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Exotic forms of sushi for the timid adventurer?

I guess my title is about the best way to word it. I do like sushi quite a bit, but don't know much about what to expect with the more exotic varieties (fish organs, etc). I did have one bad experience where I just 'went for it' and ordered something that I had no idea what it was (due to the language barrier with my server). The server said something about 'fish eggs' which I figured couldn't be too bad, but when I got it I really disliked it. I got a better translation later and found out it was the egg SAC. I don't know if it was naturally nasty or if it was from spices added, but it put me off the idea of ordering fish guts I wasn't familiar with. Also, I have not yet tried uni. I hear so many people rave about it, but one friend told me it was the most vile thing he ever tasted. So that kind of put me off. I also haven't tried sea cucumber and other weird creatures beyond fish flesh, shrimp, eel flesh and similar familiar items.

We were in Kaito the other night, and I was letting the chef decide for us, but I rejected his suggestions of some of the scarier looking stuff, like what is mentioned above. But at the same time, I would like to try new things. I just don't want nasty surprises like bitter tasting fish organs. What suggestion would sushi pros here make for someone like me who wants to expand my selections but doesn't want big disappointments either? And what's the deal with uni? Is it fishlike, bitter, or what? The texture sure looks unpleasant. Why would some rave so much while others find it so vile?

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  1. Uni is amazing!! It melts in your mouth, the flavor is like the deep ocean. It's definitely my top 3 foods with the others being foie and wagyu

    7 Replies
    1. re: SDGourmand

      Uni tastes like standing on the beach before a big storm blows in. That sea clean sea spray taste you get - that's uni.

      1. re: Ewilensky

        SDG and Ewile, both fantastic responses!

        I think there's no better expression of "terroir" than with, ironically, seafood. While terroir is normally used in wine circles, I find that some of the best examples of the concept can be tasted in seafood. (Think of the humble oyster of the same variety, but taken from different waters...)

        So to really "understand" / "get" / "make sense of" what Sushi enthusiasts enjoy in the more exotic items served at the Sushi bar, it helps if you also really like the smells (really tastes) you get when you "bite into" a big gulp of air at the beach, the wharf, or a rocky wave-battered coast. Though they each will have a characteristic "taste" of their own, some of the more prized Sushi Tane are particularly favored for their particular ability to clearly evoke this "taste of the ocean".

        For instance the Uni will only taste good if the kelp it feeds on is good. And much of the Umami you get from Uni is due to the kelp. But also due to the kelp you will taste a distinct taste of iodine, which if you really love seafood is ubiquitous but particularly so in Uni. If you just can't identify with that taste, then Uni and many other prized items just may not be for you. But there's no hiding it, Uni has a clear taste of the ocean.

        When you taste the liver of Awabi you are essentially eating what it has been feasting on, which is essentially sea algaes. That's also why it is so green, and also why it's so delicious. It again tastes of the ocean.

        When you have Ikura the clean briny burst of saltiness you experience when you pierce each gossamer globe is to taste the salt spray on a rocky coast. And with oyster you're experiencing the same in its precious liquor but added to that the mineraly taste of the zinc in its shell.

        My advice would be to totally forget "what" or "what part" you are eating. In fact don't even ask the Itamae what it is but just ask him to surprise you. You won't be served anything that's dangerous; it'll all be edible.

        Just do what you can to silence your left brain into convincing you shouldn't be eating certain things. Let your right brain be the one who is feasting at the Sushi bar. Let RB also be the one to tell you what it really tastes like, and not the fearful and perhaps sheltered LB that only wants you to taste a pre-conceived caricature of what it expected it to taste like. As I always like to say in these contexts, "just bring an honest palate".

