“Ayu!” Raquel screamed through the throngs of people. We’d found it, the allegedly delicious river fish served whole, complete with guts, brains and bones. Tucked in between a fried noodles place and an ancient Japanese float, home of the Kami, Japanese Gods of Nature, a woman was grilling fresh ayu. Two Japanese teenagers had ordered one of the eight inch fish, caught in a nearby mossy river, then skewered and salted. The chef held their order over a bed of hot coals and carefully turned the fish back and forth before handing it to the young couple. They looked apprehensive as they sized up their meal.
Not wanting to get discouraged, I hastily ordered one of the ayu and a beer to wash it down. (My last experience with the fish was anything but pleasant). The chef selected an ayu, already crusted in salt, and lowered it over the bed of coals. To my dismay, she grilled the fish for less than a minute before handing it to me. Wait! I wanted to say. That can’t be enough time to fully cook the viscera! But my Japanese skills are laughable, so instead I politely nodded and paid her for the fish.
I sized up the ayu. Its bony face stared back at me with eyes crusted in salt. Its fins looked like they’d choke me as soon as I tried to swallow one. Unsure of where to start, I bit into the plumpest part of the fish, its belly. Hot guts flowed into my mouth. It was salty and fishy and, actually, not that bad. Am I chewing intestines? I pondered as I masticated the strangely textured organs. Do fish even have intestines?
A note to eaters of ayu: Don’t look into the fish’s abdomen. I did, and immediately regretted it. At the back of an empty cavity, dotted with brown and green specks of fish guts, the spine and ribs joined together, daring me to eat the bony cage. Sanity returned before I ate the fish’s eyes or brains, and I remembered: people normally eat the sides of the fish, not the guts! I sunk my teeth into the ayu’s tiny flank.
Oishi! It was salty and rich! Reminiscent of salmon perhaps, but different, delicious! The bones added a nice crunchy texture to the tasty meat. Half the fish was gone before I remembered to offer my wife a bite. She nibbled the ayu’s side and smiled. This really was a tasty fish!
I enjoyed every bite of that delicious ayu (the spine and fins were crunchy and especially delicious) until I chomped into the gills. They tasted how I imagine the filter of poorly maintained fish tank would taste, like rotten algae and fish shit. Isn’t that what gills are? They’re oxygen filters. Eating gills is like eating the lungs from a chain-smoking monkey. I gagged at the thought, then chugged beer, desperate to be rid of the vile taste.
The nearby Japanese teenagers noticed my disgust and politely giggled to eachother. I wanted to explain, possibly through pantomime, that the fish was delicious, just the gills were nasty, but I didn’t bother. I think everyone likes that feeling of belonging, of being home. That feeling that one only really gets when foreigners get excited or confused or even repulsed by something the locals take for granted. So I said nothing, and let them belong.
Instead I wandered off in search of the Gods and the delicious sights and sounds the mortals of the festival were offering them.
Joe Darris currently lives in Japan. If you enjoyed this story, please +1 and share with your friends and family!