LA Gastronauts dinner at Elite Restaurant- Los Angeles

They had me at frog fallopian tubes.  Then they sucked me in with duck tongues. Now they sealed the deal with beaver.  I’m talking about the intriguing menu items that are offered through the Los Angeles Gastronauts dinners, unique dining experiences that bring like-palated adventurous diners together.  What started out as a huge success in New York has now traveled to Los Angeles, with Helen Springut as our LA chapter guide who sniffs out interesting international fare with unusual themes.

“You have to try to try to eat what’s in front of you” is their motto, with previous Los Angeles Gastronauts dinners featuring silkworms, crickets, freshwater eel and agave worm for a first hand experience into your very own episode of Bizarre Foods.  The Gastronauts guides work with local restaurants to devise a most interesting tasting menu, often featuring off-menu specialty items that otherwise would never be available to the non-Gastronaut.  The July dinner delved deep into adventurous Chinese fare at Elite Restaurant, a Cantonese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley popular for weekend dim sum.  The main attraction of this dinner was live drunken shrimp, but I was there for the frog fallopian tubes, the only thing on the menu that day that was new to me.

An assortment of appetizers featured 4 delicacies starting with jellyfish salad, long golden noodles of jiggly slippery jellyfish flavored with sesame oil and a hint of red chile.  Slivers of sliced pig ears tossed in sesame oil and seasoned soy sauce, its crunchy cartilagenous center sandwiched between gelatinous outer layers, were a textural delight.  Then the duck tongues, little torpedo shaped morsels of deep fried spongy muscle with its awkward bone running through the center- not an easy or graceful eating experience but delicious nonetheless.

Strong notes of soy sauce and anise made the chicken livers and gizzards an enjoyable bite and a delightful companion to our free flowing bottles of beer and stimulating conversation with our new found Gastronaut friends.

The main course of live drunken shrimp arrived, a course where I was hoping to relive a fond childhood memory of weekend family dinners at our local Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles.  Live drunken shrimp was the highlight of these dinners, a fascinating ritual where fresh tiger shrimp would literally be drowned in Shaoxing rice wine, the gruesome process on public display in a lidded glass bowl placed in the center of the table for all to see.  The process of death was a slow one, a very long 5 minutes of agonal seizure-like activity that I watched, as a little girl, with sadistic interest.

The experience that day at Elite didn’t quite live up to my expectations, as they used Santa Barbara spot prawns instead of tiger shrimp, and sweet plum wine instead of Shaoxing wine.  In addition, the prawns were already slumped over in complete inebriation, its nervous system too wasted to put up a fight as we swiftly decapitated and peeled our catch all too easily.  The sweet succulent meaty flesh was delicious, and the experience was still worth it.

The best part of the drunken shrimp experience came quickly afterward, a plateful of freshly deep fried crispy shrimp heads tossed with garlic, green onions, salt and pepper that created a feeding frenzy at the table.

Then there were the sea cucumbers stir fried with green onions, ginger and garlic, a delightful plate with generous servings of tender gelatinous pieces of sea cucumber that kept slipping out of my plastic chopstick grip.  Luscious, bouncy and soft with a light flavor that took on the essence of its simple seasonings, these sea cucumbers were my favorite course of the evening.

Frogs- limbs, abdomen and all other stray parts- stir fried with a Chinese tea glaze, were like a bucket of wings and drumsticks, its light white flesh resembling the texture and flavor of chicken.  Little tiny bones meant more work for our reward, but the rewards, coupled with a swig of complementary cold beer, were tremendous in this fantastic frog dish.

The Gastronauts, including myself, all slowed down on the pig stomach course, a clay pot soup with unapologetically large cuts of stomach that outlined the anatomical structure and mucosal foldings of this digestive organ all too vividly.  Gingko nuts, tofu skin and whole peppercorns did little to temper the intense mustiness of the stomach, and for the first time that evening the enthusiastic Nauts showed signs of hesitance.

After a slurry of offals and proteins, the stir fried Chinese broccoli dish came as a welcome palate cleanser, although in Gastronaut style, it contained bits of deep fried fish fins that added a different layer of crunchiness.