        The "logic" behind certain things being eaten at the Sushi bar and not others is all about their taste (and/or texture). Yes it just happens to be an egg sack, or it just happens to be the liver, or it just happens to be the milt. But one shouldn't get scared by, or for that matter should an enthusiast fawn over, these parts just because of "what" they are. The "parts" are just a vehicle to get you to the real goal behind these special items, which is to experience the sea in as visceral a way as one can imagine experiencing - through your sense of taste (which in turns triggers memories and a whole cascade of internal associations that will take you back to the sea).

        Like it or not eating these items will transport you to the sea...

        ...like it or not...

        1. re: cgfan

          Some really good, passionate, and descriptive writing in this thread- I really appreciate the responses. Maybe my friend who got the "vile" uni just got some bad stuff, or maybe he just couldn't deal with the "sea" flavor. So I'm emboldened to at least give it a try, maybe next time at Kaito. And depending how that goes, maybe I'll go for some organ-y selections the following trip. But I'll ask they not serve me bitter flavors, at least not yet.

          1. re: mouthmusic

            I can't think of too many things served in sushi that could be described as "bitter."
            Anyone else have any ideas?

            1. re: Tripeler

              The digestive organs in mackerel and other fish can be bitter, but usually one does not encounter them unless they are ordered whole and cooked (e.g. shioyaki style).

              1. re: Tripeler

                Kazunoko can be considered bitter, as can be Hoya. And while not used in Sushi it is traditional to eat Sanma Shioyaki, salt-grilled Pike Mackerel, or Maruboshi Aji, half-dried horse mackerel, completely intact, guts and all, with the guts having a distinct bitter note.

                But very much like espresso, dark chocolate or black licorice, though the bitterness of these "western" examples all derive from defensive plant phenols, all of these food items have a pleasant bitterness which, as we all know, not everyone enjoys.

              2. re: mouthmusic

                "Maybe my friend who got the "vile" uni just got some bad stuff"

                That is definitely possible. I once had some uni that was past its prime and it was truly one of the worst things I've ever tasted. If Kaito has it I would expect it to be very good there. Also, while they're not a sushi restaurant Sea Rocket Bistro in North Park sometimes has live uni.

                Sea Rocket Bistro
                3382 30th St, San Diego, CA 92104

        2. You could give 'ankimo' a try. It is monkfish liver and is appearing more and more at sushi bars. Some places describe it as monkfish liver pate which is a good approximation but not exactly. It's typically served with daikon, ponzu and sometimes chili sauce. Have fun!

          8 Replies
          1. re: steveprez

            Yes. I love ankimo, but when not done properly it can best be described as "cat food". And it's kind of hard to tell without taking a bite. Uni will at least give you that strong iodine smell once past its prime.

            And for the poster who was curious about texture - uni has a mouthfeel that screams pure cholesterol - similar to foie, or egg yolk or even a nice soft avocado. Very plesant and silky.

            1. re: Ewilensky

              I had uni tempura fried at Blanca and it actually changed the texture of the uni. It gave it a little bit more of a bite with the same flavor. I wouldn't choose it over raw but it was interesting.

              1. re: Ewilensky

                "Cat food" - good one! I guess I've been lucky not to have come by poorly done ankimo. I've only been eating it for the past few years but my wife who is from Taiwan has been a big fan of it since her childhood, perhaps making sure I get the good stuff only.

                Agree with you about the mouth feel of uni. It's heavenly if done right. Though if done poorly for example by putting it on top of warm rice, it can have the texture of ...well...snot.

                1. re: steveprez

                  I love the flavor and texture of well prepared ankimo as well. "The Foie Gras of the sea" as they say. A few years ago I met, through mutual friends, a CIA graduate who had headed the fish station at The French Laundry. He told me tales of the crazy parasitical worms he had pulled from Monkfish Livers during prep. Remember, they are bottom feeders. I have never quite felt the same about ankimo since then.

