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?
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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?