hospitality in the form of a caramelized grasshopper
Tsukudani is a way of processing and making food from small animals, vegetables and algae so that they last a long time and do not spoil. Mirin and soy sauce are key in the preparation. But it wouldn’t be a culinary specialty if it were a simple meal. It’s not. Manufacturers have their secret recipes and often give products nice design-gift wrappings. Tsukudani is a product with high level of dignity! Four years ago, I received a beautiful wooden box with calligraphy as a gift, and I thought that inside was an art object for Tea ceremony. To my surprise, there was tsukudani inside the box. Black stripes of wakame. They are already eaten, but I keep the box carefully. Through tsukudani, I was given honors from the director of a large hospital complex. We met at gastronomic symposium in Osaka. He talked about obesity and how important it is for the Japanese not to dramatically reduce the amount of rice in the diet. He came to Prague for a congress of doctors and handed me this luxury tsukudani package in Miyabi. I think he meant to tell me that we both promote healthy eating and that we are colleagues. He honored me very much. Yes, tsukudani goes very well with freshly cooked rice. Contains calcium and other nutrients. It is always at hand in the refrigerator. It lasts for many months, even a year, and the taste does not change at all. It is a food without which I cannot imagine Japanese gastronomy. Tsukadani is worth getting to know!
There are plenty of raw materials suitable for tsukudani. Algae, shoots such as ferns, vegetables, small animals from the sea and land and also insects. The raw materials that scare our people in the Czech Republic the most are grazed larvae of Zazamushi insects, various water crayfish, small Ikanago fish that look like bent nails, or Inago grasshoppers, which I want to write in length about. It is because they are part of my Japanese story. How they look? Like green grasshoppers, which we know from meadows. I don’t know if the Japanese ones are green too, because I’ve always seen them only cooked as tsukudani – brownish, close to black. Interestingly, Inago does not lose its shape even after a process of long and slow cooking. The sugar mass gives them an almost metallic look. Even the thin legs of those little insect organisms crunch surprisingly. It is miraculous how the tsukudani masters can prepare them. Try Inago?
Surprisingly, most of us don’t mind having a chicken leg or even a boiled pork knee on our plates, and yet we are reluctant to eat such beautifully prepared tiny Inago. We don’t even want to look at the dish! Some people explain that they are sorry for the little poor thing. That’s what Japanese women say. But I had different feelings. I was squeamish about Inago. They reminded me of cockroaches. Gokiburi. I have got used to many strange things in Japan, but not cockroaches. They live in houses and it is difficult to exterminate them. We also had them at home. No wonder I never bought an Inago grasshopper in delicatessen shops. I’ve always walked around the counter with tsukudani very quickly. The grasshoppers are typical tsukudani and I knew they were definitely there behind the glass. Ikanago as well as Inago. “Go” in the word means a child, but I didn’t see the little odd things as nice.
In Japan, tsukudani are very popular and widespread, and in all the Japanese delicacies I knew, they also had Inago or Ikanago. But times are also changing in Japan, and it so happened that the Japanese began to be as pampered and sensitive as I was, the twenty-year-old girl from Bohemia, forty years ago, who had never seen a live cockroach before. Last year, I wanted to buy Inago in Japan for the Grand Restaurant Miyabi Festival menu, because the theme was science fiction and the food of the future, but they were nowhere to be found. Everywhere they answered that tsukudani grasshoppers do not sell because there is no demand for them. In Kyoto there was not a single store that sold something so strange as Inago. I finally succeeded in Tokyo. I found Inago in the center part at Ginza in an old shop that keeps tradition. I ordered four kilos of this specialty and carried them to Czech in my suitcase. I was afraid that I would be asked at the airport in Prague to open my luggage. I do not know how I would have explained that I had grasshoppers intended for eating, because they are clean being fed with rice, more over very high quality rice. I would have probably offered the customs officers to taste them.
Now it is easy to make a jock and talk like this when I already know that the locusts taste very good, and when I have long ago overcame my initial resistance. Will you try? Miyabi is offering Inago right now! No? Yes? I have empathy for you because I remember well that evening and the night when the Inago locusts were a scary encounter for me. I was invited to visit a large family from the neighborhood. They wanted to honor me with dinner together. In the middle of the table, the bowls were full of goodies and we started to eat and enjoy the feast. I saw Inago right away. I was afraid of the moment when someone might encourage me to taste Inago. And that moment came. They explained how picky the grasshoppers were and that depending on whether they were going for a particular rice or not, it would be clear whether the rice contained chemicals or caught mold. I knew it would be rude not to taste Inago.
I encouraged myself, tried and to my surprise, the Inago were delicious. I stopped being squeamish about them and ate several of them to the delight of my hosts. The taste itself was no stranger to me, because of course I ate tsukudani many times. I was in Japan for the fourth year at that time. In the end, it was a very nice evening and I, full of impressions, returned home, put my son to sleep, and I also fell asleep quickly. But I had a nightmare about cockroaches. Stunned, I got out of bed and fainted. I broke through the shouji window panels, but otherwise nothing happened to me. My night event did not deter me from Inago locusts. I took as granted that they were beautiful and they were not cockroaches. What about you? Will you taste it?
Years later, when I went to Japan, I decided to do sightseeing to the island of Tsukuda in central Tokyo on the famous Sumida River. Sumidagawa. There is a part of the old quarter where there is a shop on the shop and they are all tsukudani. Being there I remembered an elegant Japanese lady I knew for long who came from a family of tsukudani producers. Their shop was at Shinbashi. This is a very old Tokyo neighborhood. I don’t know how many generations she and her husband have been successors of their shop. But I know they were respected citizens, and the lady was a master of the Tea ceremony. She was also a student at the art of the Noh Theater. Just to give you an idea that the tsukudani craft had and still has its high rank honor in Japan. The lady proudly said she was Edokko. A Tokyo child who carries the beauty and fame of this city.
Tsukudani. I warmly recommend them. You do not need to use at all to prepare your tsukudani from insects. But you can. There are many species of insects that are edible. And it is the food of the future. Mussels, baby fern, burdock root or, if you want, ordinary dandelion will serve you well. Here is the basic recipe:
Mix sake, mirin, sugar, bonito and add a lot of soy sauce. You can add grated ginger too. Add what you want to make as tsukudani and cook slowly for a few hours at a minimum temperature until the sauce is fully absorbed.
I will never forget the evening I first ate Inago tsukudani. I am glad that it did not become a fatal traumatic event for me, but instead it became an important lesson, when I learned that the courage to accept the hospitality as served, even in the form of a caramelized grasshopper, pays off. Hospitality is a gift to our lives!
Yours, Miyabi Darja