Monday, January 22, 2007

And then there was one....

Shortly after my arrival in Japan, a friend tried to prepare me for the cultural differences that are inherent in food (er, "scare the shit out of me") by describing various fanciful and different foods that seem strange to the Western palette. For example, he described how sushi could be pulled still-wriggling from the tank and killed in front of you.

"Yum", I responded at the time, and stand by that assessment after eating said wriggling fish numerous times. My friend proceeded to describe natto (fermented soy beans), taco (octopus), basashi (raw horse meat) and finally suzume (fried sparrows). I've managed to find and consume all of these things during my travels, with the notable exception of the sparrows.

Now, this isn't like eating a chicken, where the meat has been nicely chopped up so as not to resemble a live bird. Sparrows, as you may appreciate, are somewhat smaller. Thus, the easy solution is to skip the whole "chopping" crap, and just spear the suckers on sticks and roast them whole.

Interesting... to say the least. So, I've kept my eye out for them, but my Japanese reading skills aren't quite up to spec yet - without appetizing pictures, I am sometimes not all that sure what I am ordering. Mind you, this plan hasn't steered me wrong very many times.


Fast forward to Saturday night at Hanbey, the basement Shibuya Izakaya that looks like 1950s Japan, and serves everything at 1950s Japan prices (grand total for a huge dinner for seven and three rounds of drinks: 16 000 yen ($160, or about $20 per person). This place is especially fun if you enjoy a few rounds of deep fried everything.

Of course, to compliment this, we were also imbibing a bunch of delicious shochu. Shochu, of course, is a rice or potato based drink that comes with the best designed glass EVER.

I touched on this some time ago, but I still love the system. The glass is served inside a small box. The glass is then filled past overflowing, until the liquor fills up the box as well. Then, as you drink it, any slop that spills out of the glass splashes into the box. You then simply pull the glass out of the box, and pour the box-booze into the glass, and quickly make it belly booze. Genius.

Here, you see our waitress pouring shochu into our eager glasses and boxes.

Be sure to note the amused grin on her face. This picture was taken immediately *after* I made a fateful request.

"Five of what you recommend, please!"

Suddenly, amid some fanfare and laughter from the wait-staff, five very small, very ugly looking bird carcasses appeared. I say "carcasses", because sparrows are generally cute. These looked more like shriveled up zombie-bird skeletons, covered in some sort of demon sauce. I never hesitated on the still-moving fish, or even the scorpion, but suzume are not an appetizing thing.

Especially when it seems to gaze back at you from the skewer.


They taste something like what I imagine zombie birds to taste like too, if they were properly prepared. They weren't all that bad... mainly they were really quite crunchy (a whole skeleton and a beak will do that), but also surprisingly rather bitter. I thought the sauce was the bitter bit, but one of my dining companions informed me that the sauce was actually sweet, and was there to cover some of the bitterness of these skewered swallows. Man, those were some pissed off, bitter birds.

I wonder why they're so bitter. Maybe all the other birds have huge expectations in when they find out what kind of bird the Swallow is. "You're a cute bird, baby... wait... *you're* the *Swallow* bird??? Awesome. Let me give you my number... and you can drop by my nest any time..."

Anyway... I guess I can honestly say that suzume were actually a bit of a bump for me. I had to chase them with a skewer of tentacles to get the taste out of my mouth.

And the "one" food remaining? Why... "fugu" of course. The food that can actually kill you. Of course, I'll certainly take suggestions for other strange things to eat.

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