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Saturday, Aug. 1, 2009

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Answers to some slippery fish questions


"Do you eat the green stuff?" asked a tourist, referring to the very end of the snail-like insides of the sazae.

Sazae is sometimes translated as "turban shell" because the shape of its shell resembles a turban. But it would be incorrect to presume that just because these sea snails wear turbans that they are religious.

Perhaps in an attempt to skirt the issue, the one restaurant on our island offers an English menu which includes "turbo shells" instead. Yep, the fastest gastropods in the Inland Sea! Just try catching them as they slither down your throat.

But back to the question: Do you eat the green stuff? Of course you do. Why would you stop eating something just because it has turned green?

This is Japan — go green!

"Are you supposed to eat the head of the fish?" is another question I get from tourists. This depends on the kind of fish.

In general, the head is not eaten, although the eyes and the area under the eyes are fair game.

Red snapper heads are sometimes split and put on the grill after eating sashimi. When the eyes turn milky white and become bulbous 3-D beads, they're ready for eating.

Fish heads are also often used to enhance the flavor when cooking miso soup. So the next time you have miso soup, you could sound very food-savvy by commenting on the amount of head added to it.

For instance, "Hmm, a slightly larger head would have been good in this soup."

In smaller fish such as sardines, you eat the whole fish, including the head and the tail. As a result, if it comes down to splitting the last sardine between two people, you can always flip a coin: heads or tails?

What kind of fish will they serve at the minshuku? This is a common question I get from foreign tourists who book into accommodations on our island. Minshuku and ryokan owners who live in the Seto Inland Sea fish for a living and fish for the living. So fish, in various forms and states of consciousness, are always an integral part of any meal. But they may not be able to tell you the fish they will serve because in most cases it hasn't been caught yet.

For Japanese people, it doesn't really matter what fish will be served because generally, if you like one fish, you'll like them all. For them, the type of fish depends more on the season than the seasoning.

Besides, who cares what kind of fish it is? When you go into a restaurant at home do you ask what kind of beef they're serving: Hereford or Angus? Of course not. And Japan, a nation of pachinko players, is perfectly comfortable taking a gamble on what fish they eat that night.

Besides, the Japanese appreciate an element of surprise in their food. Take for instance, omakase ryori. You tell the chef how much money you want to spend and he makes up a plate of food accordingly.

He'll choose a unique variety of delicacies and add to it a little bit of this and a little bit of that. This is that which makes omakase ryori so exciting.

You really can't compare the excitement of eating fish to that of eating something more predictable, such as vegetables. It starts with the preparation of the food.

Vegetables grow slowly and peacefully. When they're ready, you pick them. There's no chase, no challenge to this! You can't look at a vegetable and say, "By golly look at that string bean — it must be a meter long! Quick, we better reel it in before it gets away!"

Not so with a fish. By the time it reaches your dinner plate, it has lost a hard battle. It was brave and fought for its freedom, but in the end it had to surrender. As a result, being greeted with a bulbous 3-D eye and a gaping mouth is far more exciting than a languid green bean lying on your plate in a vegetative state.

Do you have catch and release laws in Japan? Of course we do. We catch the fish, and we release them on your plate.



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