Shirako (or fish sperm sacs) in sauce — Photo courtesy of iStock / Love
Within my first month of living in Japan came my first date in Japan. And with my first date in Japan came my first experience eating piscine semen.
Until that point in my life, I hadn’t considered the existence of – let alone the prospect of eating – fish semen.
But there I was in labyrinthine alleyways of Osaka’s Shinsekai area at a tiny seafood izakaya filled with lively locals, feeling pretty proud of myself for downing slabs of raw squid, ankimo (steamed monkfish fish liver, known as the “foie gras of the sea”), and kanimiso (a grey/green paste of crab brains), when out came a bowl containing what looked like a raw human brain.
It was topped with some sliced spring onion, a shiso leaf and a soy sauce-based dressing. I asked my date, somewhat reluctantly, what it was. Fish sperm, he told me, through a mixture of broken English and pantomime circumlocution.
The fish sperm (or milt) is extracted in its entirety from the fish, and looks like the result of a human lobotomy. Depending on the level of seminal fluid contained in the sac, the color ranges from translucent and whitish with a pink hue to opaque and white as snow, hence shirako being represented by kanji characters meaning "white children."
In what sounds like a twisted chauvinistic joke – but is, in fact, entirely real – it’s believed to be good for the skin and have anti-aging properties, with high levels of protein, and vitamins B12 and D.
I went, tentatively, to pick up the shirako with my chopsticks, only to find it had the sticky viscosity of raw egg. But I wanted to keep face with my date and the onlookers, and adhere to my try-everything-once food policy, so I put it in my mouth. It was tepid, disconcertingly creamy and slightly fishy. Fans describe this as a "melting taste," "the sweetness with sea air" and "sensual umami."
This delicacy is not unique to Japan; Russians eat pickled herring semen (moloka) and Sicilians eat tuna milt (lattume) as a popular pasta topping, for example.
But the Japanese take things to another level. Considering other marine reproductive organs – caviar (fish eggs) and uni (sea urchin gonads) – are widely popular global delicacies, why not try fish sperm?
Here’s how to sample it if you visit Japan in winter:
Shirako tempura — Photo courtesy of iStock / gtlv
This is recommended, especially for shirako noobs, because anything deep fried in batter is bound to be infinitely more approachable. As with other types of tempura, shirako is dredged in a light batter and deep-fried. It’s crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside.
Raw shirako — Photo courtesy of iStock / karinsasaki
At the other end of the spectrum, shirako ponzu is for those who want a more straight-up sperm-eating experience, as was my introduction to the delicacy. It generally comes served with grated daikon, ponzu (a citrus and soy sauce dressing) and spring onion. Keep a sake (or a heated kanzake given the time of year) close by to wash it down as necessary.
Sushi topped with shirako — Photo courtesy of iStock / Chettarin
Gunkanmaki (battleship sushi) is the variety made up of a pressed rice ball wrapped with nori to make a little “ship,” and then topped with various ingredients. It’s the perfect vehicle for the sticky mess that is shirako.
Tara chirinabe with shirako — Photo courtesy of iStock / Promo_Link
Winter is hotpot season in Japan, and they come in many different varieties – miso and oyster, kimchi and pork, and shirako.
Grilled shirako — Photo courtesy of iStock / bonchan
Shirako can also be prepared grill-top, by cooking it over binchotan charcoal, giving the sac a tightness and the interior a velvety, pudding-like texture.
Chawanmushi (egg custard)
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Mushi is "steamed," chawan is "a tea cup." Chawanmushi is egg custard steamed in a tea cup, and when shirako is in season, you may find it on top or buried within your custard.
These are the most popular and commonly found ways to eat shirako, but if you go to more upmarket restaurants, you may find it prepared more creatively – tartlets, puree, and mousse, for example.