Gut Instinct: The Heart of the (Reproductive) Matter

These men are named Milt. Trust me, you didn't want to see a picture of cod milt. Eeeee!

Over the last three decades numerous dubious foodstuffs have passed twixt my lips, from spicy horse jerky (chewy!) to sautéed lamb mammary (squishy!) to stir-fried pork bung (rubbery!). But till last week, I’d never experienced the gustatory pleasures of sperm.

To rectify that glaring culinary omission, I licked my lips and sought out shirako, aka cod milt, aka cod sperm. Come winter, the cod is mature and raring to mate. Before it can spread its seed, the cod is caught and its baby batter—a fat blob that recalls brains—is carefully harvested. Most is shipped to Japan, where locals relish this fleeting, um, delicacy. Instead of booking an overseas flight to sample milt, I instead booked it to Williamsburg’s Zenkichi (77 N. 6th St. at Wythe Ave., 718- 388-8985; B’klyn). Each winter, the izakaya makes milt the centerpiece of its omakase tast ing menu. I booked a reservation for two. My girlfriend did not favor joining me for dinner.

“I’m not putting that in my mouth,” she said. “I’m a vegetarian.”

“A vegetarian that eats fish,” I replied. “That is not fish,” she said. “Go ask your meat girlfriend.”

Whereas my girlfriend has many wonderful attributes—a kindly heart, sharp design sense, the ability to tolerate my moods that shift as quickly as the San Francisco weather—her vegetarianism can be a thorn in my stomach.When I crave flesh or edible oddities, I instead enlist my friend Julie. She’s a curious, limitless eater with an unquenchable thirst for spirits and beer. I presented her with my pitch, not bothering to sugarcoat what would go down her throat. “Want to eat cod sperm?” “Eeeeeee,” she replied. “Is that a yes?” “Eeeeeeeee!” And like that, we strolled into the dark and winding Zenkichi and sat in a secluded booth.We started with a bowl of lightly salted miso swimming with chewy strips of fried tofu.The warming, comforting broth was followed by a selection of cool and fresh sashimi and a bowlful of jiggling milt. It was as white as a Florida beach, though far less appealing.

Not allowing common sense to override my stomach, I grabbed a tiny spoon and dug into the custard-soft coiled milt.The texture was as smooth as gelato, with a sweet, mineraly flavor, like undercooked sweetbreads of the sea.Though some may savor the silkiness, I found the relentless creaminess off-putting— oh, my kingdom for some textural contrast! Moreover, the earthy undercurrent reminded me that this was seminal fluid masquerading as sustenance. Halfway through, I called it quits.

“All done!” Julie said. “Did you enjoy it?” “I ate it quickly.” Any lingering traces of gonads were rapidly erased by slippery, unctuous Kumamoto oysters served with a sprightly ponzu citrus sauce. A lightly grilled scallop preened on a bed of greens tarted up with onion-ginger dressing.The seared kobe beef was fatty and flavorful, and grilled black cod was given a rich, salty depth by a miso marinade.

But our escape from reproductive organs was brief. Silky tofu was topped by uni, better known as a sea urchin’s ovaries. Sweet shrimp, which arrived with a pleasingly spicy cod-roe sauce, also wore a crown of uni. It was scrumptious, sure, but I was nearing gonad overload. I smiled wanly as a crisp, golden pile of tempura comprised of green chrysanthemum leaves and cod milt arrived. This was less a repast than a test of someone’s manliness. Or lack thereof.

“Do it!” Julie urged, as I tossed some tempura into my mouth.The batter-dipped bite was crunchy and unctuous, delicate and addictive—another testament to the transformative powers of hot oil.

“Now that’s good milt,” I mumbled, my mouth full of reproductive matter. I had seconds, pairing the fried milt with a rich, malty Yebisu lager. Beer and spermatozoa: Two great tastes that taste great together!

Julie was equally enraptured. “My insides have been spanked by the fishie sperm and ovaries,” Julie said. She sighed, then patted a belly grown big on the instruments of procreation. In the darkened light, with eyes grown hazy on beer, you might say that she looked a little bit pregnant.

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