Sunday, January 8, 2012

Attack of the Red Pearls

If foreign cuisine were partitioned archaeological dig sites, you may be surprised--despite having lived there for three years--that there are many, many layers in many, many grids of Japanese food that I haven't drilled down to yet. And I'm not talking the semi-exotic stuff like hachi-senbei (crackers with bees baked inside) or suppon (a range of dishes made from the Pelodiscus sinensis turtle), which a lot of Japanese haven't eaten either. No, there are plenty of "common" flavors I simply never got around to trying or only sampled in passing and promptly forgot about. Ikura is one of them.

You can find them in virtually any Japanese restaurant: the pearl-sized mostly translucent red eggs of salmon. From what I've heard they're a nice bonus for salmon fishermen who make their catch in the fall as the fairly large egg sacks that contain hundreds, if not thousands of individual eggs, fetch something like fifty dollars per pound. It's fascinating to me the price gap between all the different types of fish roe, really. Black and Caspian Sea sturgeon roe (caviar) can fetch a hundred times this price, for example. I'm guessing there's a market-driven purpose for this, but would't be surprised if those little obsidian-colored balls are the proverbial diamond of the sea.

Still, good ikura can be mighty pricey, but in this case Akane and I lucked out big time. Her friend, Gosei, got his hands on some of the raw egg sacks from his wife's friend who finds the stuff just completely unpalatable (a not uncommon opinion of ikura), and after curing the eggs with the perfect amount of salt and secret Japanese hobo spices we got the call to come over and dig in. I've never had these kinds of heaping amounts of salmon roe before.

Whether I like them or not I can't quite say yet. I'm getting used to the flavor, that's for sure, but what I'm now trying to push past is the crunchy popping sensation that accompanies each rhythmic chewing action. It's like a slightly salty, wet, warm firecracker going off in your mouth. Am I the only human that finds that sensation disconcerting?

All in all, I'm pleased with my gastronomic choices today--kabocha pancakes by morning, heaping mounds of salmon roe and sashimi by night. That and thanks to our after dinner entertainment I found out that the country that uses the most toilet paper is Russia, the country that consumes the most instant noodles is Korea and the country with the highest alcohol consumption per capita is Estonia (if the variety show's statistics were correct, those Estonians must be drunk eighteen hours a day!). Facts are fun!

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