Coming down on the home stretch, fried rice with salty fish, eggs and green onions finished the savory portion of the tasting dinner, a delicious and satisfying bowl of warm salty goodness.

We finally arrived at the dessert course, the course that I was looking forward to the most as I had never had frog fallopian tubes before.  I was imagining long gelatinous noodles of a more grotesque nature, but what arrived in front of me was a bowl of sweet white almond milk with plump nuggets of wrinkled gelatin resembling morels.  Asiatic Grass Frog fallopian tubes, also known as hasma, are typically sold dried, then rehydrated and double boiled in rock sugar to achieve that unique opaque glutinous quality.  The dainty pieces floating in the milky soup were slippery and slightly chewy like tapioca, making for an enjoyable dessert.

The next LA Gastronauts dinner is on August 7th at Starry Kitchen, with talented French chef Laurent Quenioux preparing bear tenderloin, duck hearts, veal feet, beaver leg and a cockscomb dessert. Sign up to become an LA Gastronauts club member and join us on our ongoing culinary adventures, where you’ll expand your mind, train your palate and make new friends.


Random trivia: Did you know that young children are not recommended to eat frog fallopian tubes as the high contents of hormones may cause puberty to begin early?

Gastronomic nemeses

I have cracked open suckling piglet skulls to eat its creamy brains and brainstem.  I have sipped on warm turtle blood, poured straight into a cup from its jugular.  I have chewed on live octopus legs, its powerful tentacles tightly gripping onto the insides of my cheeks.  I have drunk warm camel’s milk, freshly hand milked from the teats of a West African desert camel.  I have devoured whole sparrows, crunchy beak, skull, wings and all.  I have relished whale blubber, deliciously cold smoked in the dead of winter.  I have slurped creamy fish sperm sac, perfectly seasoned with a dash of ponzu.  I have noshed on charred armadillo flesh and mystery primate limbs.  Bugs, amphibians, mold, reproductive organs and appendages are no sweat for me.  In fact, every such unique culinary experience I have thoroughly enjoyed, licking my chops at the end of the meal.

My humanitarian work and travels have taken me all over the world, to countries some people may have heard of, but have no idea where to locate on the world map.  New types of animals, novel methods of cooking and interesting dining rituals have opened my eyes to a whole new way of appreciating food.  What may seem strange and bizarre to one can be a delicious afternoon snack in another country.  What may be perceived as animal cruelty in one place may be the only mode of survival and a long standing tradition with great historical significance in another.  Through sampling various types of foods all over the world, I have enjoyed learning about other cultures.

Opening your mind to trying local delicacies also means opening your heart to accepting the people and the customs of that particular culture, and for that reason I never turn down an exotic bite, no matter how strange or gory it may appear.  I will try anything twice, and as long as it tastes good, I will do it with an enthusiastic smile.  But even I, an adventurous eater with a strong stomach, have my Achilles heel- something that will bring me to my knees and leave me begging to be put out of my misery.  I have finally met my match, and my nemeses come in two forms: first, the French andouillette.

‘French, pork, tripe and sausage’ seem like a no-brainer. A culmination of all of my favorite things should automatically make it into my Top 10 favorites, but strangely enough, it is one of the most repulsive foods I have ever encountered.  A course grained bulky sausage stuffed with pork chitterlings, pepper, wine and onions, the andouillette is a French delicacy that dates back to 877 AD.  I’m still perplexed as to how I, an offal loving eater, cannot make peace with andouillette, but it is that distinct foul odor of dirty urinals that makes me shudder with disgust and defeat.  My first experience was in Paris as a teenager, completely sickened by this mound of innards that as a culinary icon holds a formal title: AAAAA, for Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique.  My second experience was 2 years ago in a well known bouchon in Lyon, one of the regions famous for andouillette (the other is Troyes).  Again, that distinct stench of locker room bathroom urine and feces made me wimper and recoil in fear, as I watched my dining partner roll his eyes in ecstasy as he savored every morsel of what he claimed was one of the best French inventions.

