I’ve eaten plenty of fish bones during my time in Asia, most still inside the fish but others taken out like a sheet and deep-fried until they become crisp as potato chips and just as chomp-able. I don’t enjoy fish bones like some people do, and tend to order boneless pieces when I have the choice. But on occasion I don’t mind chewing fish meat with bones inside if the taste is good enough to overcome the boniness, that is, if there’s texture, taste or another pleasure involved.
But with a drink I ordered at a cozy, old-style izakaya in Ogikubo, the boniness seemed to be the entire goal, as if all the other fish flavors had been stripped away and what was left was the pure, direct taste of bone. After decades of eating and drinking anything set before me, I wondered if I had at last hit some cultural wall?
Japanese food is varied and complex enough that I often order things out of curiosity after seeing it cross the restaurant in the hands of the wait staff. “What’s that?” I’ll whisper when they come to my table, or I’ll search the menu for the never-seen-before dish and just order it. But this time, half-joking and half-adventurous, I looked at the hand-written sign for “bone sake” hanging on the wall—two simple characters: bone and alcohol—and thought: What could go wrong? My wife rolled her eyes in wifely censure, but I insisted.
The waiter nodded approvingly when I ordered it, normally a sign that I’m in for something unique, something that “only Japanese would order.” I knew that to be the case with the bone sake when the waiter set the glass down on the table. It was clearly bones in sake, not some poetic, metaphoric name alluding to something different. It was a complete fish of bones soaking in a glass of clear alcohol, like a preserved specimen from some dusty nineteenth century laboratory.
The waiter pulled off the wood top, flicked a lighter and set it aflame. The small booth filled with the smell of bones and burning alcohol. Then, he quickly set the wood top back on and left me and my wife and the bones and alcohol on our own.
The flame seemed to have crisped the top part of the bone and cartilage. A few hard, white bits floated to the surface as I swirled the warm glass. The aroma cut through all the other delicious smells of the place—raw fish, grilled meat, tempura, fried vegetables and fresh sake.
The taste was weakly sake and strongly fish bone, stronger than any bone I had ever had before. On top, the flavor was charcoal-ish, an organic burn. Below, the bone flavor came out fully. I had to breathe to take a second sip. Bone.
After that, I sipped hesitantly, wondering if the bone flavor would strengthen as it soaked. For the first time in a very long time, I felt I simply could not finish something.
I leaned back on the cushions in the comfy wood booth and peered around the izakaya to see if anyone else had ordered the same. The other customers were all enjoying nice, cold glasses of sake, iced shochu and big mugs of beer. In front of me floated a skull, upper and lower jaw, fins, ribs, spine, vertebra and cartilage. The very words were unappetizing, the syllables hard as bones.
Japanese food often seems to push the drinker and diner into a clear, direct encounter with nature’s bounty. Raw fish is that exactly—the real taste of fish without any cultural interference, the same taste you’d have if stranded on a boat in the ocean and forced to fish for yourself. Other preparation methods, the fermentation of shiokara (squid guts) or natto (soybeans), are cultural techniques that enhance and ripen the food to bring your taste buds closer to the pure, original taste.
I sat there not drinking, deciding what to order instead. My wife had already declined repeatedly, scowling. I increasingly felt like I should be—or maybe already was–dissecting the bones, studying them, and sketching them like a zoologist or Renaissance-era medical student.
I tried to sip a bit more, but it wasn’t like drinking exactly. The entire effect was something else altogether–a bone to bone connection, as if being punched or struck by a hard object.
The bone sake brought me closer to the essence of bone, a place I wasn’t sure I wanted to be. When you get to the bones, how much closer can you get to anything else? There’s nothing inside fish bones, no marrow, no blood cell production, it’s just bone.
The drink seemed to be sending me back to that moment when fish leapt up onto land, bringing their bones out of the salty water into the air. And back into myself. We are, after all, like fish bones at some point when we develop through the stages of evolution as fetuses in the womb. Was that the point, I wondered? But of course, there was no one to ask.
I felt a little disappointed with myself. I had always been proud of being open enough to eat every animal, insect, vegetable, fruit or concoction set in front of me over the years, but I had to admit defeat. The fish bones, so small, so frail and usually disposable, were more powerful than me. My curiosity, half-joking, half-macho, had met its match.
A couple of beers, some familiar yakitori comforting tofu set me back into a lighter mood, but I would think about my defeat for several days after, until the taste, the feel, the boniness, finally disappeared from where it had settled deep inside my body, where I had started to worry it would remain forever. It possibly always will. (March 25, 2017)