SuperTalk Mississippi

A Mississippian in Japan — A series on serious food

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When I first told my extended family I was moving to Japan, my sister was excited for me, but my stuck-in-her-ways mother exclaimed, “But they eat raw fish over there.” I said, “Yes Mom, they call it sashimi and I am told it is delicious and so fresh that it doesn’t taste too fishy at all.”

As I have established in previous columns, moving to Japan was the first time my wife and kids had been outside the U.S. Even more astonishing, when we had started dating a decade and a half ago, she had never been to a sushi restaurant. I felt proud to take her for her first sushi meal. Now I must admit, I have a sadistic way of introducing someone to something new like this. I find the “worst” of it and I encourage them to try that first. I encouraged her to try Uni, which is a sea urchin. It is the most fishy-tasting sushi I could think of. She popped it in her mouth and chewed slowly as her eyes watered. With a gulp, she quickly washed it down with a swig of water. She looked at me and the array of sushi on the table. “Brian, I am sorry. I don’t think I can do this.” I laughed and said, “Don’t worry. It is all downhill from here. You just tried the worst one. They are all better than the one you just had.” From there, she tried unagi, which is a fresh-water eel and one of the most delicious things on any sushi restaurant’s menu.

Our first weekend in Japan, I applied my sadistic method again. For our first meal out in town, I found the most traditional Japanese-style sashimi restaurant I could. My younger son, who I refer to as my adventurous eater, went all in on the sashimi meal with the side dishes of tempura veggies and other things. He didn’t care for the sashimi because they had brushed lemon juice on it. He’s not much on sour food. My older son (not an adventurous foodie whatsoever) who has a love affair with every bowl of rice he’s ever encountered was in heaven with fried rice and Japanese-style fried chicken. Everyone ended up leaving the restaurant very full. The experience was slightly stressful due to the language barrier and culture shock, but it seemed all downhill from there.

Fast forward two years later from that first traditional Japanese meal, these days it is not uncommon for me to order an entire tray of sashimi for dinner or lunch at work. The fact that it is uncooked fish does not gross me out at all. In fact, it is a treat since it is so fresh and tasty, not to mention the health benefits. Cortney and the boys have even found a fondness for a series or restaurants called “conveyor-belt Sushi” or “Sushi Go Round” where dishes are made and set on a conveyor belt that diners can just grab off the conveyor belt and consume.

After I felt that my family was good and hardened to Japanese culinary culture through trying many unique dishes and methods of cooking them, I took our culinary bravery to the next level and tested their patience with a meal that would have landed me a spot on the show “Fear Factor.” 

We decided to hit up a Taiwanese restaurant named Fukuraku. The menu is huge and since our first encounter, we’ve been back multiple times and we have a habit of over-ordering and leaving with our bellies so full it’s hard to breathe.

On our second visit to Fukuraku, I noticed a dish on the Japanese version of the menu that was not on the English version. It was a dish of sauteed silkworms. I found out that they were “in season” so I ordered a plate. These silkworms come basted in a garlic-butter chili oil. They had been steamed, sautéed, and marinaded to what silkworm aficionados would probably call perfection.

The silkworms aren’t very imposing on their own. They come pre-wrapped in their own cocoons. Without a guru at our table to instruct the finer points of how to consume these critters, I popped the first one in my mouth cocoon and all. The texture of the cocoon was like trying to chew through waxed cardboard. I found a way to discreetly spit out my mouthful of inedible into a napkin while frantically googling how I was supposed to eat this. Apparently cooking the silkworm in its cocoon is a way to save some of the flavor and juiciness of the worm…great.

The idea is to tear the cocoon open with your chopsticks and then delicately pour the contents into your mouth. Up until that point, I felt like I had mastered chopsticks. I could even eat rice with chopsticks at this point. This was Chopsticks 2.0. This was difficult, but I got the hang of it after a few clumsy attempts. 

Meanwhile, I was completely in my own world trying to figure this out, my youngest, Dexter was still chewing on his wad of mushy cardboard from the first attempt. I instructed him to spit it out and that I had found the appropriate way to tackle this dish.

Between the two of us, we made a pact to eat the whole meal, which meant six worms each. The texture of the worm’s body was like firm mashed potatoes. The flavor wasn’t bad because of all the butter and garlic with a hint of spiciness. The worm’s head was about the size of a caper and was super crunchy. It Kinda had the texture of a corn nut. 

As I glanced up from my main quest to finish the meal, I noticed that Wyatt and Cortney had sat way back in their chairs and had stopped eating their meals. The horrified expressions that had been carved on their faces gave me a glimpse of how they would react if one day I decided to pick up a garden snail and pop it into my mouth. 

It was apparent they had barely touched most of their food. Of course, Wyatt had hoovered up his rice off the plate within 4.2 nanoseconds of the food arriving. So he at least ate that. It seemed that watching me eat my meal had ruined their appetites and we filled to-go containers for the rest of their food.

Dexter and I eventually finished our dish and gave each other a weary knowing look while our stomachs were doing flips and managed to give each other a weak high five. We had tried something new and created a memory we wouldn’t soon forget. I bet Wyatt had forgotten about his boring bowl of rice by the time we made the 10-minute drive back to the house. I think Wyatt might grow up to be one of those I eat-to-live, not live-to-eat types of people. I guess it might be a safer way to live life, but no one ever starts a good food story with, “And there I was, with my bowl of plain white rice”.

As to why I feel compelled to push the boundaries of good taste and proper decorum…I blame Disney’s Simba from “The Lion King” and his famous quote while exiled in the oasis. “Slimy, yet satisfying.”

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