My other nemesis is a Japanese delicacy.  Funa zushi is a traditional and sacred Japanese dish, said to be the oldest sushi in history dating back 1200 years. Fresh female funa (Crucian carp) from Lake Biwa is scaled, then gutted through their gills to preserve the integrity of the body and the roe sack.  First it is cured in salt for 6 months, then rinsed and dried.  Then it is stacked inside a wooden barrel with cooked rice, allowed to ferment for up to 3 years under layers of salt, water and heavy stone weights until full maturation. As the mixture rots and ferments, it produces enough carbon dioxide to topple a 70 pound boulder off the top of the barrel.  The result is a well fermented piece of fish, rotted down to its bones and cartilage which have become soft enough to render the entire fish edible.  Some liken this extremely rare and valuable delicacy to Roquefort cheese.  I, an avid Roquefort fan, disagree.

Many years back, this seemingly harmless slice of fish with an impressive stuffing of bright orange roe, drove my body into sensory shock.  It wasn’t the initial sour smell or the doughy sticky consistency of rotting flesh that surprised me.  With the first bite, a caustic fume of ammonia-like gas shot straight through my palate into my eyes and my brain, precipitating massive tearing, temporary blindness and a strong gag reflex.  In the presence of important company, I forced myself to swallow and keep silent.

My second experience came, ironically, at the same restaurant with the same company- again, as I vow to try everything at least twice, I took a bite.  The funa zushi was just as horrible the second time around, its putrid smell and rotted flesh taking me back to anatomy class in medical school.  My dining partners, who were more accustomed to this highly prized delicacy, slurped up their sushi with joyful tears in their eyes as I held back my urge to hurl.

Andouillette and funa zushi have traumatized me for life, but I am determined to continue eating the world and not letting anything else come in the way of my appetite and my desire to connect with other cultures.  At least for now…until I’m faced with Cambodian fried tarantulas and decomposed walrus meat prized by the Inuit.

Where will your culinary adventures take you next?

Tasting Japanese delicacies at Kiriko- Los Angeles

Flamingo tongues and peacock breasts were once highly prized dishes in ancient Rome, praised for their exotic and rare quality and served at extravagant banquets for royalty.  If that sounds weird to you, think of what people all over the world are eating today or were eating until recently: bird’s nest soup and shark fin in China, ant larvae in Mexico, fried tarantulas in Cambodia, casu marzu (live maggot cheese) in Sardinia, puffin hearts in Iceland, and little birds in France called ortolan drowned in Armagnac and eaten whole, crunchy bones and all, many of which are now illegal (and you thought that foie gras, caviar and truffles were haute!).

Japan also joins that list with poisonous puffer fish, horse sashimi and whale meat, all of which I have had and are delicious.  Of the many unique foods that Japan is known for, there are 3 that are considered to be the 三大珍味, or the ‘three delicacies’- uni (sea urchin), karasumi (bottarga or mullet roe) and konowata (sea cucumber intestines).

I love all three delicacies, and often bring karasumi and konowata back from my annual trips to Japan.  Both usually hold up in the fridge for a couple of weeks at most, so I make a beeline for Kiriko, my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles where I only entrust head chef Ken Namba to prepare my prized products.  Kiriko is my special go-to restaurant in Los Angeles for its delicious food, amazing service and consistency of high quality dishes.  For the last 12 years this has been my culinary haven and Chef Namba, who grew up in Tsukiji, understands exactly what to do with these delicacies.

Konowata, sea cucumber intestines, come in a small glass jar.  Amber colored with a slimy consistency resembling snot and an intense saline pungency that some may characterize as putrid, these lovely aquatic treats are incredibly difficult to make. Only a small amount of intestines can be extracted per sea cucumber, and a small jar worth the equivalent of 50 intestines can fetch a high price, especially the longer the intestines.  Chef Namba chopped up the konowata and tossed them with cubed yamaimo (Japanese mountain yams) for added gooey and slimy texture.  Julienned fresh wasabi with a mild kick mellowed out the brininess of the intestines to compose a well balanced appetizer that went extremely well with chilled Hakkaisan.

