May 2, 2006
2 Live Food or The Fresh and The Furious. Live Drunken Shrimp & Live Lobster Sashimi. Seafood Village RH. Rowland Heights, CA.
From the fish tank to the drunk tank.
A lot of people know about fast food. Not so many know about live food. Let me briefly explain their differences.
Fast food is about portioning and consistency. It’s about delivering the same product over and over again to as many customers as possible no matter where the customer is experiencing the food. Give the customer what they have been trained to expect every time. Fast food means control. Full stop.
Live food, on the other hand, is variable in portion and inconsistent experientially. Nobody can promise the customer how her food will act and react or if it will act in any way at all. The live food dining experience may be a culinary Cirque du Soleil. Then again, it may be nothing to write home about. Or it may be a total horror show. The only thing certain about live food is uncertainty. In other words, expect the unexpected.
To illustrate, last year at the Prince Restaurant when I rassled with my infamous live octopus tentacles plate for the first time, they proved to be formidable prey and put up respectable resistance. Even before my chopsticks hovered anywhere near the plate, the short lively limbs, in hair-raising unison, wriggled wildly without pause for several minutes. Call it defiance or death with dignity. It was quite unnerving and completely unexpected.
The next time I was deranged enough to snack on live and dismembered octopus arms again, I noticed that the activity level was much less. These particular tentacles seemed to be lifeless, apathetic. Then I poked the pile of them and that was the defibrillating they needed to come back to life. But their actions didn’t reflect the esprit de corp mosh pit of the first bunch. These were sad and lackadaisical expressions of individual appendages. The octopus tentacles version of groovy and gloomy goth kids dancing to The Cure. Long and deliberate, their movements were almost lyrical. But once in my mouth they attacked me with the same ferocity of my cherry popping plate.
Drunken shrimp is yet another example of live food not giving a damn about consistency in your dining experience.
Drunken shrimp in the United States is represented in all sorts of styles from Chinese to Cajun and even Caribbean-style, each version using its own special booze to flavor the shrimp. In the U.S. all of these styles showcase cooked shrimp that is very much dead. And even though Chinese cuisine does offer a cooked drunken shrimp, the most famous version by far is the one that uses live shrimp.
My first adventure with drunken shrimp was three years ago in Shanghai, China. My brother eagerly treated me to this delicacy since it was one of his favorites and he knew it would soon be mine as well. Warren explained to me that drunken shrimp was a bowl of live shrimp “swimming” in very strong rice wine. The point of the rice wine was manifold: it would sanitize the shrimp, mellow out the shrimp, eventually kill the shrimp and flavor the shrimp. This dish is extremely simple. Get shrimp, add alcohol. It's a bachelor's dream recipe. This 30 second meal calls for many live shrimp in a bowl, next douse shrimp with rice wine then serve. You are advised to begin eating once the shrimp appear to be very relaxed, the idea being they will be less resistant. However some enthusiasts say the taste is better the more active the shrimp is. The flavor is in the fight. The difference between dead food and live food, they say, is that you can taste the animal’s soul. What that taste could be, I haven’t the freaking foggiest.
The shrimp normally used for drunken shrimp are small Asian white shrimp and appear to be gray-blue rather than white. At about a couple of inches or less, these shrimp don’t have much meat and are difficult to peel and eat. And since it was my first foray into drunken shrimpdom, I didn’t know how much movement to anticipate from these hammered decapods. The morsels in our bowl just sort of wriggled a little here and there. Not a single shrimp tried to make a bold get-away. They all seemed to be quite happy in their little wading pool of wine. Eventually, any and all motion in the bowl ceased and that’s when we began plucking out the shrimp. I took mine and held its head in my right hand and the tail in my left, gave it a twist and a tug, separated the head from the tail, sucked out the briny contents of the head, peeled the shell off of the tail and nibbled on the thimble full of flesh. The shrimp I picked was motionless but that didn’t mean it was dead. It could’ve just been passed out like a temp at the office Christmas party. Just a warning: if you try this dish, prepare to kill your food before you eat it. The flavor of the shrimp was dominated by the robust rice wine. The meat itself tasted faintly sweet. The entire experience was slightly amusing although unsatisfying. My drunken shrimp adventure soon became a distant memory as distant as Shanghai herself.
Only recently, I learned that live drunken shrimp actually existed outside of mainland China and could even be found in the United States. So with that bit of info, my search for live drunken shrimp in Los Angeles began which ultimately led me to the city of Rowland Heights, a vibrant Asian suburb about 20 miles east of Los Angeles. The restaurant is Seafood Village R.H. It’s your standard issue Chinese seafood banquet establishment. And it’s the kind of place that can set up a Chinese wedding banquet with a few hours notice - the karaoke machine slash d.j. kit sitting in a corner ready to party. I also discovered that drunken shrimp isn’t the only live dish available at the Seafood Village R.H. As a huge bonus, they also serve up live lobster sashimi, a delicacy I’ve only heard fanciful tales about.
