Friday night I introduced my good friend Cortney to a few new foods, including Filipino chicken adobo. She liked it, a lot I think. I felt good that I cooked her first taste of adobo.
Actually, our dinner included three other foods that Cortney had never had besides the adobo: the beets in the goat cheese arugula salad, and our dessert of Nutella and stroopwafle.
Our dinner companion, Jenny, and I could hardly believe Cortney had never tasted Nutella, the velvety hazelnut spread popular in Europe and common swaddler of strawberries, crepes and bananas. I’ve even drank melted Nutella with espresso in the Nocciola at Cafe Rōm.
“Where have you been all my life?” exclaimed Cortney to the Nutella jar, into which she repeatedly dipped her butterknife. I sent her home with the jar as a parting gift.
Our dinner made me wonder, When was the first time I tried certain foods?
The first time I’d tasted stroopwafle, a Dutch breakfast and snack food – a thin, gooey layer of caramel sandwiched between thin waffle wafers, was in Amsterdam circa 2002, where they make it on food stalls, the beckoning saccharine scent wafting through the canals and byways. Fresh stroopwafle in my greedy little paws, I steeled myself against the Dutch overcast and unforgiving rain. Last Friday was the first time since then that I’d eaten it. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I spotted bags of mini-stroopwafle at Trader Joe’s.
And earlier last week I tried an uni shooter for the first time at Ai, a sushi restaurant and lounge in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. The appetizer came with a shot of tepid sake, drank first to cleanse the palate. Then we moved to the two shot glasses, each containing two pieces of uni – sea urchin gonads – very lightly dressed with ponzu sauce, chives and momiji oroshi. The uni itself were a burnt orange color and the shape of fat little tongues. Their consistency was smooth and custard-like, and their taste was smoky with a briny finish.
The uni shooter was a fleeting moment of ecstasy that I will not soon forget. Cross-your-eyes good, mouth-happy wonderment. Rarely do I eat something so incredible at the beginning of a meal that casts a shadow so dark, far and wide on the next dishes and courses (not because everything else was mediocre, but because the uni itself was so outstanding), and yet makes the entire escapade wholly worth it. In addition to the uni, Ai is the only place in Chicago that has a license from the FDA to serve the notorious, deadly-when-mishandled blowfish (fugu) when in season. They know what they’re doing here. Chicago, you need to eat uni at Ai, 358 W. Ontario. NEED.
The briny taste of the uni made me think of my favorite food, fresh raw oysters. It’s a treat I seek on special occasions and on the menus in cities bordering an ocean. I’ve taken road trips in their pursuit.
Like people who as children attended Catholic school, raw oyster lovers share an immediate kinship and affinity. I’ve made a lot of friends this way, shooting the breeze about our raw little friends. We ask each other questions of the trade. What accoutrements, if any, do you use? Lemon? Horseradish? Salt? Tabasco? Vinegar? Do you enjoy cooked oysters? Rockefellers? Po’boys? What was the greatest number of oysters you’ve consumed in one sitting? Me, I’m a “purist” of sorts; I like mine just with a quick squirt of fresh lemon, taking care to keep as much of the brine as possible. I don’t particularly like cooked oysters, but I had a wood-fired oyster with horseradish, preserved lemon and bacon at Chicago’s Girl and the Goat that was divine. And my number is 52.
Of course, I’ve had my share of bad oysters. And kids, that is not a fun ride to get on.
But I keep on eating raw oysters, looking for them and lusting after them. Why? Because I know how good oysters can be. I feel a bit of pity for people who won’t try them even once, and for others who slurped down a bad oyster his/her first time around and never try it again. This is the kind of joy I think everyone should have in their lives! Oysters for all!
I cannot imagine my life without. That would be a cold, heartless place. I’m glad that I had people gently guiding me during those first years of raw oystering. My mom and godmother knew the good place to take a three-year old for raw seafood, where the bivalve mollusks were both fresh, clean, plentiful and relatively affordable. (Hello, unlimited raw bar at now-defunct Boston Sea Party. I miss you so.) I’ve now taken up their torch and introduced many a curious friend to the joy of raw oysters, with mixed success. I’m a raw oyster evangelizer.