Baby baigai, also called ivory shells or babylonia spirata, are sea snails that at Kiriko, were stewed in a soy sauce and sugar broth for a nibitashi dish.  Toothpicks were used to wiggle its flesh out of its corkscrew shell and eat whole, a process which can be technically challenging, tedious, and ‘high work- low yield’ as my friend Josh mourned, although each small bite of these slippery little critters were worth it.

Another jarred delicacy that I recently brought back from Japan was shuto, made with pickled entrails (mostly stomach) of skipjack tuna (katsuo).  The pink entrails are brined for 6 months in sake, honey and mirin and have a characteristic salty and musty flavor that sake drinkers love.  In fact, shuto 酒盗 literally means ’to steal sake’, as its unique saltiness and taste make one want to drink more sake.  The one I brought was a low sodium version although still quite intense in fishiness; it was prepared with grated daikon radish, squid sashimi, yuzu kosho and a sprinkling of chopped scallions.

Sea cucumber ovaries, which are called konoko or kuchiko in Japanese, are even more of a rare delicacy than the intestines because only a minute amount can be extracted per animal.  A dried version called hoshiko that I brought to Chef Namba was simply heated for a few seconds over an open flame and torn into bite sized pieces.  These small pieces are meant to be chewed slowly for as long as possible to extract its intense brininess and release its ocean aromas all throughout the palate.

A wet version of sea cucumber ovaries sold in a jar that I recently brought back from Japan had a beautiful bright saffron hue and a more delicate and sweet flavor compared to the dried version.  These were beautifully draped over pickled cucumbers at Kiriko, a delectable preparation of balanced flavors and wonderful aromas that perfectly complemented a light floral sake.

Chef Namba served the wet sea cucumber ovaries with uni gohan, a comforting bowl of warm rice infused with the rich buttery flavors of sea urchin.

Karasumi, made from salted and dried mullet roe, is well known by Italians as bottarga where it makes frequent appearances in pasta dishes.  The Japanese version is moist and meaty, for we like to slice it thin and eat it straight, while I find the Italian version to be more salty, flat, dry and brittle, making it ideal for grating. It is easy to find these prized delicacies in select markets and department stores, although they are very expensive.  Such delicious ocean treasures are best enjoyed with a glass of cold sake and a little magic from Chef Namba, like the sliced daikon radish and mizuna salad tossed with generous karasumi crumbles, bursting with crisp textures and refreshing flavors.

On another plate Chef Namba coated warm tender satoimo (Japanese taro) with grated karasumi, a simple and delicious preparation served alongside slices of toasted karasumi.

Earlier this year I brought back freshly made karasumi from Kyubei sushi in Ginza, Tokyo, a soft and tender mound of orange colored heaven that took them 10 days to make through a painstaking process of repeated drying, sake soaking, pressing and salt curing.  Homemade karasumi, especially from a renowned restaurant like Kyubei, is distinctly different from store bought types- fresh, evenly moist all throughout with no brittle dryness, outer membrane still fully intact and easily peelable, and every single egg in the roe sac glistening, perfectly round and ready to pop inside your mouth.

In one preparation, Chef Namba grated the karasumi over a warm bowl of hakusai (napa cabbage) braised in garlic, dashi and anchovies.  The warmth of the broth softened the mullet roe shavings ever so gently, releasing its appetizing aromas with every stir of my chopsticks.

The karasumi mochi sandwich toasted to a nice sear and drizzled with soy sauce was simple yet satisfying and comforting.  Warm gooey rice cakes as soft as down feather pillows, gently encasing the thick slices of salty savory fish roe- this was something that would make for a decadent yet delicious late night snack.

I loved all of Chef Namba’s innovative creations, but with something so precious and perfect, sometimes you don’t need to do anything at all.  Homemade Kyubei karasumi was, in the end, best enjoyed slightly toasted and mostly raw, simply sliced and paired with a good bottle of Japan’s finest sake.  Simple is best, with such supreme delicacies as this.

