Gaijin Story: A Cautionary Tale

What could be more delicious?Although San Francisco has somehow become my home city, I haven’t been taking advantage of it as much as I could be. This place is supposedly known for its great restaurants, but when I got asked to name five of my favorites, I couldn’t name more than three.

A few weeks ago, I resolved to at least try to expand my horizons: I’ve been recording “Check, Please! Bay Area” for suggestions, and whenever I go out or order take-out, I’ve checked yelp.com first to see if they can suggest a better alternative. And even if I go to a place I’ve been before, I’ve resolved to try at least one new thing off the menu.

Today for lunch I tried the sushi bar at Takara Restaurant in Japantown. I’m pretty far from being knowledgeable about sushi; I usually know just enough to keep from making a scene. It’s taken me years of training just to force myself to be able to tolerate it. But once I turned the corner, I actually like it a lot. At least, the standards — sake, hamachi, maguro, and ebi. The versions of those at Takara were fine — nothing mind-altering, but still good stuff.

But I’ve always seen amaebi listed on the menu as “sweet shrimp” and have been curious but never tried it. So I ordered it as “dessert.” See, here was my line of thinking: I’ve had tamago (egg) nigiri before; it was recommended as good introductory sushi. Both versions that I tried were basically a sliver of an omelet infused with a five-pound bag of sugar. I figured that “sweet shrimp” would be the same thing, ebi plus sugar.

As it turns out, and apparently this is old news to everybody but me, amaebi is raw shrimp. And the difference between the raw and cooked variety is the same as the difference between toro and maguro — nearly identical to the undereducated, but one’s trashy and commonplace while the other is a treasured delicacy.

Here’s a good time to point out my shrimp aversion. I love all varieties of cooked shrimp, minus the tails. But the animals themselves are third on my list of most vile and stomach-turning creatures on the planet (1. slugs, 2. Ann Coulter, 3. shrimp, 4. squids). Just the sight of them can make me queasy. I know that eating shrimp isn’t “Fear Factor” material — I’m from the southeast, so I’ve seen people with big buckets of crawdads, and I know that they do unspeakable things with the heads. But not only have I never tried it, I can’t even look at it. I usually have to close my eyes and think of something else if I even get the thought of it.

I thought I was behaving pretty well today — not scraping my chopsticks together, not dipping the rice in the soy sauce, ordering everything I could in Japanese, and saying “oishikatta desu” instead of “it was delicious” to offset the fact I’d ordered a Coke. But here I’ve got a plate sitting in front of me with a couple of raw sea insects; and they look pretty much like the cooked variety, albeit unnervingly slicker and more translucent; and the chef is staring at me, so I’ve got to eat one.

I managed to get it down by imagining it was just like the cooked variety and holy cow that’s an odd texture but don’t think about it and I wonder if they de-vein these things and then swallow and immediately go for the ginger and it’s done.

And there was still another one left on the plate. At that point I wanted to point behind the chef, shout “Is that Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto?”, and take advantage of the confusion to make a quick getaway. But instead I decided to be a man and just eat the damn thing. I asked for the check and hoped that I could pay it and get out before I horked raw fish and sea-bug all over their sushi bar.

But the chef pointed at my plate and said, “Oh, you aren’t finished yet!” I thought he was chastising me for not eating the tails, but after a couple of rounds of confusing half-sentences between the both of us, he pointed out that my shrimp heads hadn’t come from the kitchen yet. “No really, that’s okay,” I protested, and may have even done a childlike belly-rubbing “I’m full” pantomime, but he was insistent. The other chef assured me, “No, the heads are the best part,” and then, “That’s why people pay seventeen dollars for amaebi.”

While I was processing this bit of information, and trying to come up with a graceful exit strategy, they came back from the kitchen with a plate of delicious fried shrimp heads. “Squeeze the lemon on it, it’s delicious.” I must’ve had an easily-translatable look of revulsion on my face, because the other chef quickly asked me if I would rather take it home with me. I said “yes” in a manner that I hope adequately conveyed “Oh God yes bless you for the rest of your life,” paid my ginormous bill, said “domo arigatou” in a last attempt to save face, and escaped.

