It’s quite easy for me to pinpoint why I wanted to start a food section in The Argus (besides the fact that I needed to bolster my slightly lacking resume): it was because I love food. Specifically, I love eating food. A friend recently remarked to me that she’s never seen someone eat the way that I do, and I took it as not just a compliment but as an affirmation that my life is on the right path. Food is my simplest pleasure. Yes, I do like to cook, but whether the food I eat comes from my own cast-iron pan, from the wok at a Thai restaurant, or from an “asado” in Argentina holds less importance than the literal process of deciding what I want to eat, engaging with the scenario in which I am eating, and then taking the utmost pleasure from every bite I take until my plate is wiped clean. Not eating until you’ve cleaned your plate is sacrilegious in my eyes. 

The women in my life have predominately influenced and guided me on my journey to becoming an intense lover of food—most importantly my mom and grandma. Between the two of them, I can’t begin to count the number of meals I’ve eaten out to the point where I’ve left the restaurant with an oversized stomach and a huge smile on my face. I’m incredibly lucky and privileged to have had these experiences, making it all the more important to me that I actively pursue this love of food which has been cultivated both for and by me. Ultimately, I ended up cooking with my mom the most when I was younger, but I really share my massive appetite and explorative approach to eating with my grandma.

As the matriarch of a Jewish family made up of three children and seven grandchildren, my grandma was always head honcho when it came to cooking on the Jewish holidays. Roast chicken, matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, and Thanksgiving stuffing were among her specialities. But she wasn’t authoritarian in her rule of the kitchen. My mom would often take care of the vegetable dishes, alongside my uncle helping with the brisket on Passover and my grandpa handling the latke frying duties during Hanukkah. When my grandpa passed away ten years ago, I immediately stepped up and took on latke responsibilities, which delighted my grandma beyond comparison. It was the first of many notable food collaborations we would have in the future, both inside and out of the kitchen.    

As I’ve gotten older, my grandma and I have developed a certain repertoire in the way we eat together. I’ll shoot her a text asking to get a meal, and she’ll respond in seconds with a place and time already picked out. We cover a variety of cuisines across Manhattan and sometimes even Brooklyn, but arguably my favorite outing with her is sushi. Around the corner from her apartment on the Upper West Side lies her favorite spot, Sushi Yasaka, a beautiful, traditional Japanese restaurant where I tried “uni” for the first time in my life. For those unfamiliar, “uni” is the reproductive organ of the sea urchin, mainly seen in the U.S. as a Japanese delicacy served over rice but also found in many other coastal regions of the world. For two prolifically ravenous eaters like myself and my grandma, “uni” represents a departure from our usual mountains of food. It’s more of an experience than a food, where you have to savor your bites, talk about the flavors of the sea creature, and moan about how delicious it is. We would always get other types of sushi, but the “uni,” which my mom is a huge fan of as well, usually stole the show.  

During my travels around South America after my semester abroad in Argentina, I encountered the best seafood I’ve ever had in my life on an island in Chile. It wasn’t necessarily that the crabs and mussels and salmon were of the highest quality, or paired with the finest ingredients, but that they had been harvested from the island itself. Prepared in traditional Chilean styles, they were served to me by Chileans who clearly took pride in their seafood and the dishes created from what they had caught that day. I tried an innovative salmon and potato hash from a gastropub, a local restaurant’s traditional crab “chupe” (a dip-like stew), and my friend’s host mother’s homemade salmon ceviche. But the crowning dish of my three days on the island was the sea urchin, similar in every sense to the “uni” my grandma and I would share at that sushi place, besides the name. In Chile, it was called “erizo.”    

One afternoon, I was walking around near the harbor, killing time before a boat tour, when I stumbled upon a series of ceviche stands, seemingly operating to serve a light, accessible lunch to people working near the harbor. It wasn’t the kind of place for a wandering American, yet my advanced level of Spanish and obvious knowledge and interest in their seafood prompted a conversation with the woman working at one of the stands. I asked her if she had any “erizo,” knowing that this ocean delicacy was popular in Chile. And while this woman didn’t have any on hand, she talked to a guy who talked to a guy, and the next thing I knew a full purple sea urchin was being harvested in front of me.

What was then given to me for only eight U.S. dollars was a pint container filled with the succulent, creamy morsels of sea urchin, nestled in their own juice, topped with chopped fresh chiles, a squeeze of lime, and a handful of red onion and cilantro. It could be called a ceviche, but was really just piles on piles of “erizo” with a few accompaniments. The size was a tad bit smaller than that of Sushi Yasaka, but it was still packed with flavor. In the past, I had only ever eaten one piece at a time of this sea urchin, setting my grandma back about 10 dollars a pop. Now I had upwards of 30 little guys swimming around in my container, and my taste buds were doing wet somersaults in my mouth as I sat down on the dock. I ate the “erizo” slowly at first, savoring each piece, and then ate faster, and then had to slow down as my stomach gurgled incessantly. The blend of pure sea urchin flavor (buttery, saltwater-infused goodness), acid, and crunchy onions and peppers was incomparable. I even risked potential food poisoning the next morning when I saved the dregs of the pint container to eat on a 12-hour bus ride. Those sea urchins couldn’t be wasted.      

When I recounted this story to my Grandma, she was not only overjoyed in that typical grandmother kind of way about me calling her, but she could also tell how significant my story was for our relationship. My experience had linked our own respective food identities together while also exemplifying how influential it had been for me to travel around a new continent on my own. I had tears in my eyes when I hung up the call, tears which returned after we finished the greatest (and only) “omakase” meal of my life. “Omakase,” a Japanese word which means “I’ll leave it up to you,” is basically a chef-created tasting menu, one which my grandma decided would be the perfect dinner date for us after I returned to New York. After my Chilean “erizo” experience and years of Sushi Yasaka, it was time for us to level up. 

Now, “uni” and “erizo” have become one and the same for me, connected by both their journeys through my intestinal organs as well as the way I shared my consumption of them with my Grandma. The “omakase” we ate together was one of the best meals we had ever shared, and I even allowed her to embarrass me in only the way a Jewish grandma can by bragging to the Mexican sushi chef that I went to Argentina, and then making me speak Spanish with him. When the “uni” dish came, plated simply with rice and yuzu, my Grandma and I didn’t waste time marveling. We dug right in, and in a matter of seconds the “uni” had vanished. Only now was the conversation allowed to begin.


Lewis Woloch can be reached at  

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