Taste Test: Dried Sardines, Eel Spines, And Dried Squid

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demand and the fact that we love trying weird foods and candies,
A.V. Club will now regularly feature "Taste Tests." Feel free to
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Dried Sardines, Eel Spines, and Dried

The Encyclopedia Of Nations says
that Japanese fishermen caught 4,989,354 tons of fish in 2000. The nation has
nearly half a million fishing boats bringing their catch into 2,000 fishing
ports around the nation. The Japanese have to fish; most of
the nation's land is unfit for cultivation. But is the answer dried sardines?

Well, maybe. In Japan, fishy snack treats—mmm, eel
spine—are ubiquitous, whereas your average American probably hasn't
thought about eels having spines, much less what they taste like with a little
oil and sesame seeds. But maybe the Japanese find your big bag of K.C.
Masterpiece-flavored Jack Link's beef jerky repugnant—did you ever think
about that? Of course you didn't, oppressor.

But one country's everyday snack is another's delicacy, and
this week's Taste Test brings you impressions from the latter camp. We tried
small dried fish (sardines, says our Japanese colleague), with scales, lifeless
eyes, and disturbing facial expressions; crunchy eel spines with sesame seeds;
crunchy dried squid, also with sesame seeds. (Next week: chocolate-covered
shrimp treats and fried octopus! Mmm-mmm!)

The consensus favorite among the hearty, unsurprisingly
small group of Taste Testers was the squid. The pieces are quite thin and
roughly the size of small potato chips, and they have a satisfying crunch and
light-but-not-overwhelming fishy taste. They're the easiest to imagine grabbing
by the handful after spending some time in Japan. Of the three items, they also
have the least disgusting appearance. The slightly sweet coating gives them a
surprisingly bright shine, but also highlights the inner fibers and odd silver
streaks here and there. They rank second in the odor department—slightly
fishier than the eel spines, but not nearly as bad as the sardines.

Oh, the sardines. They were also a consensus-builder, and
that consensus was they're horribly disgusting. They taste like fish jerky and
smell about as pleasant as you'd imagine, but their little faces were the most
unsettling element. Some had their mouths open, making it look like they died
screaming. Fish don't scream (right?) but the gaping mouths of some of these
li'l guys was enough to inspire some guilt. And their disgusting, disgusting
taste has made us wonder if it was worth it.

The least smelly and least fishy of the trio were the eel
spines, jagged little crunchy chips that had a pleasant enough taste. Well, do
they actually taste like anything? We're probably just
tasting whatever oil they were cooked in. The crunch is satisfying, though
these snacks are awfully sharp and could lead to some unpleasant gum-poking. If
you were to imagine food that's designed to get caught in your throat, this is
what it'd look like.

Office reactions:


— "It's like potato chips—just slightly squidy."

— "The sesame seeds help. It's visually not
appealing—you can see bits of anatomy in here. It's got kind of a glossy,
syrupy soy syrup."

— "Um....." [Takes long swig of Diet Coke] "You know what it
tastes like? It taste like when I eat some tempura sushi and I get a little of
the crab shell."

— "Squid prevails. I ate two of 'em! That's big news!"

— "If you boiled those
in water I think you'd end up with a tasty fish soup, though probably a little
too sweet. As a cracker, it's something my stomach will probably dread having
to digest."


— "Why do I feel like the eel spine is going to taste just
like the squid did?"

— "Ow! I just got stabbed! They're really sharp."

— "I don't know, man. I liked the squid more than that.
Yeah, this is bad."

— "I can't have more than one. They're a safety hazard for

— "You know how with
most meat you eat the flesh and throw away the bones? I'd say this was frugality
run amok."

— "It's been 10 minutes
since I ate those crackers, and I still feel like someone dragged a small rake
down the back of my throat."


— "It looks like they died while they were frying."

— "That one is really fishy." [Makes hacking noise.]

— "No way, I can't do it."

— "I don't like the shape of this. I feel like it's going to
injure me."

— "It tastes like fish food smells."

— "How about something like this: the sweat of a fisherman's

— "The fish are just God-awful. The other two were not in
the same league. I'm kind of shaking now. It's kind of repulsive."

— "The sardines had the
added bonus of having their skins intact, which added an oily fishiness to the
mix. Hard to chew."

— "The Japanese answer
to beef jerky. With bones."

— "I ate a live aquarium
fish once in college. I think the one I ate today might have been its brother."

Where to find
A Japanese specialty grocer in your city? Beats us.