You know me, if I see something on a menu that I’ve never had (or even heard of) before, then I always feel duty bound to order it. And so in the FuRaiBo restaurant on Sawtelle Boulevard, (over 100 locations in Japan, just two in the USA, according to their business card) I obviously had to order an item called “Hanpen Cheese” The menu described it as “Fish cake w/Cheese Panko Breaded.” When it came it looked like this:
Of course, I grew up eating fishcakes from fish and chip shops in England – they were essentially a lump of deep-fried mashed potato with a minimal quantity of fish, this kind of thing:
The Hanpen Cheese was a different kind of thing, although I suppose just about recognizably from the same extended food group. It seemed to be a kind of sandwich: two slices of white fish (I couldn’t possibly have told you what kind of fish) with a slice of cheese in between them, (is that a line of seaweed in there too?) these slices then pankoed and deep fried.
Did it taste good? Well of course it did. Deep fried fish and cheese, you can hardly go wrong, but it took a bit of research when I got home to discover exactly what I’d eaten.
Yes, hanpen is generally a kind of fishcake, though ham and tofu may be involved, as well as or instead of both the fish and the cheese. Those mysterious slices of white fish were almost certainly made from surimi – the kind of paste they use in imitation crab sticks or fish sticks, that starts out looking like this:
So mystery solved, and really not all that mysterious as these things go. Will I order it next time I see it on a menu? Well I may or I may not, but I'll no longer feel duty bound.
After the FuRaiBo, and still with an urge for novelty blowing through my taste buds, I went to the Nijiya supermarket across the street and bought some of this to take home with me.
It was a curious, sweet, sticky salad of sand lances and walnuts. The Japanese name for sand lance (which I’d never even heard of before let alone eaten, and is sometimes known as the sand eel though it’s not a true relation of the eel) is Kugini. And I believe this salad, made by boiling the fish with soy sauce and sugar, is called Tsukudani, but don’t shoot me if I’ve got that wrong.
I have never seen whale on a menu, not even in Japan, though I did see it in supermarkets there, and (don’t hate me) I’ve eaten it, and it was an interesting rather than a great experience. The taste really was somewhere between meat and fish, as I suppose befits a marine mammal.
Now, life being as it is, I happened to be reading Jonathan Meades’ An Encyclopedia of Myself. I’m very fond of Jonathan Meades’ work, and was once mistaken for him. I was once also mistaken for food writer Jonathan Gold. Perhaps a pattern is emerging.
Anyway, Meades generally comes across as a pretty thorough-going omnivore, so imagine my surprise at discovering that there’s one food he’ll never eat and that’s whale. It seems to me that he had it in fairly grim circumstances, on Osmington Beach, in Dorset, and baked in a pie. (I had my whale as sashimi) He writes:
“It was a scuddy, billowy day when I ate the whale. Not the whole whale--I was only four--but enough whale to get the idea of whale's quiddity, to get a mnemonic fix, which persists over forty years, and is ocular and palatal and olfactory and haptic.”
(If you think he’s overcooking his prose there, I think you may have a point.)
Anyway, he hated the whale pie and tried to hide it under the pebbles on the beach. He concludes, “Since then, I've eaten the tripe of kine and sheep, sea slug (a.k.a. beche-de-mer), ox brain, lamb brain, pig brain and trotter and ear, duodenum and other intestines, spinal cord, flying fishes' eggs, beaver, salmon entails, testicles (rognons blanc), locust, etcetera. But there is a limit to omnivorous curiosity and carnal abandon. Whale is mine. Not another cubic metre will ever pass my lips.”
Does he really mean cubic metre? That’s a large amount of any kind of food. Perhaps he meant cubic millimeter. Also, interestingly, in an earlier version of this piece that appeared in the New Yorker in 1996 he included dog on his list of the exotica he'd eaten, but I suppose he now feels that’s unacceptable, and doesn’t want to be hated. Even so, given that it’s some 60 years since he last ate whale I’d have thought it might be worth giving it another try, maybe next time he sees it on a menu.