So now I’ve got a plastic container with a pair of $20 fried shrimp heads in my refrigerator. I’m obviously not going to eat it, but I’m thinking of saving it as a trophy of my resounding whiteness.

7 thoughts on “Gaijin Story: A Cautionary Tale”

  1. Last week I had the grand idea of trying to grill up some marinated shrimp skewers. I went out and bought 18 really large shrimp. Stupid me — it was only after this point that I realized that I was going to have to prepare the little nasties. They were already headless (thank god!) but they still had their shells, their poop chutes, and worst of all, a thousand little legs.

    I actually handled the de-shelling and the de-veining just fine — the hard part was the legs. They were a little mushy & squishy, they didn’t come off cleanly, and they smelled bad. And I felt like a Junior Future Psychopath while pulling them off. It felt like this sort of behavior was sure to lead to shooting birds with a wrist rocket, then doing unspeakable things to the neighbor’s dog, and finally to keeping a collection of human ears in my refrigerator.

    But, the skewers turned out really yummy, so I might do it again.

    Some friends of mine dined at Cinderella’s Castle at Tokyo Disneyland, which they loved, until they were served whole shrimp with the heads still on. They said it was a little surreal to be biting the heads off small creatures in the midst of oversaturated Disneyness.

  2. Hey, don’t knock human ears until you’ve tried them. Lightly fried, squeeze a little lemon on them — delicious. You do have to de-wax them and remove the rings, though.

  3. Ohmigod, you guys are a bunch of babies! They’re just shrimp! It’s not like sea urchin or something truly disgusting.

    And with the right knife and starting point, taking off the tail, shell, vein and legs can be done in one fell swoop. I swear!

  4. Hey, now. Just because Your People are the ones who’ll eat anything they can get out of the water, the more legs & antennae the better, that’s no reason to go around name calling.

    It’s simple:
    delicious
    also good
    we’ll accept it
    the HELL?

    Animals only become edible when people do a lot of work to make it look nothing like it does in life. If the sushi chef isn’t going to even bother, than I’m not going to meet him halfway.

  5. A word about ‘crawdads’. Let’s set the record straight, right here and now. Being from Louisiana (22 years), I’ve only heard them referred to as ‘crawdads’ outside of the state. Locals simply say Crawfish. Please don’t take this as a glove-to-the-face “Well I never!”… it’s just an observation.

    As for the critters themselves, I’m going to say that of all the good food I have ever eaten in my life, there is *nothing* like a giant Crawfish boil among friends. When I tell people I usually eat ten pounds worth, they usually call bool-shit! Well, you order them by the pound at most places (assuming you aren’t preparing them at home), and ten pounds is a reasonable order size. You gotta remember they come with the shell on.

    As for the other act you were describing, it’s called ‘sucking the head’. I don’t subscribe to this act, but I can tell you why people do. First and foremost it’s because they are dirty, filthy people. Second, it’s to suck all the spice-saturated fat out of the end of the head. Now, I happen to like that fat, but you can get it without making Jesus hate you. When you pull off the tail, be gentle. If you pull it straight out, a lot of said fat comes out on the end of the tail. The only reason it stays in there is if you pull the tail out to the side. Now, most of you are probably puking in your keyboards right now, but I’ll just say this: you can’t have tasty Crawfish without the fat. Spiced right, there is no better food.

    Also, if you don’t get corn and whole potatoes (soaked in the pots spice juice)with your order, then you’ve been robbed.

    I have spoken, let it be heard.

  6. Replace “crawdadsfish” in that with “cockroaches” or “dung beetles” and you’ll see how you sound to me. This is how you sound to me.

    Except — except — cockroaches and dung beetles don’t have big black eyes on stalks. The restaurant served me fried eyes.

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