One year ago, I was at 107-year-old Maneki restaurant eating soba to debut the start of The Mein Man noodle column. Several months ago, I returned to watch as Andrew Zimmern shot a portion of his television program (due to air sometime next month) there. The "Bizarre Foods" he ate ranged from fermented squid guts (ika no shiokara) to sea urchin (uni).
Earlier this month, I visited Maneki again to research a new noodle article I'm writing, and saw the sushi chef sending out some opened uni shells as part of sushi orders. I asked how the uni tasted, and he said it was good--just coming into season. Next thing I know, he gifted me an order. One of my favorite foods in the world, I carefully drizzled on a little soy sauce and enjoyed my uni feast: smooth and creamy, briny and buttery--a rich, sweet taste of the ocean.
So what does Maneki's uni teach us about sex?It's all about knowing your sex organs.
I ask many people, particularly Japanese (who especially love uni), what part of the animal they think they're eating. Rarely does anyone know. Roe is the most common guess. Uni is indeed often advertised as sea urchin roe, but that's wrong.
Break through the spikes and shell and open up a sea urchin (the best way to eat this relative of starfish and snails is immediately upon catching in the ocean), and you'll find five "tongues." The color may range from yellow to bright orange.
These are the gonads of the sea urchin. And they're luscious.
Funny that we often don't know about the food we're eating. That when we order sea urchin at the sushi counter, we're getting sex organs.
Just as we often don't know about our own sex organs. Books about body parts ignore them. Our hands get slapped when, as children, we touch our genitals. We're taught that "down there" is "dirty." No wonder we're uptight about using tampons, doing testicular self-exams, and inserting a diaphragm. (Or even pleasuring ourselves.)
Not that we do all those things to ourselves. Most of us are not hermaphrodites.
But sea urchins are. And they're the most delicious hermaphrodites I've ever discovered.
In fact, one of the best dishes I've eaten in my life was at a special James Beard dinner. Ethan Stowell placed on the table a plate of six Shigoku oysters (sexual food in its own right) topped with uni. But it wasn't to share. Everyone got a plate of six. Six slurps, six sensual experiences, six moments of pondering whether food might be better than sex. In this case, the food was sex.