For my first dinner in Tokyo, 18 years ago, I went out with some acquaintances to a very traditional, old shitamachi (low city) restaurant. Our host, Mr. Sarata, promptly ordered raw horse and told me I had better get used to it, because people in Tokyo eat a lot of horse.
Five years passed before I encountered raw horse again. Partly it was the kind of restaurants I went to. Moreover, I didn't learn the kanji character for "horse" for about two years, so it may have been lurking on menus beneath characters I knew better, like "pig" and "bird" (which is always chicken, even though linguistically it doesn't have to be.)
I really don't remember my first impression of the taste of raw horse. I was being tested, but I am not squeamish, so my acquaintances probably got a more satisfying reaction from me on natto (fermented soybeans, which I've grown to tolerate) and shiokara (squid guts, which I still dislike).
Five years later, I was served raw horse as a delicacy at a ryokan (inn) in the countryside. It was slightly chilled and served with a raw egg, garlic and soy sauce for dipping. I found it delicious and finished not only my own, but also my squeamish friend Dean's portion.
After that it was in my repertoire of Japanese foods to order. But even though by then I could easily spot it on a menu, I rarely saw it on offer. I don't hang out in shitamachi, and maybe that's why.
Last week, though, I had raw horse twice, in two very different settings. The first, pictured at left, was at an open-air yakitori place in Shinjuku's Kabukicho district.
I was meeting an old friend for a late snack and frankly hadn't paid attention to the menu other than the sake list -- yakitori is pretty much yakitori. (I really like gizzard and heart.) Our neighbor got a plate of the tasty looking meat on the left, obviously not chicken or pork, so we wondered what it was.
The restaurant calls it "horse ham;" that plate was a bargain at 800 yen (about $9). It had been very slightly cured and was a little saltier than the raw product. It was delicious, with the tangy saltiness of the curing setting off the inherent sweetness of the horse.
I was surprised to find it in a yakitori place, but Kabukicho has plenty of shitamachi spirit -- it's the city's center of so many vices, packed with love hotels, massage parlors, yakuza bars, movie theaters, karaoke clubs and good cheap restaurants. One of my favorite liquor stores is there (Shinanoya) and there are three batting centers where you can swing at robotic pitchers for just 300 yen for 20 balls. Swinging and missing (EDIT -- Swinging and hitting long line drives) builds up an appetite; I really could eat a horse.
A few days later, in Kojimachi, a business district just north of the Imperial Palace, I was having a very pricey late-night snack in a stylish place with a great sake list when I spotted raw horse again. So I ordered it (1800 yen -- about $20), and it was served in the beautiful, more traditional presentation at the top of this page. While it was fine with the nama junmai ginjo sake I was enjoying, I really craved a nice red Burgundy.
Why do I like raw horse? It may be the most delicious raw red meat I've tried. It has great sweetness and juicy meaty flavor, and the mouthfeel is fine. While very tender, it doesn't melt in your mouth like Kobe beef; instead, it's just firm enough to require a couple short chews. I've almost always had it with chopped garlic and soy sauce, which are perfect accompaniments.
A couple days later, I saw raw horse on another menu, this time a fairly ordinary local izakaya. And it occurred to me that horse must currently be riding the wave of a culinary trend in Tokyo -- riding that wave into a guy with a sharp knife, that is.