I love food. I really do. I love trying new things and experiencing new flavors and textures. I love finding the limits of my palate and visiting that edge regularly. The first time I try a new food is like a little adventure that I embrace with eyes (and mouth) wide open, both feet forward, ready for whatever it brings.
This is how I found myself on Friday night starting down a piece of sea urchin sushi. I am a seafood fanatic, and sushi is easily my favorite way to eat fish. There's so much flavor and texture and opportunity for that new and amazing experience that I so enjoy. I've pushed the sushi envelop much further than my counterpart, trying it all, from the rubbery octopus to the quite fishy mackerel (which took several tastings for me to embrace raw mackerel, but embrace it I have) to the fairly exotic conch. So, faced with the sushi menu at the Golden Szechuan Inn in Bel Air and not wanting another roll of grilled eel or spicy tuna, or even a California roll, I walked right up to the deep end of the pool and dove in.
I ordered the sea urchin.
After two decades of rabid sushi consumption, I thought I was ready for anything. When Japan House was still in business over by the Aberdeen Clarion, I would regularly sneak in a sushi lunch in the middle of my Saturday errands. I even tried the oshinko, a vegetarian roll consisting of rice wrapped around picked horseradish. And, maybe because I was a regular, the sushi chef asked me if I knew what I was ordering, as if trying to warn me. When I smiled and shrugged and said, "Not really, but I'm game", he smiled back and said "OK". It reminded me of when my cat ate a stinkbug for the first time and proceeded to lick the floor in an effort to get the taste out of his mouth.
Even that did not prepare me for sea urchin.
When it arrived, my counterpart pulled the visor of his cap down low over his eyes and hunched into his usual California roll and salmon and avocado roll. The sea urchin I got looked a bit like an orange human tongue resting on a block of rice wrapped in nori. But I could look past this. What caused me a moment of consternation was that it jiggled. Even though it seemed a bit wobbly, I was still expecting something fairly solid. So, I took a deep breath, dipped it in some wasabi, and popped the whole thing into my mouth.
What happened next was amazing. The sea urchin proved to be as wobbly and semi-solid as it had appeared on the plate with none of the tongue-like meatiness I was expecting. It kind of squished when I bit into it. And, as I chewed, I noticed that it was sticking to my teeth. I thought for a moment that fish should not stick to your teeth.
And then I got the full flavor - musky and bitter and completely unique. And I thought of the oshinko. And once again was reminded of my cat and the stinkbug.
After I swallowed, I took a drink of water. Then I took a drink of tea. Then I ate all the pickled ginger on my plate. Then I took a break. Then I ate my raw mackerel, which tasted quite bland in comparison.
Then my counterpart looked out from under his cap and asked if I had finally crossed a culinary line. Had I perhaps just gone too far this time. I considered the musky, bitter, pungent film that lingered on my molars and in the back of my throat and conceded that, yes, perhaps I had.
Then I posted a photo on Instagram and one of my friends recommended Johnny's Sushi across the river in Perryville, where I could probably do a bit better. Will I try it? But of course!