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I went to a Thai language school in Bangkok that didn’t use any English, forcing students to comprehend the language in situations rather than memorizing from rote. Our class consisted of Koreans, Japanese, Germans, and many other nationalities… most of whom had little or no English language abilities. For the first couple of weeks none of the students could communicate with each other during class. Then one day, out of nowhere, we were able to communicate to each other. I made the first joke in the classroom when the teacher asked us how we arrived at school that day. With a grin on my face I told the class that I had traveled via elephant to the school. A simple joke, but after weeks of being unable to communicate all the students shared a cathartic chuckle.

The next joke came surprisingly from the Japanese students during a lesson on words for food. They began teasing the Korean students about eating dog. We all laughed. The Korean student quipped back with, “Well, Japanese people eat raw horse.” The class was quiet. Did we hear that right? The word for horse is a tonal word that also shares identical pronunciation with “mother” and “dog” with the different meanings coming on tone. We played a bit of charades and realized, some with horror, that the Japanese did in fact eat raw horse. At first the idea bothered me, but then I thought more about it and reflected on my general trust in Japanese cuisine… a nation that was so particular about the nuances of food (and everything else for that matter) wouldn’t serve up something unworthy of digestion. I decided on that day that I would one day try horse sashimi.

Four years later I had the opportunity. It was our last night in Tokyo. I had seen horse on a few menus, but was a bit hesitant to order it up at a hole in the wall Izakaya or Yakitori restaurant. My Japanese friends assured me this was actually the best place to get it, however. Our friend Emu recommended a Sukiyaki restaurant in Roppongi that sold great food for those in the know and also horse sashimi.

Finding the restaurant proved difficult. There were no English language signs, the owner didn’t speak English, and no one on the street knew the name of the building we were told. So we paced back and forth, up and down Roppongi in search of a restaurant recommended by our Japanese friend Emu. Finally, just by dumb luck and persistence we found the shop, located in the Roppongi Building (we were told a different name).

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We stepped off the elevator and walked inside. The owner greeted us in Japanese, and then looked a bit surprised when we weren’t able to speak back. Apparently this wasn’t a place many tourists stumble into. He gestured for the hostess to show us to a sparse booth at the front of the shop.

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We were handed menus. Thankfully they had pictures as nothing was in English. Joanna ordered a pot of Sukiyaki and we debated with the owner, again via a combo of grunts and charades, over the portion size we’d need. Then I sounded out my best horse whinny and stated sashimi. The owner gave me a playful smile and asked for verification in very broken English, “horse sashimi?” I nodded in approval and we waited.

What came out didn’t meet my expectations. I had thought the price was a bit high for a piece of sashimi (2800 Yen) but thought that was maybe due to rareness of horse or something like that. Wrong. The high price was because I was getting a full BASKET of horse. The owner began again with the charades, pointing to the different parts of the body and back to the basket… identifying the various parts of the horse I’d be partaking in. I say I because Joanna is just coming around on regular sushi… there was no way she was sharing in horse sashimi with me.

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As best as we can figure I was served: Neck, Torso, Stomach, either Kidney or Liver, and Heart. You read it right… raw heart. The owner poured some soy sauce into my bowl and gestured for me to take some meat with the provided side of diced ginger and onion. I felt a bit silly with all the Japanese eyes in the restaurant on me, the owner hovering over my shoulder, and Joanna’s look of shock / horror / and curiosity. I started safely, I thought, with the neck meat. It was tough and chewy and took a very long time to get down. The flavor was about like a piece of raw eel, octopus, or any other tough fish. Since it didn’t come back up the other diners and owner seemed to lose interest and go back to their normal conversations, eating, and tasks.

Next I tried the torso. Again pretty tough, but OK in taste. Then came the stomach. It was actually pretty good, the best way I can describe it is like cold, fatty bacon. I had saved the “offal” for last. I took a moment to remind myself of various episodes of cooking shows and Top Chef I had seen dedicated to offal and other odd parts. All these trusted people I’d read about or seen on T.V. had managed through and come out unscathed. So with my nerves steadied I went straight for the heart, giving it a thorough washing in soy sauce, covering it with copious amounts of ginger and garlic, and tossed it deep into my mouth to attempt to just swallow it without chewing – fearful if I chewed too long and thought too much it might not make it down.

To my surprise it was the best of the bunch… well heart and stomach. I actually had a harder time getting the neck down in the end. After having sampled all 5 cuts of horse I went after the rest of the basket with a greater sense of confidence. The basket was obviously not meant for a table of people to share and not as a meal for one, but I wasn’t going to be the American that sent perfectly edible food back… so I ate the whole thing.

After I finished the horse, Joanna’s Sukiyaki came out. The owner graciously put all the ingredients in and helped us in cooking and knowing when things were finished.

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As we were about to tuck in the hostess came to our table with bowls of raw egg. We shot the owner a confused look and gestured as if to throw the egg in the pot. He took up a pair of chopsticks and showed us how to get some meat from the pot, dip it into the raw egg, and then eat it. My best guess is that the heat of the food coming out of the pot is so high, the eggs get a quick flash cooking on the spot. Apparently raw eggs are widely eaten in Japan with little or no cases of salmonella… go figure.

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I have to admit that even after eating raw horse heart, I found my sensibilities slightly offended at the thought of raw egg. I mean I’ve eaten raw beef, fish, and others for years…. but never eggs that’s just unsafe

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. But the eggs gave a perfect cool contrast to the beautiful Sukiyaki broth. I would love to go back to Japan in the winter and enjoy this dish again as it warmed me down deep inside like a hearty soup.

We paid the tab and enthusiastically thanked the owner for his assistance and the great food. Our last meal in Tokyo was a bit of an ordeal to find, challenged us more than any food has in quite some time, but left us not only with a great story to tell but also a wonderfully full stomach.

To find Hidari Uma go to the major Roppongi intersection and walk on the same side of the street as the TGI Fridays. Look for the Roppongi Building before you get to the TGI Fridays. Look for the following signs:

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Take the elevator to the 5th floor and you should see the following signs immediately off the elevator.

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If you find yourself in Roppongi, please look for this place or others and avoid the Hard Rock and TGI Fridays. Not saying anything bad about the restaurants (can imagine them being great for expats living in Japan needing a sense of home) but it’s worth the effort to eat local and not mega-chain
:)

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