Stories involving live lobster sashimi sounded so outrageous to me that I summarily discounted them and categorized them among the lucky fuck tales found in the Penthouse Forum and the grotesque descriptions of bat boy in the Weekly World News. Exaggerations, I thought, even urban legends. Both the live drunken shrimp and the live lobster sashimi are not on the menu. These are secret items. Somehow you have to already know.
It was my first trip to Seafood Village R.H. and I had already promised a feast like no other to my family, friends and guests. I carefully gave my order to the waiter in the best Mandarin Chinese I could conjure up. My worst fear was that I’d mutilate my Chinese and the waiter would bring me sweet and sour shrimp and a platter of steamed lobster. My other concern was that these live dishes were only occasional specials and wouldn’t be available that day. Thankfully, the waiter acknowledged my order and brought it to the kitchen.
The first dish out was the live drunken shrimp. But there was so little movement coming from the shrimp that I started to wonder if maybe these guys just didn’t know when to say when. Ideally, the drunken shrimp should be docile before consuming. This, however, was a little too docile. Like some of my past overly drunken dates, it’s not as fun when they’re just lying there. Technically, these drunken shrimp weren’t really shrimp either. They were prawns and only minutes before were scooped out from one of the many fish tanks lining the wall next to the kitchen’s entrance. In the tank these prawns were large and mighty. They dwarfed the drunken shrimp in Shanghai which were each the size of a child’s pinky while these prawns were more at the dimensions of Rocco Siffredi’s middle finger. The prawns averaged six-inches and looked very aggressive with their spiny appendages but were rendered harmless by the rice wine. What little fight was still left in these prawns was quickly fading away. These live "drunken" shrimp were fast becoming "dead by alcohol poisoning" shrimp. Still, they were tasty - a firm and sweet meat with a potent rice wine kick.
Not long after the shrimp arrived, the live lobster sashimi was presented. Immediately I noticed something queer about this so called live lobster sashimi. For starters, it was completely motionless. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me give you a quick explainer on live lobster sashimi before I start my rant.
Dead lobster walking.
Typically, live lobster sashimi is prepared with a lobster that is still living. You tell the waiter how many pounds of lobster you would like, he brings a live lobster to you for approval. Let’s say you approve, then things start to get interesting. Once you okay the lobster it goes into the kitchen for the chef to transform into live lobster sashimi. In Japan this is all done in front of you, sort of like Benihana’s but more morbid. The chef proceeds to sever the lobster in half – the tail end and the front end. The head or cephalothorax is kept intact and immediately mounted onto a bed of crushed ice so as to preserve whatever motor functions remain. Next, all of the meat is then removed from the tail and sliced thinly into sashimi portions. The tail’s empty shell is then put onto the bed of crushed ice where it will serve as the foundation for plating its own flesh. After the tail meat has been artistically displayed, the entire monstrosity is prettily garnished with lemons, red and green chili slices, sometimes maraschino cherries. Imagine Frankenstein’s monster with a tutu. What not to wear or, in this case, not to garnish.
Now back to the live lobster sashimi that just arrived to the table. As I mentioned before, it appeared listless. It didn’t seem to live up to the wild stories of live lobster sashimi that I heard from my brother around the campfire, maniacal yarns of lobster meals wounding the gourmand with their savagely thrashing legs. My lunch companions helped me scrutinize our lobster for any sign of life. Ben thought he saw an antenna quiver, but it was only my baby Chloe bumping the table. We were looking so hard at those parts that were supposed to move - the antennae, legs, claws - that we missed a big clue. Nobody bothered to point out the fact that the cephalothorax had been hallowed out clean. Unless this lobster was a ghost, it was not going to move a muscle…because it had no muscles! It was brainless too. It was as much an empty shell as its tail was. My trip was a waste, I thought. My promise of a unique dining experience was a complete dud. I spent the rest of the meal explaining to my guests what was supposed to have happened, sounding a lot like the insane tales of live lobster sashimi I used to hear and not really believe.
Hollow be thy name.
The waiter sheepishly returned to ask us how we wanted the rest of the lobster that was back in the kitchen to be cooked. This was the rest of the lobster that was supposed to be part of the cephalothorax, you know, the innards, claws and legs! Further, this was the rest of the lobster that was supposed to be part of our original dish. So now our options given by our waiter were either to fry the remainder of the lobster with a tempura batter or to turn it into a soup. I chose the soup to drown my disappointment.
There's a tear in my lobster soup.
I now was a man obsessed. Call me Ahab. And the shrimp and lobster are my Moby Dicks. I had to go back to the Seafood Village RH and this time I had to get the order right.
It was miserable, wet and rainy for my second trip to Seafood Village RH. The heavens were an ominous deep gray. The 60 east bound resembled a clogged artery thanks to the six car pile-up. All the omens were there - it was a perfect day for live seafood. Armed with video of live lobster sashimi and more accurate Mandarin Chinese, I ordered my live drunken shrimp and live lobster sashimi directly from the restaurant’s manager. For the drunken shrimp, I very clearly asked him to have the dish brought out as soon as the prawns were splashed with rice wine. For the live lobster sashimi, I played a Quicktime video of my brother’s live lobster sashimi from my camera. I also instructed him to bring it out ASAP. The manager was a straight-forward kind of guy. He seemed to understand and promised to deliver the goods as requested. But I wasn’t going to relax until I saw the food on my plate moving.
