Stone Bridge Cafe: UNI!
Stone Bridge Cafe is a bi-weekly online series from Stone Bridge Press devoted to bringing readers short stories, poems, non-fiction pieces, photographs, and artwork from and/or about East Asia. For submission guidelines and info, follow the link at the bottom of this post.
On the menu this week is a humorous non-fiction piece by Gabriella Brand about her first experience with uni (sea urchin) during her travels in Japan.
The old lady waved to me as I backpacked through her seaside village on my way around Shikoku. She was clearly happy about something she had spotted off the end of the rough wooden pier.
“Look over here! There’s uni!” she said, pointing below the surface of the water.
The Seto Sea gently slapped the shore. The water was the color of green tea, with a splash of cerulean. I glanced down, but I saw nothing. She pointed again.
“You eat uni?” she asked, looking into my foreign eyes.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ve never tried it.”
As a walking pilgrim, I was mostly eating in the dining halls of the Buddhist temples where I slept. There was never sea urchin on the menu. I supplemented the temple food with cheap udon, veggies, and plenty of Shikoku’s ubiquitous citrus fruit.
I knew that fresh uni was a beloved Japanese food, a creature prized for its privates - not the roe but the testes…which were reportedly as soft as what? Sweet butter, lemon custard, a baby’s thumb?
“Ah, just wait, chotto matte,” said the old woman as she looked around on the dock for a spear.
I gathered that she was about to procure us some urchin.
Perhaps she was offering me this delicacy as a form of o-settai, the special gift which Shikoku people bestow on walking pilgrims. I had already met hundreds of residents bearing o-settai, as I made my way along the circular 1200-kilometer route starting at Tokushima. They had come running after me with their blessings and their small presents: hand-crocheted Kleenex holders, ball point pens, hard candies, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, freshly made omigiri.
And now, today, I was being gifted with an opportunity to taste sea urchin.
My Japanese was hesitant, but my palate was willing. I suddenly remembered an expression from a Japanese textbook. Waku waku shiteiru. I’m excited, I told the old woman. I hoped she could sense my gratitude.
I watched as she creaked to her knees, and then leaned over the water. At her age – she had told me she was almost eighty - her agility was remarkable. I understood that her fisherman husband must have died long ago, leaving her all alone in the little house by the sea.
I started to puff up at the thought of my good fortune. A chance meeting with someone who was kind enough to offer me a Japanese luxury. That’s the kind of thing that happens to real adventurers, I gloated to myself. In the moment, I completely forgot about my goal of being a humble o-henro on a spiritual quest.
The old lady stabbed once and missed. Then stabbed again and whooped like a schoolgirl.
She raised the spear out of the water and showed off the carapaced globe, symmetrically radial and as spiky as a garden teasel.
To arrive at the meaty jewel, she covered her hands in thick rubbery-fabric gloves, and worked slowly, but deftly, like a heart surgeon.
A lone spine brushed her bare forearm and sliced a thin crimson trough in her skin. She stopped the bleeding with the edge of her apron and kept on working to pull apart the exoskeleton and expose the living treasure.
“Mo sugu. Pretty soon,” she said, pulling off her gloves and rushing into her house.
She returned with soy sauce and a plate. A single plate. Heavy stoneware with a dull finish, chipped on the side.
She placed the naked flesh in the center and bathed it in shoyu.
“Now you can see how we Japanese eat uni,” she said.
After a quick itadakimasu, she swallowed, before my very eyes,
the entire delicacy in one quick mouthful.
Gabriella Brand's writing has appeared in over thirty small literary magazines. She is a Pushcart Prize Nominee, and a winner of the SpiritFirst competition. She divides her time between Connecticut, where she teaches languages, and Quebec, where she hikes and canoes. She has spent considerable time in Japan. She is obsessed with kanji, à la Eve Kushner.In 2012, when she was no longer young, she completed, on foot, the 1200 kilometer pilgrimage route of the 88 Temples around Shikoku.
(Gabriella Brand in Japan)
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