“Eat the fin!”
I get this implore from a friend of mine, after he catches me staring down what’s left of the broiled whole squid we’ve ordered from Tokyo Table, a sprawling itzakaya joint in Orange County’s mega-planned community of Irvine. The rings and tentacles have long been dispatched, leaving only a fleshy triangle as proof of what was on the plate. Yet I’m at an impasse. After a few seconds, I have to ask.
“I can eat the fin?”
“Sure you can!” my friend exclaims. “It’s still squid!”
His statement makes its edible nature obvious. I trap the hunk of meat with my chopsticks and take a bite. It’s delicious. Not surprising, since the rest of the sacrificial cephalopod was tender with a slight kiss of brine. “I never knew you could eat the squid’s fin,” I confess. “That was cool.”
I’m no stranger to squid. I’ve been eating it since I was 13, when my older sister put me in charge of gutting and cleaning the critters when she decided to make fried calamari rings for a family dinner. I still remember the process being easy and gross: I chopped off the tentacles and fins, twisted off the head, pushed up the guts from its tube like toothpaste, and rinsed the hollowed body clean. At the risk of sounding like a slight sociopath, that moment is one of the fondest food memories of my youth. Thirty-odd years later, I still believed the sliced off legs and the body tube was the only part of the squid available to consume, possibly because we threw out the fins after they were removed. I was okay with this knowledge. Then my friend put me wise.
From a flavor perspective, it wasn’t life-changing. It wasn’t like eating my first plate of sweetbreads or my palate losing its birria virginity. But this doesn’t mean it was any less thrilling. It reiterated that I don’t know everything there is to know about food, and this is okay. This is a lesson that I think tends to get buried when it comes to people that are foodies, whether they’re self-proclaimed or they have a profession that organically links them to the designation. It’s something that I tamp down far too often through a weird combination of arrogance and embarrassment. My profession inadvertently makes me a hypothetical expert amongst my friends that have no ties to the food or beverage industry. Therefore, I tend to rationalize that it’s my duty, or at least in my best interest, to appear as if I know all and see all. This is completely wrong-headed, and it ultimately does nothing but stroke my own ego. Yet I do it, probably because I don’t want to let anyone down. This is risky in a sense, because if you’re bloviating from your backside, you run the risk of being found out, which is far worse than dishing out a pre-emptive let-down. My heart knows this, but my head is oftentimes thinks it knows better. On this night, with the squid fin before me, my heart broke through.
This wasn’t the evening’s first lesson. Before my friend educated me on squid fin, I taught him proper sake pouring etiquette – always pour your dining partner’s glass, and never pour for yourself. This may be why I felt compelled to tip my hand regarding my squid fin ignorance instead of just lunging toward it with chopsticks in hand, poised to play it off as if it was old hat. Regardless of impetus, my honesty was ultimately rewarded with an expansion of my knowledge base, a growth that further highlighted the ridiculous urge I have to mask my ignorance at times. One of the things that excites me most about food and drink is getting turned onto items or concepts that were previously off my radar. These are the moments that evolve not just my palate, but my perspective on food and drink. I shouldn’t be embarrassed that I don’t have all the answers. I should be thankful.
I imagine that a few people that read this may have been snickering throughout at my ignorance – How could he not know that the squid fin is edible? I bet you he doesn’t even know they’re also called “wings.” That’s fine. Laugh away. If David Chang can admit to ignorance to tacos on his show “Ugly Delicious,” I should have no problem owning up to the fact that, yes, I just discovered a piece of squid that I never knew could be on the menu, despite the fact I’ve been eating squid since the 1980s. I don’t have a problem with admitting such on this day. Knowing me, tomorrow may be different, which may be why I’m writing this up in the first place. At least I’ll be accountable for what I did and didn’t know, at least for one day.