                  1. re: Captain Jack

                    Thanks for that, Cap'n! Not a visual that I really needed. ;)

                    But your comment caused me to do some research. Apparently, worms are a pretty common in monkfish and certain other types of fish. Typically fish that eat other fish. In the flesh as well as the livers. Easily killed by freezing or cooking. The real problem with worms is the small. invisible ones in raw fish. Apparently there are about 2000 cases/year of worm infection in humans in Japan. Enjoy your sushi!

                    1. re: steveprez

                      From what l was told, this is why most fish are flash frozen to quite low temps on the boats, as well as why most gastroenterologists avoid sushi

                      1. re: steveprez

                        Let's see -- 2000 cases out of 80 million people eating a hundred pieces of raw fish a year. I've got a better chance to win Powerball.

                        Good information anyway.

                        1. re: Ed Dibble

                          Agreed! Those poor gastroenterologists don't know what they're missing! I remember when I took a Food Toxicology course (my undergrad degrees are Nutrition and Food Science) and the teacher described to us a game food toxicologists like to play called "Have a nice lunch!". Each of them goes to the cafeteria and gets their lunch. They then sit down and go back and forth pointing out the potential toxins and contaminants in the others food choices. The point being that pretty much every food has potential for toxins/contamination. Real world experience is what matters.

              2. At Tsukiji in January had a 'spermarama'. Sperm sacs from at least 6 different fishes. While l felt like a male Jenna Jamieson to a degree, none but the monkfish one was really interesting for me, probably could have skipped it, but sort of glad l did it for the experience.

                1 Reply
                1. Well, if you go back to Kaito, you should just take what they give you. It will most likely be delicious.

                  I'm not sure what you consider exotic but consider:
                  Abalone, ask for the liver at Kaito--really good.
                  Hotaur ika, firefly squid, but I think out of season now, also difficult for some to eat.
                  Amaebi, raw sweet shrimp, you should be sure to eat the deep fried head also
                  Aji, sashimi, then ask for the deep fried bones
                  Ankimo, as above, a very good choice
                  Scallops, as sashimi are awesome, if the quality is suspect have them do spicy scallops in a roll or gunkan style.
                  Uni hand roll, one of my favorites. Add Mirugai (geoduck clam) for a nice mix of texture. Uni is smooth and the Mirugai is "crunchy"
                  Ika geso, squid legs, can be very tasty if done correctly

                  These are all phase 2 sushi that I suggest for friends who are tired of California rolls and spicy tuna.

                  1. The thing with uni is like most seafood, it spoils quickly. Uni is especially the case, and the uni should ideally be alive when or immediately before being eaten. Most sushi bars can't do that, and it does become vile in a few days even with refridgeration. Freezing it causes it to lose most of its flavor and texture. In Japan we'd order uni delivered to the house alive - there's always someone who will do the dirty work for us. =) In any case, there wouldn't be any contradiction in calling one uni wonderful and another vile.

                    Uni is high in fat like toro and caviar and shares some similarity in taste, but its texture and more subtle flavor is very distinct. The closest thing to that subtle flavor is maybe raw clam. But the base of it is the same as any fatty raw seafood like toro or caviar. And we humans aren't the only ones raving about uni, it's the #1 favorite food of several predators for a good reason.

                    Organs and strange parts aren't a big part of sushi with few exceptions like marinated intestines (which most places don't serve anyways). Most of the time, it's simply the flesh of fish and other sea animals, some eggs.

                    For a good sampling of tame but excellent sushi, I'd suggest Nijiya's premium sushi bento at lunch. There's a limited number of those, as opposed to the standard (and cheaper) sushi sets that Nijiya and Mitsuwa offer. It'll only set you back $15, but it's a good example of what decent fresh sushi is supposed to be.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: royaljester

                      I just bought some amazing uni at catalina offshore. 250g of california gold. I added some lardo on top with a little pink salt. So creamy and sweet, perfect snack.

                      1. re: SDGourmand

                        We're lucky, catalina's one of the best sources for uni in the world. Top sushi restaurants in Japan get it from here because of the relatively low pollution (and human presence) in catalina.