The Flavor of Death

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Chow Bella has a valentine for you. For the rest of February, we're handing out Candy Hearts -- stories of food and love from some of our favorite writers. Enjoy.

Nearly 10 years ago, my wife and I had our second date at Hiro Sushi, an authentic Japanese restaurant in North Scottsdale that defies nearly all the Scottsdale stereotypes. It's low-key, no-frills, and has a very solid following among Japanese nationals. But unbeknownst to me, this was more than a date. It was a test.

See also: - Deborah Sussman's Care Package - Candy Hearts archives

Though my requirements for a wife were relatively simple -- beyond the usual criteria, she had to eat red meat, know how to drive a standard transmission, and not get seasick -- her requirements for a husband included me being an adventurous eater. And, at the time, her idea of "adventurous" meant ordering amaebi, which are raw shrimp served with the deep-fried heads as a crunchy accouterment. Without hesitation, I ate the shrimp and devoured the heads, and, as they say, the rest was history. That was the easiest test I ever passed.

Fast-forward to a recent Friday night when, not having made any dinner plans, we decided to go to Hiro and take a seat at the all-too-familiar sushi bar. Except this time was different. Instead of our usual order, we just said "omakase" and let the chef do the rest. I said, confidently, "Bring out whatever's fresh, and we eat everything." Little did I know he took that as a challenge.

So we indulged in a Sapporo and had some sake, and waited. Our son's 7th birthday party had been earlier that day at Peter Piper Pizza, so we were happy to have some downtime and peace.

And then without any fanfare, we were presented with two small bowls accompanied by an unintelligible Japanese description. Inside was a grayish lumpy liquid that looked like poi from Hawaii mixed with unidentifiable "parts." The only color was a sliver of yellow from a delicate slice of lemon on top. Without much hesitation, I scooped some up with my chopsticks and put it into my mouth.

All at once, my palate was hit with what can best be described as "the flavor of death."

Ammonia, bile, vomit and the distinct flavor of salty decomposition. I swallowed, but knew that I was mortally wounded. I turned to my wife and said, in a quiet voice, "this isn't good" . . . an unintended double entendre referring not just to the food, but to my physical state. She took a bite and -- shockingly -- took a second bite before turning to me, expressionless, proclaiming, "I can't eat this."

Imagine a rotting dead sea monster, thrown in a blender, poured into a bowl, and then left to rot some more and served with a lemon slice. Then imagine someone eating it and throwing it up . . . into your mouth. That's what I tasted.

Except we're too damn polite. We didn't want to offend the chef, who was clearly pleased to serve us this delicacy, and took seriously my claim that "we eat everything." He wanted to please us. We knew that he would be sad if we returned it to him, mostly untouched. Eating it was categorically out of the question. Yet we were also taking a chance that if he thought we loved it, he'd continue to push the culinary envelope with each subsequent course.

Given the circumstances -- and the fact that the color in my face was quickly going from "pale Jew" to "Shrek" -- it was a chance worth taking. My wife stealthily handed me a plastic cup that was still in her purse, a cup used to hold video game tokens at our son's party earlier in the day. I quietly put the cup under the counter and poured out the contents of the two small bowls into the cup. My wife took it to the bathroom and threw it away.

My wife described it perfectly: "pourable vomit flavored fish guts."

Toward the end of our meal, I asked the chef what it was. His response: "Squid guts, served raw and cold, salted and left overnight. I thought you would like it since you were drinking. Did you like it?" My response: "It was....challenging." I can only hope that he thought we ate it and that it enhances our Japanese food street cred. I also hope he doesn't read Chow Bella.

Sadly, the night couldn't be salvaged for me. While the rest of the food was delightfully perfect, as it almost always is at Hiro Sushi, I had suffered a blow from which I could not easily recover. Each subsequent course was a challenge, and my mind remained completely fixated on whatever it was that we had been served at the beginning.

On our way home we stopped at the grocery store and picked up a few pints of Ben & Jerry's to cleanse our palates. Even Chunky Monkey did little to quell the lingering taste of death. And as I write this -- two days after the incident -- my mouth still suffers from pre-puke-excessive-salivation each time I think of the flavor. Yet, in hindsight, it was something of an intimate moment in what I can only surmise is similar to the way in which survivors are brought closer together by a traumatic event. We suffered through this. We survived. We can survive anything!

After some research, I learned that we were served shiokara. According to Wikipedia, shiokara is "considered something of an acquired taste even for the native Japanese palate. One method of enjoying it is to consume the serving at one gulp and to follow it with a shot of straight whiskey."

I wish we had been offered the whiskey.

The moral of the story: Be very careful when you say, "I eat everything." Death pairs well with whiskey. And if death is on the menu, eat it with someone you love.

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