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?

Advertisements

La Guerrerense- Ensenada, Mexico

The last time that I crossed the border down to Baja California was back in 1997 when a group of us piled into a pick up truck with sleeping bags and bathing suits for a week long vacation.  There were 8 of us, adventurous and reckless hippie students, who made the long trek through the chaotic streets of Tijuana, along the beaches of Rosarito, past the town of Ensenada and through the barren Dr. Seuss deserts of Baja Norte until we parked our vehicle at Mulege.  From there, we loaded up sea kayaks with a week’s worth of food and water along with a tortilla press that we borrowed from a local fish taco stand, and paddled off into the Sea of Cortez for an island hopping adventure.  Our daily proteins had to be hunted and scavenged; the men went line and spear fishing while I skin dived with a hunting knife in hand for mussels and clams.  The Sea of Cortez was rich with fresh and tasty offerings, and we ate like kings and queens.  We honored the food that was given to us by the spirits of Baja and we never took more than what was necessary.  We slept on the beach under the shooting stars,  took midnight dips in the warm bioluminescent waters and kayaked in tranquil waters alongside pods of dolphins that numbered in the 300’s.  Baja California is and will always be a special and magical place for me where I felt at one with the energy of the land and the sea.

When my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA invited me to join him for a weekend culinary Baja trip, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.  A chance to revisit my long lost love, Baja California?  Tears almost welled up in my eyes as I flashed back to how peaceful and happy I felt on my 2 previous sea kayaking trips to Baja.  But Bill’s itinerary wasn’t bound for the Bay of Concepción- it was for Tijuana and Ensenada.  The crazy city where college kids party at Senor Frog’s?  I cringed for a split second, but by this time I knew Bill well enough to completely trust that he had something special up his sleeves.  With Chef John Rivera Sedlar, food writer Barbara Hansen, and gourmand Brian Saltsburg in tow, we crossed the border down to Mexico for what would end up being an unforgettable weekend.

Bill knows these cities like the back of his hand, and he knows all of the chefs and owners like his family.  One of the most memorable stops that we made was on the street corner of First and Alvarado in Ensenada, a small unassuming food cart under the watchful eye of the majestic flag of Mexico.  At this cebicheria called La Guerrerense, matriarch Sabina Bandera Gonzalez whips out the most mindblowingly scrumptious seafood tostadas to a never ceasing crowd of locals and tourists.

Crunchy tostadas are made with a variety of fresh ocean delights, from fish, shrimp and octopus to clams, abalone and even sea cucumbers.  Due to the ocean-to-cart concept of this wonderful tostada cart which is famed for being Chef Benito Molina’s favorite lunch spot, there may be days when they’re out of certain products.  Much to my dismay they were out of sea cucumbers, pata de mula black clams and abalone which are some of my most favorite foods, but I was quickly distracted with Sabina’s first offering, a rich and flavorful bacalao lincod tostada teeming with earthy chili aromas and a spike of green olive saltiness.

The flat tortillas were light and crunchy, but sturdy enough to withstand falling apart to my big bites, allowing for smooth and mess-less eats.  Within seconds the bacalao tostada was in my happy belly and I contemplated my next move, to which Sabina handed me an erizo sea urchin tostada with a wise and knowing nod.  I quickly pounced on it and was surprised by the first bite.

I was expecting a mild buttery uni but La Guerrerense’s version had an overpowering salty flavor like conserved uni, leaving me a bit confused- only then did I realize that I had pulled a rookie move by biting into this tostada right away before Sabina could finish garnishing it.  I thought she would give me an ‘Ay, hija…’ look, but instead she responded with a loving smile before topping it off with succulent chunks of freshly shucked almejas pismo clams, slices of avocado and a few splashes of hot sauce.  This was when I had an epiphany about life, similar to the one that I had many years ago when I was knee deep in the Sea of Cortez on a deserted island with a net full of fresh mussels, salt crusted hair blowing in the hot wind as I engaged in a distant tête-à-tête with a curious sea lion. The tender and sweet clams engaged in a joyous dance with the brininess of the sea urchin and the silky textures of the buttery avocado, awakening my taste buds to the bountiful harvests of the local waters.

