There are really two kinds of restaurants.
There are those that people go to only in order to eat, and then there are those that people go to for the purpose of drinking and socializing. Regardless of the type of restaurant, however, there’s always sakana — not in the most widely accepted sense of the word, which means fish, but small plates of food that cleanse the palate or just bring continuity to a meal.
Sakana has two distinct meanings in Japanese, written with different characters. The most common one is the reading of the character . This word is basically equivalent to the English meaning of the word fish, but there are a few instances when linguistic discrepancies arise over whether something is a fish or another type of marine life.
The other character, also written and pronounced sakana, is , meaning any food that is eaten as an accompaniment to drinking, especially the drinking of sake. This sakana is often referred to, more formally, as sake no sakana to avoid confusion. While this second way of writing sakana is often seen on restaurant signs and menus, it is not often heard in conversation. More commonly, food that complements drinking is just called ate, which literally means accompaniment. All of the second type of sakana, sake no sakana, can be called ate with no confusion.
Rising to the top of all ate are the foods grouped in a category called chinmi. Chinmi are delicacies generally taken in very small amounts, usually with a glass of nihonshu. Chinmi are often expensive regional specialties or products prepared by traditional methods, but there is a current trend toward more modern and affordable chinmi.
During the Edo Period, the Tokugawa clan declared sea urchin (uni), salted entrails of the sea cucumber (konowata) and dried mullet roe (karasumi) as the three greatest delicacies on earth. Today, more modestly, this triumvirate is called the three greatest delicacies of Japan (nippon sandai chinmi). Following their tendency to codify everything, the Japanese have also declared the three greatest delicacies of the world to be caviar, truffles and foie gras. While these three Western delicacies are certainly sought after, nowhere else are they lumped together in this way.
Like their Western counterparts, chinmi might take a while to warm up to. Some Westerners wince at the thought of caviar, just as others pay big money for the tiny black eggs. Equally, some Japanese live their lives avoiding chinmi altogether. Once the taste is acquired, however, chinmi seem to be the kind of foods that become a habit. Because they are taken in small amounts and are full of flavor, chinmi make the perfect complement to an evening of drinking — in the same way port wine goes so well with foie gras.
Of the Japanese sandai chinmi, one, karasumi, is an import from overseas. The Romans have salted and dried mullet and tuna roe since the sixth century. This delicacy is still produced regionally, often called Sardinian or Cabras caviar. The actual Italian term for these dried egg sacks is bottarga. These bottarga made their way, via the Silk Road, to China and, around 400 years ago, to Japan.
Karasumi is so strongly associated with fine dining washoku that many Japanese chefs would be surprised to know that this tradition originated in the Mediterranean and is still alive and well there today.
Konowata — the brined entrails (wata) of the sea cucumber (namako) — have been prepared and eaten in Japan since the Nara Period, when artisans from mainland China, or more likely the Korean peninsula, brought over the tradition of eating this strange sea creature.
In Japan the crunchy flesh of namako (a relative of the sea urchin, alternately called a sea slug) is eaten most often raw, and the innards are salted in a technique reserved for many marine entrails. The generic term for these brined entrails is shiokara. Since the early 1800s, konowata from Mikawa has been considered the finest of all shiokara available.
The final of the three delicacies is uni. While one wonders who first cut open the spiny outer shell to get to the tender egg sacks inside, it does not seem too far of a stretch for the Japanese, who seem to have experimented with eating anything and everything from the sea in raw form.
Different varieties of sea urchin — black, green, red, yellow — yield distinct and delicious differences, but it is generally agreed that the best ones for eating raw come from the cold northern waters off Hokkaido and Tohoku. Far-western Japan is also know for its sea urchin, but this is salted and often cooked in sake to preserve it.
These chinmi are certainly not the type of preparation that the amateur cook should expect to make successfully without hands-on guidance. Indeed, most Japanese home cooks and many chefs don’t attempt to make their own chinmi but rather concentrate on finding the best available prepared products and learning to serve them with care and finesse.
Karasumi would certainly be the most difficult to make from scratch. The outer skin — a waxed natural fiber — should be removed from just the portion you wish to eat. Thin slices, no more than 2 cm, may then be very briefly grilled (about 30 seconds on each side) over a slow flame and served with a small piece of daikon and shoyu if desired.
Konowata may be made from scratch, but only if very good live sea cucumber is available. Excellent prepared konowata may be found in most markets and certainly at department stores. A very small amount should be served — some people like to crack in a raw quail egg or stir in grated daikon (oroshi). Either way, a bit of yuzu citron rind goes well as a garnish.
Sea urchin is easy to serve when available very fresh. After lightly searing the uni with a hand-held burner, I like to present it right in the wooden box in which it is often packaged. On the side, a few sheets of toasted nori and a bit of soy sauce complement it beautifully.
Learning to find good prepared products is often as difficult — and as important — as cooking. Beginning with these three chinmi and expanding to local and regional specialties will broaden your palate and give you a greater appreciation of the craftspeople that labor to make them.