Sea urchin gonads, please

Homer Simpson once almost bought the farm in a bout with fugu, the notoriously poisonous blowfish that’s banned in the States in fresh form. Even frozen (the process is said to destroy the lethal blood toxins), you’re unlikely to encounter it at a San Antonio sushi bar. Just as well; it’s more desired for its Russian-roulette appeal than its bland taste. But there are many more macho moves that don’t involve courting death — just a willingness to experience different textures and tastes. Let’s start with squooshy, shall we?

I’m talking about uni which happen to be, let’s come right out and say it, the gonads of a sea urchin. And tasty gonads they are — if you get them when they’re really fresh. The flavor varies according to the sea from which they’re sourced, but in every case look for a healthy caramel color and a firm, not loose texture.

More obviously eggy is ikura, the bright orange-red salmon roe. This is not a personal favorite (we used these eggs as bait where I come from), but it is extremely popular in some circles. The pop of the eggs in your mouth, followed by a taste that’s often noticeably fishy, is either your pleasure or your poison — of the non-lethal kind. When crowned by an uncooked quail egg. The combination is also visually stunning. Far tinier roe — also usually a bright red-orange — comes from the flying fish, and tobiko’s texture is more of a tingling crunch becomes a connoisseur classic Texture of a different sort distinguishes such options as tako (octopus) and ika (squid); the taste may be clean and briny, but chewy is also a distinct possibility. And do try some of the less popular pieces such as strongly flavored saba (mackerel), usually marinated in rice vinegar. Eel, on the other hand, doesn’t even have the glamour of saba’s silvery skin; it’s presented boiled, grilled, and disguised with a smoky sauce that actually makes it quite appealing. Ankimo, or monkfish liver, is served in a marinade and is said to be called the Japanese foie gras. I‘ve never seen it hereabouts, so if you find it, let me know; this one I’d like to try.

Though you wouldn’t know it from looking at local menus, sushi is a product with a peak period of freshness. More points to you for asking your sushi chef what’s in season. (If he says “everything,” move on to another bar.) Points to the chef, however, if he makes his own tamago, the layered omelet that’s cut into rectangles for laying atop the rice. The preparation is deceptively difficult, and in Japan this is often the test of a truly talented chef. If you decide to bail on the basis of factory-made tamago, at least say domo arigato (thank you), or the even classier gochisosama deshita, (thank you for the meal) — even if you don’t mean it.

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