Japanese people, like hipsters and bleeding hearts, like to eat seasonally. If I ask about a fruit or vegetable in the wrong seasons my students are completely confused. After tedious explanation, one of them inevitably looks up the word on their phone and understanding dawns.
“Ah, radishes! Hai, hai. Radishes now? Radish is a winter vegetable.”
“But they’re so big, and cheap! The grocery store is overflowing with them!” I reason.
“Hai, hai. Radishes are a winter vegetable. Very delicious. Hai, hai.”
Whatever, it works for me. We used to frequent the Farmer’s Market, so I can dig seasonal vegetables. Though in Japan, seasonally means more than just tomatoes in the summer and radishes in the winter.
The current seasonal specialty is ayu. It’s a river fish about 8 inches long that is typically skewered, salted and grilled whole. It’s known for its “delicious organs flavored from river moss that grow in limpid streams,” Yum! I mean, who can resist that? I tried an ayu, moss flavored organs and everything, and I thought it was disgusting. But I blame the unagi.
I love of unagi, or bar-b-q’d river eel. You’re probably tried some at a sushi restaurant. It’s that grilled piece of deliciousness often wrapped with a nori belt and slathered in sauce. I’ve never eaten more than a piece or two at once, but there are restaurants here that sell nothing more than slabs of unagi. They’re easy to spot; they’re the places belching clouds of wonderfully greasy smoke into the air.
My wife and I went to an unagi place our first week and got the “medium-sized” portion.
The chef presented us with a bowl of rice and huge chunks of delicious unagi. I happily inhaled mine, marveling at the richness and fastness of the eel, pausing only to sip at the ubiquitous miso soup and inescapable vegetable jello (I’m all for being adventurous, but vegetable jello is disgusting. I’ll take the horse-hoof variety any day). Beyond satisfied, we happily paid our tab, and stepped out of the air-conditioned restaurant into the heat of Tajimi city.
Immediately my heart began to pump faster, desperate to keep the oxygen flowing through the rivers of grease. We both began to sweat. Normally, my wife’s armpits lure me in with the tantalizing aroma of cantaloupe and sweet onions. But today, something was wrong. No overripe cantaloupe tickled my olfactory senses, no tangy and slightly acrid onion balanced out her sweaty bouquet. Instead, my nostrils were assaulted with just one pungent musk: unagi.
Delirious, we began to wander. We needed to buy something. Lunchboxes? Chop sticks? Samurai swords? None of it made sense anymore. I’ve only ever felt that way from food twice before. Once from The Buffet in Las Vegas (enough said) and once from a sandwich from Big Bites. The sandwich was filled with chicken strips, cheese steak, fried pickles, onion rings, French fries, a block of cheese, and slathered in Bar-B-Q and mayonnaise. I was high for hours. Tunnel vision, mood swings, nausea, hallucinations. The works.
One bowl of unagi did the same thing.
In our delirium we wandered into a Valor and what should I find but ayu. I’d heard all about this little fish and was determined to try it. It was already skewered, salted and roasted, completely whole. The head still attached to the spine, the viscera still inside. It had been prepped and cooked hours ago, then refrigerated. Raquel tried to dissuade me from eating this typical festival dish cold, but I was deafened by the unagi.
“Everyone says it’s delicious!” I protested.
“Yes, when it’s fresh! You shouldn’t eat it cold, and especially not after all that unagi.”
I ignored her. What did she know? She stunk like eel anyway. I purchased one of the fish, already skewered, roasted and packaged in plastic wrap. Some dim ray of wisdom shined through the cloud of unagi and I knew not to eat it then. So I brought it back to the hotel, victorious. My wifey passed out. I mindlessly flipped through Japanese TV,
Hours later I sampled the ayu’s moss-flavored organs. It was revolting. Second in its nastiness only to vegetable jello. The skin was chewy and the little meat there was was riddled with bones. Each bite had a different texture and consistency. One bite contained the chewy heart, the next, green goo that spattered as I bit into the cold flesh. The moss-flavor was especially strong in the… liver?
Disgusted, I put the remains of the fish aside. Maybe without any unagi in my stomach it’ll be more appetizing. But even after a night of sleep, the thought of eating the last of the ayu’s flesh, spine and intestines was repulsive, and I finally threw it away, defeated.
But mark my words, I’ll eat their moss flavored organs at the festival in Kyoto tomorrow, this time hot and fresh, without any unagi pumping through my veins.