In Hokkaido, Japan, 20 years ago, I was staying on a rocky stretch of coast on a national holiday weekend. Groups of city-folk gathered at the stone beaches there, around seafood nabe pots, drinking sake and Sapporo beer, shooting pathetic little sky rockets into the ocean. The shore was awash with these rocket tails, along with driftwood, old tyres, plastic bags and dozens of empty beer cans. I was shocked at the apparent lack of respect for an ocean that delivers Japan one of the staples of its diet, fish.
Another shock came when I witnessed the consumption of live sea urchin, called uni (ウニ), cracked or cut open, washed in sea water and popped straight into the eating orifice. Pre-internet and pre-enlightenment (for me), the world - in particular Japan, where I was living, still tended to be weird. The food halls of Japanese department stores and the menus of its restaurants used to strike me dumb; how could it be that so many of the food items I saw were unidentifiable, that so many of them - to me - would look dubious anywhere near a kitchen table. It was wonderful but scary. Would I some day be at a Nihonjin friend's kotatsu and be confronted with something on a plate watching me, writhing?
Today in my wrinkling world weary skin - made altogether wearier by this global information age - it takes a lot to shock me and, even then, most of the time I question whatever it may be, wondering whether it's a media beat-up or some kind of expedient spin. And when it comes to food shocks; well, I can be across them in minutes. Someone somewhere on the planet will have written a blog post about it by now. Or someone on twitter will gladly put their handle up with an answer to a question, were I the type to employ such a research method.
What hasn't changed is the way my mouth reacts to food. When my taste buds experience a revelation, the message sent to my brain manifests itself embarrassingly to others in involuntary moaning. I get the 'OMG-good-food-moans". It happened last week in Nha Trang, on Vietnam's south-central coast, where I had a closer encounter with the sea urchin.
After a run of dishes from the ocean at a favourite seafood shack a few kilometres north of town, a ceramic font of rice porridge was put front and centre on the table. Called cháo in Vietnamese, it is a common way to finish a meal in these restaurants that line the coast road. This one was cháo nhum, liberally populated with the gonads of sea urchins. These creamy ocean pillows are complimented in the porridge by a topiary of shredded herbs and spices, including purple perilla and ginger. After ladling it into my bowl, I swirl through a spicy nước chấm for a shot of extra sea, salt and chili.
Confidently, I say that it is the best rice porridge I've eaten and sea urchins aren't so weird after all.