Based on a true story, a long time ago, in a galaxy far.. (well, you get the idea)....
Her: “What's inside this thing?” she asked learning over the small steaming tart, nostrils flared, breathing in the sweet aroma of a freshly-baked pie crust. It smelled good, but she was hesitant. She had gone through this before. Though fairly adventuresome when it came to Japanese food, this was a bit different because it was hidden...you couldn't tell what was inside that thing. And besides, being this close to the holidays, taste buds were thinking turkey thoughts....
Him: “Uni,” came the reply with a smirk to follow. He half hoped she wouldn't want it. His sister had invited them out. A Japanese/French restaurant snuggled in a tightly packed residential neighborhood near his mother's home. It had been difficult to find, no street signs, no hint or indication of its location, but so chic it didn't even need to advertise...word of mouth was enough. His kind of place.
Her: “Ok, I know what “uni” is....sea urchin,” she said leaning back and crossing her arms and setting her jaw in that way that indicated she was just about ready to cash in her chips and bow out of this poker game. “I remember I had uni sushi before and it's really strong, right? As I recall” she continued with a slight air of superiority, “It basically tastes like low tide. Is it cooked?”
Him: “Probably just slightly,” he said working hard to maintain his composure, knowing she would soon fold her hand and pass. “Well, you don't have to eat it. There will be other things coming.” He licked his lips. Tonight, this uni tart, this delicious taste of ocean wrapped in light, flaky layers of dough would be his. (evil laugh).
Her: But in a moment of impulse, in a moment that she would live over and over in her mind for years to come, she drew up her fork, plunged it into the tart, scooped out a bite and popped it into her mouth. Then, then, then…. then she died and went to heaven. (Pictured to the left...heaven).
This sea urchin food adventure was one of many to come. Living in the countryside of Japan for quite some time, I had the privy of sample many local foods: mushrooms, mountain vegetables, and of course locally brewed sake…but that’s another post! So I learned to try, try, try…and not just licking, anything and everything put before me to try at least once.
Over the years I have grown to love all kinds of Japanese foods, the unusual fusions types and the more traditional as well. Sushi remains on of my favorites… no cooking involved! That and a bit of beer or sake and these days contemporary habits even include white wine! But, of course, I have also learned to cook some. But not without some mishap. When we rented a house in the countryside of Niigata, one of the fringe benefits was that our Oyasan (landlord) a wonderful, kind man in his mid-sixties, would go deep into the mountains in the spring to find yamaudo (Japanese Spikenard). Yamaudo is a mountain vegetable..quite bitter and certainly not edible if not prepared correctly. Traditional Japanese cooking usually uses three or four main ingredients for spicing their foods: soy sauce, sake, fish stock and sometimes sweet rice wine (which you really can't drink on its own...I tried). And if you get it just right ..umami
Oyasan would leave large bunches of yamaudo on my doorstop two or three times a week and sometimes even more. He was particularly thrilled that this American woman seemed to appreciate this special food. For all this yamaudo, in return, (and in Japan you always have to give something in return) I would give him a bottle of sake. This back and forth went on throughout the entire yamaudo season. We were both quite pleased about it. Thanks to Oyasan I learned the recipe for cooking this vegetable...and you guessed it: soy sauce, sake, fish stock, a bit of sugar and sweet rice wine (which you really can't drink straight as I mentioned before).
First, you have to strip the hairy stems of the tough outer coating, cut it all, leaves included, into bite-sized pieces and soak it in water for an hour or two. This soaking removes the bitterness....or some of it. So I soaked.
I grew up using an electric stove, so I was not very familiar with open gas cooking which most people use in Japan...this lack of experience was to be my undoing. I turned on the gas stove, open flame and all, and set the frying pan upon it and added some oil. I drained the yamaudo, but apparently not enough. I added the wet vegetables to the hot oil over an open gas and it splattered and spit and this was enough to send a burst of angry red-orange flame shooting to the ceiling and threatening to burn our little house down. I jumped back to avoid being burned, and then jumped back in just as quickly to turn off the heat and throw flour. I survived, so did the house. The yama-udo didn't make it.....
I am still willing to risk it...house and all.... Japanese food is so delicious and very edible, but that was an adventure I care not to repeat.
We eat out a lot now.
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About the Author
Hi from Japan everyone! I'm Karen and I have been living and traveling, (yes, often by bullet train :) for Alfan Select, fun and adventure for over 20 years! You can read more of my personal stories in Japan here. As a cute couple, one of our new shared stories is about ferreting out the amazing contemporary examples of fine craftsmanship here in Japan. And these craft artists have amazing stories, too! So, if you like, browse around our site and enjoy reading some. Cheers! Karen
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