Thursday, November 30, 2006

Of the Devils tongue and Anglers' sweetmeats

There is a group of seemingly mild-mannered folk across the hall from my little office who have invited me out a few times, and been generally nice to me despite my poor language skills, and with whom I have been gradually becoming closer. This little team has as its core members the esteemed fob-watch collector Yuji (male); the redoubtable Yuki (female), who drives a small car festooned with kitty-chan; the heavy-metal loving teacher, Shuji (male), unique in all of Japan for not owning a mobile phone; the glowering Ryu (male) whose name means Dragon, and who always seems to understand what I am trying to say even if while trying to say it I effectively bludgeoned his mother tongue to death; and the winningly handsome Hitoshi (male), famed across the land (or so I hear) for his chick-pulling prowess. Every time we go out there seems to be a new tagger on, but the core of this group (or 'circle', as they unselfconsciously say) consists of the aforementioned team who, incidentally, all study partial differential equations.

Incidentally, as I have had cause to comment on to a few people, Japanese are weird about maths. Don't bother asking me what the Japanese is for "partial differential equation": though they have imported all of the words required for Italian cuisine, cars, bikes, pop music and sport, they have decided to invent an entire branch of their language for mathematics, and I don't know a word of it. I can assure you, dear reader, that Partial Differential Equations were not invented in Japan, just as spaghetti wasn't; but while the latter is called spaghetti, the former has some wierd incomprehensible Japanese word attached to it. At some point I will have to learn these things, but for now I am content learning how to say simpler words, like "kill" (essential when discussing whaling, which inevitably one does at a...)

Nabe party!! It occurred to us last week that winter is coming and we will all soon die, so we had best find a way to keep warm. And outside of a kotatsu, the best way to keep warm in Japan is to lock oneself in a room with a lot of free booze, a big pot, and enough vegetables to feed a whale. The pot (the 'nabe') looks exactly like a fondue-type pot, right down to the flames underneath, except it is powered by a spray can of some sort and is more like a Chinese claypot. Into this goes a mysterious sauce and some water, and then one starts shovelling in the food.

Which we did, while drinking beer (and then chu-hi (and then wine)). The food consisted of, approximately:

2 cabbages
a field of mushrooms of different sorts
a whole chicken, cut into little chunks
a big tray of fish
half a daikon radish
a plastic bag full of some sort of herb
3 leeks
about half a kilo of oysters
a small amount of some other meat -maybe pork? I don't like to ask
a whole pack of konyaku, or Devil's Tongue (a wierd squidgy substance made of yam paste)
two packs of tofu (incidentally, tofu in this country is 50cents a pack)
a whole Anglerfish, including its tail and offal
3 packets of noodles
3 cups of rice

It took us four hours to eat this miraculous concoction, which was cooked in stages in two nabe pots (one was electric) with two different sauces and eaten collectively, simply by picking what one likes out of the pot. There were many interesting things to pick, but by far the most interesting part of this whole experience was the anglerfish.

Whoever eats Anglerfish? Or more to the point, what sad, desperate person was so well cashed up with useless deep-sea diving equipment, but simultaneously so hungry, that he thought "I'll eat an anglerfish?" These fish are the lumpen proletariat of the fishy world, the junkie scoundrel that pimps half-dead anemones in the bleached-coral suburbs of atlantis. They are the nasty little man in a grey raincoat who lures in all the pretty-coloured baby fishies for ugly experiments, and grins all the while. Warty, slimy little miscreants who lounge around in seedy alleyways taunting the morays while their gibbous lamps hang out of their pants.

Which is pretty much how I feel now that I have eaten one. Clearly the Japanese have decided that there is a virtue to be found in spreading ones protein needs over the entire animal kingdom (including sea cucumbers), and have further turned this virtue into a supposed delicacy (Yuji assured us that anglerfish in a nabe is a delicacy). Well, the Anglerfish certainly has many virtues, which I shall list for you:

  • its bones are like those of a chicken. I am told this is because it is a deep sea fish, so its bones have to be tough to fend off the crushing weight of all that despair;
  • its skin is black, ruffled and just like a wetsuit or a sheet of rubber; fortunately it sloughs this skin off in the pack, so you don't have to eat it except that Yuji chucks it into the pot annyway, where it ends up looking like cooked rubber;
  • its flesh is translucent and ribbed through with tiny blood vessels, like the compressed offcast of liposuction
  • its tale combines all these traits in a splendidly grotesque fashion, being both heavy with bones; sheathed in a deep black rubbery skin; and when cooked, the flesh is of such a rubbery consistency that one cannot bite into it: one's teeth simply bounce off
  • it has a very large liver
So, in the interests of experimentation, I tried eating the flesh of the main part of the body (which is okay); the tail, which I couldn't eat because my teeth aren't razor sharp knives - I couldn't even penetrate that wetsuit skin, and the feeling of my teeth bouncing off the flesh was too disturbing to pursue; and the liver (or whatever godforsaken part of this Ogre's anatomy had been cast into the pot). Unsurprisingly, the liver tastes like fish. I passed the tail to Yuji, who told me that it is usually delicious but this tail was undercooked (which, frankly, I do not believe).

Of course, this whole experimental process covered a four hour period of massive overeating, at the end of which I felt decidedly ill, so maybe my opinion of the fish has been coloured by the effort of rolling home with a belly full of boiled cabbage and oysters. I was still rolling around this morning when I woke up, feeling like I was still sitting at the table trying to cram more in. So maybe my tastes have been spoiled. In any case, I am not willing to repeat the experiment in a more refined setting, and my advice regarding Anglerfish is - don't eat them, no matter how many nice watch-collectors tell you they're a delicacy. They simply are not.


Anonymous Miss Violet said...

I am blinking in astonishment at the notion of a 50c package of tofu!

10:14 AM  

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