The Strangest Food I Ever Ate: Shirako
I consider myself a pretty adventurous eater. I’m nowhere near the level of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, but I’m willing to experience strange new culinary delicacies more than most people I know. My parents always encouraged me to try new foods; when I was 3, I had my first taste of escargot, and when I was 6, I had my first linguini with baby squid in marinara sauce. I was not a fussy eater as a child; the only vegetable I didn’t like was sweet potatoes. Even as an adult, I still don’t like them, but that’s okay, since I eat just about any other vegetable.
I’ve eaten some unique foods in my lifetime, some intentionally and some accidentally. While backpacking in Eastern Europe one year, I was in Budapest and decided I wanted some Hungarian food. I wandered around until I found a Hungarian restaurant that looked interesting. They did not have an English menu, but the menu had pictures on it. I pointed at a dish that appeared to be cubed chunks of beef with potatoes, onions, and green peas. They brought it out, and as I took a bite into the beef, there was something about the texture that just wasn’t right. It was spongy, and a little chewy. I concluded it must have been an organ of some kind.
I was also introduced to sweetbreads by accident. Some friends shared an appetizer at an Argentinian restaurant in Los Angeles that looked like thin slices of grilled veal scallopini served with lemon wedges; as it turned out, this was sweetbreads. They were quite delicious.
I’ve also had moose, kangaroo, caribou, rabbit, pigeon, bear, bee larva, crickets, worms, alligator, snake, jellyfish, sea urchin, sea cucumber, skate, durian, gorgonzola-pear ice cream, steak tartare, horse meat, fugu (the poisonous Japanese blowfish,) stinky tofu, natto, and blood sausage. I’ve even had the “Gangsta Hot Pot – Murder Style” dish at Spices3, a Taiwanese restaurant in San Francisco, which is a simmering, spicy, messy combination of offal and animal parts, stinky tofu, blood, noodles, and some vegetables.
But for me, the strangest thing out of all of these delicacies is shirako.
I was traveling in Kanazawa, a wonderful small town on the Sea of Japan coast, and one evening I found a small sushi bar to have dinner in. The owners, a sweet middle-aged married couple, spoke a little bit of English, and upon learning I was traveling solo, invited me to their house for dinner the following evening. They’d promised to make me a “special Japanese dish,” so I was excited. When I arrived, we had a beer and some grilled squid, and then they brought out the “special Japanese dish.” I looked at it, and it was a soft, cluster-like white creamy blob that I didn’t recognize. They said the name of it, which I didn’t quite catch, and said “it comes from a fish,” but communication issues prevented them from giving a more detailed explanation. It didn’t look very appetizing, and the added mystery added some fear, but I mentally prepared myself – after all, I was a guest in their home, and it would have been rude of me to refuse. It was not my favorite – the texture didn’t sit very well with me, and neither did the taste. The rest of the meal was delicious, and I thanked them for a pleasant evening and they wished me good travels.
On the bullet train back to Tokyo, I sat next to a Japanese woman who spoke English. We spent most of the trip talking about the places I’d visited and the things I’d experienced. Then I showed her a picture of the strange white fish part and asked her what it was. “Ah! Shirako!” she said. Then she said it was fish sperm. When I got to Tokyo and had an internet connection again, I googled “shirako,” and read up on it. Shirako is the milt, or sperm sacs, of male cod. It’s served in both raw and cooked form in restaurants all over Japan, but many Japanese consider it an acquired taste. The word “shirako” means “white children,” and it is in season in the winter. It’s also called kiku and tachi. It’s kind of funny when I think about it. In my mind, caviar is appetizing, and caviar is the eggs of a female fish. But sperm sacs – the eggs of a male fish – doesn’t work in my mind.
(Image: Robert J. Steiner)