Tasting dinners like these are unlikely to happen even in Japan, where these ocean delicacies are not easily accessible, not mainstream and not even widely appreciated.  Many people scowl at the mere thought of sea cucumber intestines and ovaries, and understandably so, sticking instead to more familiar and easily recognizable foods.  Is it the rarity that makes these items so special?  Absolutely.  But in my case I salivate at the first hint of brininess that hits my nose and permeates my palate, for I truly love how they taste.  I cannot wait for my next trip to Japan when I can secure more delicacies to bring back to Kiriko.  Will you be joining me for the next tasting?

Kiriko sushi

11301 West Olympic Blvd # 102
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 478-7769

Random trivia: Did you know that the digestive enzymes in konowata (sea cucumber intestines) break down its own proteins, producing amino acids like glutamic acid which create its umami flavor?

Sea cucumber delicacies

In my last blog entry I talked about Japanese delicacies, rare delights of strange and exotic flavors so unique to the tongue that it does not taste like anything familiar.  Among the 3 Japanese delicacies is konowata, or sea cucumber guts.  For those of you who don’t know what sea cucumbers are, here’s a photo of these soft squishy bottom dwellers:

Sea_cucumberSea cucumbers, also known as bêche-de-mer, holothurians, or trepang, come in all varieties: bright multi-colored, dull grey, spiked, smooth, firm and slippery.  To reproduce, sea cucumbers simply shoot eggs and sperm out into the water and hope that there are enough chance meetings for fertilization to occur.  When threatened, sea cucumbers violently contract their muscles and eject sticky threads and internal organs out of their anus to ensnare their enemies.  Amazingly, even after ejecting their organs out of their anus, they can regenerate these body parts within a day. Such interesting creatures!

Sea cucumber flesh in itself is a delicacy that is commonly eaten in Asia.  I love sliced raw sea cucumber in ponzu sauce.  It has a very crunchy yet slippery texture. Konowata, the salted intestines, is one of my favorite appetizers to enjoy with a cold glass of dry Japanese sake.  Every time I go back to Japan, I buy a jar to take home with me.


The sea cucumbers are first kept in clean seawater to empty the intestines, then they are carefully removed by hand to make sure the viscera does not break and the intestines are kept intact.  These intestines are then cleaned with saltwater, and prepared through a multi-step salting process that takes a lot of time and patience.  The best konowata are freshly prepared ones in sushi restaurants in Japan, but this is hard to find.  I’ve only had the pleasure of having fresh konowata at Kyubei in Tokyo, Japan.  The bottled ones are often too salty, though it’s still delicious.  I love eating them with grated yuzu rind sprinkled on top, but I also enjoy it with a warm bowl of white rice. It has an intense salty ocean flavor, almost like licking moist seaweed growing on jagged rocks by the shore.


Another wonderful sea cucumber delicacy is konoko, also known as kuchiko, bachiko, or hoshiko.  These are dried sea cucumber ovaries that are extracted, salted and dried in the sun.  Amazingly, removing the intestines or the ovaries can be done without killing the animal.  They can be extracted through a small incision/cut which will heal in about a week, and both the ovaries and the intestines will automatically regenerate.  Wow! The ovaries are carefully layered together and dried in the sun in a triangle shape.

IMG_8883The best way to enjoy this delicacy is to lightly toast it over a flame and shred it.  The toasting awakens the deep ocean flavors and releases the intense fragrances.  As you chew the konoko pieces, the flavors become more complex.  It almost tastes like caviar, but with a nutty undertone.

IMG_8885It takes about 10-20 large sea cucumbers to make a bottle of sea cucumber intestines, and even more (sometimes up to 100!!) to make one triangle piece of sea cucumber ovaries.  As you can imagine, it is a time consuming process that is done by hand, so these wonderful delicacies are extremely expensive and hard to come by.  They can only be purchased through specialty stores and websites, but if you can get your hands on these treats, it is well worth it.

Random trivia:  Did you know that sea cucumbers have no brain?