Year of Grace, Day 58. Encounters with uni

That’s  “oo-nee” – the Japanese for sea urchin; not “yoo-nee” – the British shortcut for university. It is, as I have mentioned frequently, my mother’s favourite. It amazes me how much of my mother’s taste in food and other things have affected me, all the more so as I approach the age my mother was as I remember her.

I adore sushi and sashimi now, but my first encounter with sushi — or rather a sushi counter — was confined to an artistic one. It was my first year in Japan and I lived in a dormitory with 37 other foreign students in Nakagawara, a little community just outside Tokyo. Occasionally the dorm’s dining room would close – for the cook’s and other kitchen staff’s holiday or for a thorough cleaning and inspection. And on these occasions, students had to fend for ourselves: either do their own cooking in the dorm kitchen – there was one on each floor – or try one of the small eateries not far from the school.

It wasn’t possible to cook immediately: I had yet to buy my own cooking equipment and investigate the offerings at the supermarket. And so off I went with my Filipino colleagues to check out two eateries on the main road. The colourful display of a chilling cabinet at the first place caught my eye – rows of slices in solid and stripey pink, white or cream edged with red, deep reds – all nicely framed by green. There was also a slab of bright yellow. I was so drawn to it, remembering a photo from one of my older sister’s cooking books of such beautifully arranged delights. Despite my reading addiction, cookbooks were not then part of my preferred repertoire. So it was with great surprise and even greater disappointment when one of my colleagues said, “Ugh, you don’t want to eat that! That’s raw fish!”

My encounters with fish and seafood up to then were the typical ones of Philippine cuisine. Or to be precise, a mix of Ilocano and Manila metropolitan cuisine – grilled over coals either wrapped in banana leaves or not; fried on their own as slices or if they were small, then whole; if they were large then they could also be stuffed, sewn shut, and then fried; steamed; or as one of the ingredients in the sour fish and vegetable soup called sinigang. I was used to seeing whole crabs and prawns in their shells that turned brilliantly red or pink when boiled or steamed. Squid – baby ones sautéed whole with their ink in the standard Filipino flavoring triumvirate of garlic, shallots, and tomatoes – were a childhood favourite. My gastronomic experience, such as it was in my late teens, certainly included oysters, taken out of their shells and marinated in sliced onions and vinegar or calamansi – I relished the oysters, but left the raw onions alone. Nearly ignorant of cooking then, I had not known that those oysters had not had the benefit of cooking before they were placed in their onion and acid bath.

What images did my young, culinarily untutored mind bring up at the words “raw fish?” A whole milkfish – the most common fish on any Filipino table — to be scaled and gutted, its gills blood-red, oozing slime and blood, and the smell – that unpleasant, fishy, slightly metallic smell termed malansa in Tagalog. That sordid image turned me off eating sushi and sashimi at that first encounter, even though my eyes had been so fascinated by the aesthetics of the display. I settled half-heartedly for the safe and slightly familiar — an omu-rais at the neighbouring place where my colleagues had already gone off to –- fried rice enclosed in an omelette topped with a squirt of ketchup.

It was uni – my mother’s favourite food – that turned the tide (pardon the pun). Encountered unexpectedly at a friend’s house, it changed altogether my image of raw fish. From then on, I took my sushi education in hand seriously. Alone, I would sit in front of the wooden counter and begin at one end of the display, going on until I had actually tasted everything. Not all on the same day of course, but intermittently, frequenting the same sushiya and having a few at a time, relishing those delicacies slowly, educating my palate with each piece as I cleansed my mouth each time with green tea and the ginger pickles. Chatting with the itamae who must’ve been delighted by my curiosity, I learned to eat as Edokko do as he suggested – to begin with kohada – but I also learned that I didn’t really like to end as Edokko do – with tamago, the sweetish egg omelet. I always ended my sushi forays with uni. Always and ever uni, my mother’s favourite. If funds were low, then I ended as I began, with kohada.

Uni can be so addicting that it can affect some people to behave in socially unacceptable ways. My mother had a pet project in her 90th year – building a community centre for her hometown, Santiago, Ilocos Sur. And when the building was finished, a party was held to mark the occasion. Knowing that uni, or to be accurate, maritangtang as they are called in Ilocano, were her favourite, a cousin had a huge bowl of them prepared. The bowl was given pride of place at the table. An old couple – respected elders of the town’s Methodist Church – sat themselves in front of the maritangtang. No one else, not even my mother, got to taste even one of those maritangtang.

I am grateful that my mother imparted by example her taste in food to me. Otherwise, had uni not been her favourite and had I not had uni in sushi, I might never have learned to love sushi and sashimi or, more significantly, embarked on one of my preoccupations – thinking about and writing about food and how we come to appreciate and develop a taste for the strange and the unfamiliar.


Copyright ©Jeanne R. Jacob. Text and photos, unless otherwise noted, are the author’s. Please notify me if you wish to copy or use any material on this blog.