I had (and still have) a circle of terrific friends from my grad school days. In 1985, we had an absolutely wonderful summer working and hanging out together every day, and we used to cook for each other almost daily. We had people of many ethnic backgrounds among our circle of friends -- Yat (me, namely), Cuban, Mexican, Japanese -- and luckily we all seemed to be really good at manifesting our ethnic backgrounds through food, as we cooked our ethnic specialties for one another. It was from this summer that my weekly red beans and rice gatherings began.
(For over two years, I cooked a huge pot of red beans every week, and issued an open invitation to all my friends to come over and eat. Everyone knew that every Sunday there's be red beans and rice at Chuck's place; sometimes five people showed up, sometimes twenty. People brought bread and beer and soft drinks, and we'd pass the hat afterward; everyone would put in 50 cents or a buck so that I could break even. It was great! But I digress ...)
Anyway, one of our lot was an amazing person from Tokyo called Hiroki Takiguchi. A true renaissance man, there seemed to be nothing that Hiroki didn't know or couldn't do. Among his many talents, he was a wonderful cook. Hiroki cooked some wonderful Japanese dishes for us -- I had my first tastes of gyoza and udon thanks to his culinary talents -- and we enjoyed it as much as everyone enjoyed all my Louisianian delights.
But there was just one thing. I delighted in turning my friends on to the joys of crawfish, which I could obtain in L.A. at a little Creole-owned and -run place called the New Orleans Fish Market, where I was a regular. (Many black Creoles came to L.A. beginning in the WWII era, and many since; the Creole community here is large and fairly well- organized). Unfortunately, there was one person who was wholly unreceptive to the idea of eating crawfish. Hiroki.
One day, we were all at some bar, having rounds of drinks, when I mentioned crawfish again, and Hiroki grimaced and made retching noises. Finally, I called him on it. "Hey, what's with you, man?" I asked. "You eat sushi and sashimi, raw fish, and you're squeamish about crawfish? It's cooked, and they're just like little lobsters. No big deal, right?"
"Wrong!" he replied, gagging. "The Japanese word for crawfish translates as,`cockroach-in-water.'"
What? I couldn't believe it! "I eat things from the sea, not pests from rice paddies!" he continued. "Besides, crawfish in Japan carry parasites, make your balls swell up to size of grapefruits."
Hrmmm. Well, I had to admit, that did sound like a decidedly unpleasant aftereffect of a little crawfish head-sucking. (To this day I'm not sure if Hiroki was pulling my leg -- perhaps this was his own distaste, because there actually was a Battle Crawfish on "Iron Chef" once, and as far as I know the judges didn't run screaming from Kitchen Stadium. But I digress...)
So, emboldened by alcohol, I decided to make him a little bet. "Listen, if you'll eat crawfish with me, and suck the heads and everything, I'll ..." (I tried to think of the most extreme type of sashimi I could) "... I'll ... eat a raw sea urchin."
Uni. Raw sea urchin. Raw sea urchin and its roe, to be specific. When I told my friend Michael Yasui this story years later, he was impressed that I had even tried the bet, remarking, "Wow, uni is even kind of intense for some Japanese people."
Hiroki pondered for a moment, then said, "OK, deal."
Now, the next morning, hung over but sober, I had some major second thoughts about this. I mean, I'm adventurous and all, and I had never had sushi or sashimi until coming to California, and at the time I had done fairly well with it for a Louisiana boy who was raised never to eat uncooked seafood, even raw erstas (which my folks didn't like).
So when I saw Hiroki that day, I said, "Look man, we were kinda drunk last night, and I know how badly crawfish gross you out. I'm not going to hold you to that bet ... you don't really have to eat a crawfish."
He replied, "Nooo waaaaaay. I want to see you eat sea urchin."
"Besides, if this was 17th-Century Japan, and you tried to back out of bet like this, you'd have to commit suicide." Committing seppuku is not my idea of how to spend a fun evening, so the bet was on.
We decided to make it a big event. A date was set -- July 18, 1985. We invited everyone over, cameras and film were procured and loaded. I went to the N.O.F.M. and bought 20 pounds of crawfish (knowing that a lot of us there would love them), and Hiroki went to an Asian market in Gardena and picked up not only my dreaded uni, but raw squid, smoked squid, raw octopus, fermented soybeans, seaweed, wasabi, the whole nine yards, even the proper type of plates.
He also brought something called natto, which is a traditional Japanese dish of fermented soybeans. It's thick, sticky, gooey and smelly. Let's be kind and say that it's an acquired taste.
Oh, and about a gallon of sake, too. This would come into play later on.
Me, all I had were a sack of crawfish, a couple of six-packs of beer and some newspapers to dump the crawfish on for service. Hey, it's not fancy, but it's the traditional method ...
My roommate Matt Brown procured a lobster bib for Hiroki to wear, since it resembled a crawfish. As for me, there ain't no such thing as an uni bib, so he drew me one ... a blank plastic bib with a spiny sea urchin rendered in Sharpie. We posed for the obligatory pictures holding the objects of our disgust.
