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Saturday, Nov. 8, 2003
Lazy Invertebrate Consumption Medal
By AMY CHAVEZ
I just finished polishing off a plate of "iwashi" and "tsukudani," and frankly, I think I deserve a medal. Why? It took me over a decade to accomplish this feat! Iwashi is sardines. Tsukudani is, well, no one really knows. It's black, it kinda glistens, and has a dark but sweet taste. Even my dictionary, which lists all kinds of fish and Japanese foods, avoids a description of tsukudani. My neighbor Kazuko says it's sometimes, but not always, a type of seaweed boiled down for three hours in a mixture of soy sauce and sweet "mirin."
Why anyone ever decided to combine the tastes of sardines and tsukudani into one dish is beyond me. It's like saying, "You know what would go great with this whale meat? Graham crackers!" Iwashi is also said to go well with rice, but definitely not bread.
I've never understood how they decide on the various food combinations in Japan, but if it's anything like the other Japanese arts, culinary combining probably entails years of training and reflection, which mostly takes part through high membership fees in professional organizations such as The Society of Food Combiners. In this society, experienced, graying chefs instruct young apprentices to memorize a prescribed list of the only permissible combinations of Japanese food. This is in preparation for a test, of which there are different certified levels, with true/false questions such as "iwashi is to tsukudani as whale meat is to graham crackers."
Admittedly, however, any medal I received for eating iwashi and tsukudani would probably be revoked when the judges discovered that the sardines had been beheaded, which some would argue takes a large part of the adventure out of the meal. Obviously, the chef in the kitchen was true to the Queen of Hearts style: Off with their heads!
But for Americans, many of us raised on McDonald's and a mind-boggling array of other fast foods, seeing something on the plate that even remotely resembles what it looked like while it was still alive is too close for comfort. Even when I'm served sashimi, I can't help but think: "Are you sure we shouldn't shoot it up with some preservatives, add some food coloring, freeze it and ship it off to another country and await its return before serving it? I mean really, we could die from eating raw fish!"
If I should be able to keep my medal, however, it would certainly encourage me to conquer some of the other dinner species in Japan. As a matter of fact, I already have my eye on lazy marine invertebrates such as sea urchins, sea cucumbers and "sazae" (they're called turban shells but look like huge snails). The only reason Japanese eat them, I'm convinced, is because they're easy to catch; they don't even try to escape.
The sea urchin, protected by defensive spines, is sought for its, um, gonads. Yes, the male and female gonads are processed and labeled "roe" to give an innocent, feminine touch to your plate. Sea urchins are collected from the bottom of the ocean.
Even the hapless sea cucumber, who smugly thought "I am so ugly, no one will want to eat me!" frequently becomes Japanese cuisine. They're picked up off the seabed and eaten raw.
Sazae is plucked off reefs, where it has been trolling the slime and algae for years in order to bring the seabed to your palette.
Of course, I'll have to do my research first, as I wouldn't want to combine the wrong foods, such as sea cucumber with Coca-Cola, or sazae with ice cream. If I can secure the Lazy Invertebrate Consumption Medal, I'll definitely go for the medal of honor -- the Natto (fermented beans) Award. But give me another decade for that one.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: www.amychavez.com