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 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.