I hadn't really taken a close look at what I had to eat until this moment, and I carefully scrutinized the little tray of uni.
I had never seen anything like it before. I tried not to jiggle the tray too much, because I was afraid it would quiver, and I didn't want to see that. I didn't smell it (thank God), but I decided that it looked like long pieces of baby poop with taste buds on them.
Hiroki didn't seem to care for close examination. Arm's length examination seemed to be enough to thoroughly disgust him, as he looked at what he was about to eat and thought about his balls swelling up to the size of grapefruits.
We flipped to see who would go first, and I lost the toss. Me first. I complained. I was told to pipe down and quit whining.
He showed me the proper technique for doing it. He squirted some soy sauce into the little rectangular dish, put a scoop of wasabi in it and mixed. Then he demonstrated, "First, wrap a piece of seaweed around the sashimi, give it a quick dip, then eat." Camera shutters clicked from several directions. The place was full of film students, and I'm glad no one brought a Super 8. Thank God this was before camcorders were common.
I wrapped, and I dipped. "Okay, here we go ... I'm dippin' ... I'm a-dippin' ... dip, dip, dip ..."
"DON'T DIP TOO MUCH!" he scolded.
There was no putting it off. I popped the thing into my mouth and ... sort-of ... chewed.
To say that it was vile would be quite an understatement. The look on my face says it all, pretty much. That's Lucette Landry Zwickel grimacing at my grimace, by the way.
Maybe it was the consistency, or lack thereof, that was the worst thing. Maybe it was the fishy, fishy, so-subtle-it's-almost-too-intense flavor. Maybe it was the fishmonger-funk underneath all that, because the uni was undoubtedly not terribly fresh (as in, wasn't taken from a live uni immediately after cracking its shell open, the preferred method of eating uni). Maybe it was the fact that just as I took the bite Hiroki pointed out that oh, by the way, the part you're eating is actually the gonad ...
Perhaps it was fear and negative anticipation, perhaps it was cultural conditioning, perhaps it was just gross, but at the time I thought it was the worst thing I had ever put into my mouth in my life. God, I needed a drink. Something with which to wash that stuff down. Hey, there sure seems to be a lot of sake here ...
Then ... it was his turn. He didn't look pleased. No sir, not at all. Hehheheheheh ...
I even peeled it for him, dammit! How much easier could I make it? I offered him the delicate, lovely little bit of tail meat (about 1/3 the size of the slab of uni *I* had to gulp down), and from the look on his face I thought he was going to turn and bolt.
He also resigned himself to the inevitability, grimaced (more than I had; I only grimaced after I had eaten the uni), popped the thing in his mouth and chewed as if I had just given him a turd to eat.
"So? ... What do you think?" I wanted to know. "Welllll," he said, "seasoning's not bad." Heh. He thought he was finished.
"Not so fast, pal," and I handed him the head to suck. Appalled, he put it to his lips and gave a quick little slurp and tossed it down on the table as if it had just spoken to him. "Hey man, that's no good!" I picked up the head and, with the handle end of a spoon, dug out a marvelous, glistening little dab of crawfish fat.
O crawfish fat! O nectar divine! O rarest of globs! The elixir of life and philosopher's stone! Worth thy weight in gold! (Seriously, this stuff is beyond prized to Louisianians.) I held it out to him with the flourish of an English butler.
The picture that was snapped at that moment was perhaps the most priceless of them all ... the look of pure, abject horror and complete, utter despair that crossed his face. Captured forever on Kodak film ... Maybe I didn't get the lousy end of the deal after all.
We then proceeded to get hideously drunk on the two enormous bottles of sake he had brought. Well, actually ... I proceeded to get hideously drunk. As you can see in the picture of me here, next to my friend Bob Sundet, I'm looking pretty happy. However, I would soon be very unhappy; I had never really had that stuff in large quantities before, and, very much unlike my capacity at the time, I proceeded to pass out on the couch at about a quarter after midnight.
"Jesus", someone supposedly said. "What the hell's wrong with Chuck?"
Hiroki, I'm told, nodded thoughtfully and said, "Chuck looks like every Japanese businessman coming home on the subway at one o'clock in the morning."
I awoke the next morning with what was up until that time the worst hangover of my entire life. I was astonished and incredulous; I couldn't believe how bad it was. I begged Hiroki for an explanation as to why that clear, gentle-tasting Japanese rice wine had done so much damage to me. He explained something about it being a result of how sake was made, that it wasn't distilled, but brewed from rice. Then he said, "Just feel lucky you eat fish and get drunk on sake," he said. "You eat red meat, get drunk on sake, wake up next morning, wish you were DEAD!"
Oh dear, and that very evening was the one where we were planning to throw the Kamikaze-shots party, for which I had batched two two-and-a-half-gallon bottled water containers (with the spigots) full of Kamikazes ... but that's another story.
Crawfish season runs roughly December through June, and during that time I inevitably plan to devour all the water cockroaches I can get my hands on. I'm just glad they aren't parasites in Louisiana, and that my huevos won't become grapefruits.
[Photographs by Matt Brown.]
© 1995, Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)
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