Thick slices of freshly prepared caracoles, sea snails, had a splendid meaty flavor with the texture of steamed abalone.

I couldn’t get enough of the almejas, pismo clams, that came with my sea urchin tostada, and I asked for a whole plate.  Even then, I wanted more of this heavenly clam that tasted even more fresh with a squirt of lime juice, a pinch of sea salt and a tinge of hot sauce.  The flesh had a nice subtle crunch like a geoduck clam, but was tender on the bite like a scallop.

We got to meet Sabina’s daughter Mariana, the master shucker and cocktailer who prepared all of the fresh clams for us.  With the precision, grace and confidence that Mariana worked with, you would think that this was her full time job, but she’s actually a full fledged PhD at UCSD who comes down on the weekends to help with the family business.

Another round of chopped pismo clams came on the shell with a half serving with avocado and salt and the other with lime and hot sauce.  Clams this fresh with the smell of cucumber and lettuce just can’t be found in California, even with expert handling, refrigeration and speedy transportation.  That’s the beauty of La Guerrerense- it’s an exceptional place that offers exclusive delicacies native to the region, and these discerning locals who run it really understand the food.  You will never find this type of seafood stall anywhere else in the world.  This is pura Baja.

We finished off our inspirational meal with a tostada of pate de pescado, smoked tuna fish pate, that paired magnificently with the house made pineapple salsa.

Many Mexican food trucks in Los Angeles will offer a salsa verde and salsa roja in addition to the bottled hot sauce staples like Tapatio and Cholula, but down on the coast of Baja, you’ll find homemade salsas of all colors and types.  Even then, it’ll be hard to top the impressive collection at La Guerrerense where Sabina and Mariana line the counter with endless jars of their original creations.  Each salsa has a unique name like ‘Beso de Angel’, ‘Chilito Exotico’, ‘Pepino Endiablado’ and ‘Chilito la Guerita’ which reflects its concept and flavor.  I was blown away by the ‘Chilito Exotico’, a pineapple based salsa with Japanese takanotsume pico de pajaro chiles.  The earthy and smokey aromas of the ‘Chilitos de Mi Jardin’ made with dried chiles, garlic, almonds and peanuts was too phenomenal for words.  I bought a jar of each of these favorite salsas to take home with me, and I savor every spoonful like liquid gold.

When I found out that Sabina had been operating this street cart in the same location for more than 30 years, I almost fainted- oh, if I only knew about this little treasure on my previous trips to Baja.  How my life would be different now- perhaps for better, perhaps for worse.  Had La Guerrerense been on my radar back then, I may never have made it past the stand to make the virgin passage down to Bahia de Concepción where I bathed my body in the sacred waters of the Sea of Cortez.  I may never have had the opportunity to study and understand the mystical properties of the Baja waters had I not fished its treasures with my bare hands and nourished my body with its salt.  There is a reason for everything that happens, and thankfully I’m now at a place in my life where I can appreciate the true magic of La Guerrerense.  Unfortunately, I’m presently also at a place that’s not close enough to La Guerrerense.

La Guerrerense is open every day from 10am to 5pm, except Tuesdays

La Guerrerense
Corner of 1st and Alvarado
Zona Centro, Ensenada
Baja California, Mexico

If you’re a fan of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, you may have watched the recent Baja episode.  Recognize the guy chomping on the tostada in the photo above?  That’s Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA, my trusted culinary Baja guide who not only guided Andrew Zimmern through the episode, but scouted out and chose the locations for the shoot.  You’ll be seeing posts on my blog about some of the same locations that were on the show.  If you didn’t get a chance to catch the episode last night, you can watch reruns or check out the Bizarre Foods website for more information.

Random trivia:  Did you know that the succulent orange flesh of sea urchins that we enjoy as buttery delicacies are technically the gonads?