

Then she admitted she had no idea.

But I do. I say the next culinary goody to end up in trend-starved kitchens of the world will come from Japan. And it will be none other than my personal, yummy-in-my-tummy favorite . . .

Chikuwa.

If you don't know chikuwa, then you are a poorer man than I am, Gunga Din -- even if you're not a man. Chikuwa is that hot dog-size, hollowed-out cylinder that is snowy white on the ends and toasty brown across the middle. It sort of looks like a loose engine bit from some machine made entirely of marshmallow.

Except chikuwa is not marshmallow. It's fish.

Now, in my mind, "fish" and "eat" make the second worst word combo on Earth, next to "dentist" and "pliers." Since chikuwa is traditionally made by scooping up a fish's yucky parts (technical term: fish guts) and molding these by hand on a bamboo spit -- which then turns slowly over a fire until the slimy gunk is all cooked -- one would gather I would not be too fond of such food.

But you would be wrong.

For chikuwa is free from all fishy flaws. First, it has no fishy smell. In fact, it has almost no odor at all, other than perhaps a whiff of wholesome, plastic packaging.

Next, it has no fishy shape. It just sits on your plate like a harmless little pipe. If you have two chikuwa, you can even press them to your eyeballs and scan the room as if searching for elk crouched behind the sofa. Regular fish, meanwhile, are never so practical.

Last -- and best -- chikuwa has no fishy flavor. Rather it tastes more like . . . rubber. Yet very fresh, palatable rubber, with no aftertaste whatsoever.

The lack of taste lends itself to chikuwa's best feature -- that long hole down the middle. For this opening can then be plugged with anything a resourceful cook can cram inside. The bland outer container thus bows to the flavor of the stuffing.

The result is a protein-packed, pleasantly chewable treat with any sort of accent you want. Add this to the fact that, instead of leftover-type slops, modern-day chikuwa is more likely made of high quality fish parts (I used to doubt such parts existed, but have since learned they do -- the secret is simply to hook fish from the top-ranked schools), and what we have is a snacky delight that is even good for you.

The list of possible chikuwa stuffings is endless, but for me it starts with cheese. This comes from my Western instinct to immediately cancel the health benefits of one food with the lethal cholesterol count of another.

After cheese, my favorite stuffings are mayonnaise, peanut butter, mustard, salsa, kimchi, yogurt, sliced veggies, olives, honey, dill pickles and mashed potatoes. Anything goes with chikuwa. The only limit is how far you can make the cylinder stretch.

I admit that part of the attraction is having the chikuwa obey me. I wear no black leather and carry no whip, yet I do find it amusing to present a tray of chikuwa with a wedge of Munster and say, "Heh, heh, heh, boys. Guess where this is going?"

The other fun thing is to stick the nozzle of a tube of mayonnaise in one end of some chikuwa and see if you can squirt mayonnaise straight out the other end. If done wrong, this will result in a messy streak somewhere across your dining room. But if done right, you need not worry at all. Here is the way to do it right:

You: (with mayonnaise and chikuwa ready and turning to a dinner guest) "Hey, I think something's stuck in this chikuwa. Can you peek inside and see?"

(Caution: Don't count on this to impress a date, no matter how hard you laugh.)

As enjoyable as chikuwa is when whole, it also takes well to the blade. The cylinders slice up into cute little "O's," which can then be used to adorn salads, soups, pizzas or even fingers.

For to heck with the attention people seek through body-piercing and tattoos. If you really want to be noticed, hop on the train wearing a ring made from chikuwa.

Or -- better yet -- wearing one such ring on each finger. Then, as people watch, slowly nibble the rings off, one by one. I guarantee you will be chewing your way into an eternal niche in everyone's memory.

Chikuwa can be boiled or deep-fried, but pretty much tastes the same no matter what you do. It is therefore probably best eaten straight from the package, as that is when it is most stuffable. It also comes in different sizes, from itsy bitsy to fee fi fo fum.

Last, don't look for chikuwa in the fish corner of your supermarket. Instead try hunting over by the "pickles and weird Japanese things" section.

But get it while you can. For what Julia Child doesn't know, you now do.

Japanese chikuwa is going places.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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