Delicacies Not Recommended for the Delicate: The Chinmi (珍味) of Japan
What sorts of foods come to mind when you think “delicacy”? The fine, dark grains of true caviar, salt-cured roe of the sturgeon? The “delectable cruelty” of foie gras (fatty liver), made from the liver of a duck or goose force-fed in the weeks before slaughter? Or perhaps truffles, those astonishingly-expensive fungi hunted down by specially-trained dogs and pigs?
In Japan, “delicacy” takes on a new life as “chinmi” (珍味). The characters that compose the word mean “rare taste,” but the world of chinmi is so much broader than simply those tastes that are hard to come by. Many chinmi are not only unusual but unusually flavored as well. Trying out the local chinmi often takes on the element of a dare, for an average chinmi, though there is little that’s average about these belief-defying flavors, will have as many detractors as it will fans. Where the rice wine and beer flow, it isn’t uncommon for chinmi to be used as the centerpiece in a kind of cheerful “culinary hazing” of city folk and international visitors.
The Japanese have a great love of talking about the “big three” for any group of things, from mountain ranges and festivals to teas and sports events, so let’s look at the three major chinmi of Japan.
Strictly speaking, uni refers first of all to the creature we know as the sea urchin. However, as is so often the case with a nation of foodies like Japan, the word is more likely to bring to mind the popular seafood harvested from the that creature, which goes by the same name. Though ubiquitous at the better class of sushi restaurant as a neta (sushi topping), the price of quality uni, its delicate and sweetly briny flavor, and its peculiar origin solidify uni’s status as a classic of chinmi.
Covered in spikes, there isn’t much to eat on a sea urchin (once known to us as sea hedgehogs), save for the five globes of golden yellow tissue found when you crack one open. These sought-after blobs of flesh are the creature’s gonads, which produce eggs in females and sperm in males, though the two are almost impossible to differentiate in the state they’re best eaten in.
Japan eats more sea urchin than any other nation and imports from other countries to keep up with their record-holding levels of consumption. Though usually encountered atop a ball of vinegared rice at a sushi restaurant, uni is also enjoyed as a topping for rice bowl dishes, often together with the red caviar called ikura.
Folk etymology holds that these sticky, salty reddish blocks of preserved foodstuff were named for their resemblance to the sticks of ink (sumi) brought from China (Kara). The fresh stuff may be an un-ink-ish red, but historical Japan didn’t have refrigeration technology, so the original karasumi would grow darker and darker as it aged.
But what it is, exactly? Put simply, it’s the salted and sun-dried roe of certain fishes, similar to the botargo eaten in Italy. The most famous karasumi comes from Nagasaki and is made of eggs from mullet fish, which are washed, left in salt for a few days to a week, washed again to remove excess salt, passively squeezed dry through stacking, then left to dry in the sun for ten days as any fat that comes to the surface is skimmed away. Though the process sounds more like a treatment for laundry than for food, karasumi is enjoyed in Nagasaki as an accompaniment to drink and can be eaten on rice or as the flavoring agent in green tea rice soup, chazuke.
The final member of the triple crown, konowata, is probably also the most contentious. It’s the most famous example of a greater class of foods in Japan called shiokara, which refers to dishes made pungent (kara) with salt (shio). Konowata is made from the assorted viscera of the humble sea cucumber, a creature of enormous biological simplicity perhaps most famous for squirting out its innards as a defense mechanism when threatened.
After a period of being kept in clean sea water, the viscera are drained of moisture, mixed 5:1 (sometimes as high as 4:1) with salt, and stirred regularly over many hours. This gut slurry is then poured into a wooden bucket and allowed to ferment for a week, which breaks down the amino acids and contributes to konowata’s difficult-to-describe flavor, eaten with rice or by itself as a side to alcohol.
Beyond the Big Three
Though the big three tend to dominate the Japanese imagination when it comes to local delicacies, a few highly-regional honorable mentions should be made.
The first one goes to kusaya, dried fish fermented in “heirloom” batches of brine. Native to the Izu Islands south of Tokyo, the smell of this dish is so potent that the etymology of the word is believed to tie to the Edo-era statement of “kusa ya!”, or “It stinks!”
For sheer oddity value, hebo or hachinoko (“bee children”) from rural Gunma bears note. As the name suggests, these are bee (though more often wasp) larvae and pupae, harvested in fall and eaten on rice. This tradition probably stems from protein shortages in past eras.
Vegetarian readers shouldn’t feel left out, as Okinawa has a meat-free chinmi of its own: tofuyo, a cousin of stinky tofu. This bean curd is fermented in a mixture of strong liquor and two types of moldy rice, one of them a bright red from which the dish takes it lurid color.
What makes a food normal is our exposure to it. For the uninitiated, many foods of European origin would seem very strange. After all, what is cheese except rotten bovine lactations? Or, to quote the Irish comedian Dylan Moran’s take on the English breakfast: “Fried slices of dead pig, tubes of dead pig, some fungus and a chicken’s period on a plate.” When Japanese food first started to gain popularity in Western countries, the idea of eating raw fish seemed novel. Now, with a little more knowledge on what Japanese delicacies can offer, why not challenge yourself to some yet-unplumbed depths of novelty?