Shirako | Food specialty | Japan Restaurants, Wine, Travel, Opinions

Food article / commentary

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane
Country: Japan

Shirako is one of the most intriguing taste sensations alongside tempoyak and hasma from Malaysia, uni (sea urchin roe) and natto (fermented soy beans) from Japan and the amazing flavour of the migratory mutton birds from the islands off northern Tasmania.
Shirako is only available in the depths of winter in Japan. The name translates humorously as 'white children'.
The first time we were served this dish we debated whether it was a form of sweetbreads or brains due to its creamy texture. It wasn't! It turned out to be the sperm sac (and its contents) of the sea bass, but we later learned that it could come from any large fish of the sea. And the reason for the winter is that is the time they breed so that their sacs are full of sperm.
Now we should digress slightly here to ponder a similar taste sensation, namely caviar. Caviar is a food extracted from the ovaries of female fish. It is a highly sought after and expensive delicacy in most Western countries. But when we relate our experiences eating shirako which is extracted from the sac of a male fish we get a completely different reaction from people. Life is strange!
Our first experience of shirako was at the tiny 'standing restaurant' in Tokyo called Shimada. This restaurant is in a back street in the Ginza behind an unmarked door and is always packed with locals as well as the inevitable sprinkling of Westerners such as ourselves.
We hadn't ventured here for shirako. We had, instead, heard about an iconic dish served by the restaurant which was simply cold soba noodles smothered by grated house-made bottarga. Now we certainly enjoyed this dish as an end to the meal, however it was the shirako that stole the show for us. The combination of texture, mouth feel, flavour and intrigue really appealed to us. It was lie a cross between lambs' brains and custard.
Later that night we researched the dish on the Internet and found out exactly what we had eaten. We were very pleased that the chef had decided that we were up to the task!
So often in restaurants in Asia we are told that a dish we have ordered is not available because they think we won't like it. This is probably because so many Western diners have sent the dish back largely uneaten.
As it turned out, the next day we had booked into the refined Sushi-Ya run by a very young chef, Takao Ishiyama, who has been an apprentice at two or three very good Tokyo restaurants including Sushi Saito. The meal we had here was extraordinary and we loved every dish presented to us. We were also lucky because the chef had sourced some shirako that morning and we once again were served a similar dish half way through the meal. It was equally extraordinary.
As with brains, the cooking technique can be either steaming, grilling, shallow frying or even deep frying. In both cases ours had been lightly grilled for a very short amount of time.
We think we will try to visit Japan again in the depths of winter so that we can again have a great shirako experience.
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