New York Mart: Roasted Eel – The Bite

And now for something completely different...

Welcome back to The Bite, Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.

Take a moment to re-read that last line of The Bite’s intro blurb. “If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.” When Robert and I conceived of The Bite, it wasn’t to be just prepared foods served at restaurants and cafes, but also bottled and canned goods and other assorted comestibles unique to the area’s ethnic grocers. So, with more than a dozen great reviews of traditional foods under our belt, I began harassing Robert to try something a little more… fringe. On a visit to New York Mart yesterday, I told him that if he wanted to keep his job he’d eat and review whatever I bought him. To warm him up to the idea, I said I’d eat it, too. Below is his writeup. My thoughts are in parenthesis. – Ned.

Yes, this post’s title looks strange to me too, but I need to get it right. It should read New York Mart: Roasted Eel with Fermented Black Beans. There. That’s better. Isn’t it? (No.)

Children, this week’s Bite takes a further leap into the unknown and enters New York Mart to try one of the shelf-stable pre-packaged goods so common in the ethnic food stores of the neighborhood, but oh-so-strange to this Brooklyn Boy (Read “guilo.”). It’s time to discover some of the foodstuffs so beloved by our neighborhood’s immigrant population that they import it from their homeland.

I was joined by our illustrious publisher Ned Berke (The Magnificent) for a trip down the aisles, where he choose roasted eel with fermented black beans for our evening’s meal. I have to admit, watching Ned wander the aisles with a mischievous glean in his eyes as he searched for the most “exotic” (Read “disgusting.”) food for this week’s post made me more than a little nervous (He was sweating. No joke.). What was he going to choose and would I be able to stomach it?

Ned turned down my suggestions of pickled bok choy, pork fu, or fish jerky and settled on a little red can of roasted eel. Secretly, I was relieved, but I sure wasn’t going to admit that to Mr. Berke (I’ll remember that for next time.).  Thankfully there was an English title on the can. This wasn’t going to be a total surprise. I knew what to expect. I’ve had eel before, freshly caught in the waters of Long Island, but I’ve never had it canned. Or packed with fermented black beans. (Truth be told, I was sold on the Old Fisherman logo. That dude looks so happy.)

Now, I haven’t had canned fish, other than tuna, in at least 15 years and I was looking for the key to open the can. The last time I had sardines, they were packed with a key. So was canned ham. Where was the key on this and how the hell were we going to open it without one?

Way back in the old days, oddly shaped canned goods were packed with a key that you attached to a metal tab on the side or top of the can. You would turn the key, which pulled the tab, which in turn removed a thin metal strip from the can which would split the can in two or remove the top. There wasn’t one on this can. What was I going to do?

Was it eel? Or an old man?

After explaining my predicament and being greeted with raucous laughter from the young-uns in the house we broke out a can opener and opened the can of roasted eel with fermented black beans. (This part was like watching a caveman discover the first tool.)

I can’t report that opening the can was a pleasant experience, but it certainly wasn’t  unfamiliar. The smell reminded me of cat food (splattered on a decomposing raccoon corpse.). Cheap cat food.  Getting the cover off the fish, I was surprised to see how neatly it was canned.  Little pieces of eel were topped with black beans and a light red sauce.

(Let’s step back a moment here. Robert is seriously underplaying the smell of this stuff. He opened it near his face and immediately looked as if someone had slapped him. I was standing over him, and thought, “It can’t be that bad.” Then it wafted up and hit me, and this is when the first pang of regret shook my body. Regret and disgust. I guess more disgust. I looked up at Robert’s daughter, Laura, who reflected it pretty well. To the right is that smell in photographic terms. Back to Robert.)

Don’t get me wrong, I can’t say the eel made my mouth water in anticipation, but  it didn’t make me gag either. Was that a bone? (It was.) Was the eel skinned? (It was.) Only one way to find out.

I reached in and took a piece. Placing it in my mouth I was surprised to taste the traditional Chinese red barbecue sauce that you’d get on ribs. This wasn’t too bad, I may even like this, but then I chewed the eel. Ugh. The dried out eel had a texture reminiscent of a dried sponge.  Add the glops of gelatinousness sauce and, frankly, one bite was more than enough.

(A little more must be said about the texture. The taste of the item itself was sufficiently drowned in the barbecue sauce that it wasn’t very fishy, and once the smell dissipated this was actually something that didn’t revolt me. Except for the damn texture. Parts of it flaked and crumbled in my mouth, and small shards of soft bone stabbed at my gums. “Dry sponge” is pretty close to sum it up, but the whole thing seemed designed not to cooperate with your tongue, almost on an emotional level. It was angry dry sponge. Angry, and vengeful.)

I didn’t offer an opinion and watched as Ned tried it. He dove in with gusto and took a large fork full of the eel. After a second I asked him what he thought. “I don’t want to insult you,” he said. “Except for the texture, this tastes just like the pork jerky you made.”

I liked that jerky. Thanks. Jerk. (You’re welcome.)

New York Mart, 2309 Avenue U, (718) 891-8828.

We’ll be doing these adventurous takes on The Bite every once in a while. If you have a suggestion of something to try, leave it in the comments or shoot us an e-mail.