Be careful what you wish for.
The live drunken shrimp was again the first to come out since it is the easiest to make. The manager carried out a clear bowl brimming with live prawns and rice wine. Covering the bowl was a plate which we assumed would be used for placing the drunken shrimp upon. The manager set the bowl down and removed the plate. He then promptly walked away from the table.
Then it began.
With no warning, one prawn blasted out of the bowl and landed on to the industrial grade carpet. We all gasped and laughed. I went over to pick it up. The prawn bounced around in a spasm making it difficult to grab, but as soon as I did another would shoot out of the bowl and land on the floor. I’ve heard of popcorn shrimp but this was most definitely not the kind found on an Applebee’s menu. Our table’s amusement turned into trepidation when the bowl of prawns seemed to be hellbent on escaping back to the sea or at least to the fish tank. Returning them to the bowl was no easy task either. This batch happened to be a bunch of angry drunks. The prawns curled up and stretched out in my hand, flicking their spiny appendages at me. By now the prawns had completely drenched the tablecloth with rice wine and splattered us with a decent amount of the alcohol. They also began hurling themselves on to our table and practically on to our plates.
The tables around us began to notice the commotion. Our immediate neighbors laughed out loud. Another table was clearly disturbed. Some others wondered, “ Where was that on the menu?”
Taking back the reins, I was determined to make an example out of one of the prawns and grabbed the feistiest one. With its head in my left hand and its tail in my right, I twisted in opposite directions. The prawn resisted. I kept twisting until I felt a sickening tear and then pulled it apart until it became two. Quickly I peeled the shell away from the tail. Peeling a live prawn takes more effort than peeling a cooked one because its flesh and nerves are still fused to the shell and haven’t yet been cooked away from it. I popped the meat into my mouth. I felt a momentary twitch but after that it was sheer bliss. Live prawn is the sweetest flesh I’ve ever had (ahem, almost). Its flavor is buttery and sweet but in a refreshing natural way. The rice wine is precisely paired with the live meat making it that much sweeter and intoxicating. Sneaking in as a fleeting flavor is a metallic taste. Could this be the prawn's soul that I’m tasting as it dances on my tongue before it evaporates and flies away?
The last few prawns in the bowl are the fortunate ones. They've been soaking in booze long enough to the point of being oblivious to their circumstances. Although a few of them already have hangovers and vow never to swim in alcohol again, the rest of them tell each other how much they love each other. One prawn looks around and sees blurry faces and washed-out watercolor everywhere. The warm, fuzzy feelings remain, but then slowly, inevitably and mercifully the sweet prawns fade into the sweet hereafter.
At last it came time for the main event. Our four-pound live lobster sashimi was paraded out on an ornate wooden vessel shaped like an ancient Chinese boat. Don’t the Vikings have some kind of ritual involving a boat and their dead warriors? I don’t doubt that at one time our lobster was warrior-like battling predators such as wolf fish. But not today. At present its head is mounted on to a bed of crushed ice with the tail and its meat following. The head is propped up. The reunited lobster looks like it’s on its hind legs and poised to attack. But all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and all the king’s chefs could not put this lobster back together again. There was going to be no attack from this lobster. It could only lazily wave its right claw and generate slight movement from one of the antennae and maybe a random appendage.
The lobster’s eyes, glossy black with some sign of life, seemed to watch us snatch pieces of itself off of its back. That, however, is unlikely since the lobster has very poor vision. But why the cruel display? Was this sadism? Actually this display is a two thousand year-old Japanese tradition which has a more practical and less demented rationale. Essentially this presentation is the ultimate proof of freshness - the freshness date stamp from a time when the only proof of freshness was a twitching head. And, yes, it is worth all the histrionics.
Live lobster sashimi has a disarmingly crunchy texture that segues into a pleasant chewiness. Crunchewy, to steal a term. The flavor of the flesh is not as sweet as the prawns but still a noticeable flavor like a slight ocean nectar or a stolen Mermaid’s kiss. And when a wasabi-soy sauce slurry joins in with this fresh lobster meat, the sweet-salty plus the wasabi sting combination is so completely rewarding that any guilt inspired plans to join PETA suddenly vanish.
Seefood. Get it? See. Food. Nevermind.
The reality is live lobster sashimi is not live when it gets to the table. It was made dead as soon as it was cut into two. The remaining nerve or muscle reflexes give us the appearance that perhaps there is still something going on in there somewhere. "Maybe it sees us eating it," is a common observation. Maybe its last thoughts are of the happy giants who seem to be enjoying its flesh so much. They eat, smile and eat some more. They even make a toast in its honor. The lobster possibly thinks to itself that it has never made anyone so happy in its life, and now it finally has done so with the only life it had to give. And maybe it says to itself, “At least in my dying moments I brought joy to a table full of strangers.”
With the last of its consciousness drifting, its final thought may be, “Next time I’d like to come back as a man-eating shark.”
The lobster now lifeless with its eyes still black and glistening.