Sakura-ya in Forest Hills is one of my favorite Japanese groceries in New York City. And not just because it’s closer to home than the East Village. The selection isn’t as vast as in Manhattan, but there’s still a good variety ranging from dry goods to premade sashimi and the occasional bento box. I’m particularly fond of their uni, which is reasonably priced and fresh. Last week I didn’t see any on the shelf, so I grabbed a small container of seasoned scallop instead.
I popped the top off the ornate plastic tray expecting to see something vaguely scallopy. My preconceived notions were shattered as I gawked at ribbons of flesh that resembled pan-fried noodles. The tangled heap was shot through with tiny sesame seeds, slices of red chili, shards of ginger, and just a touch of garlic. The crunchy strands had a decidedly more oceanic flavor than scallops. A slightly sweet sauce pulled it all together making for a delicious snack. As much as I enjoyed it those brown edges of flesh, along with the strong flavor, raised a nagging question: Had I just eaten seasoned scallops or a Japanese version of scungilli?
I put this gastronomic puzzle out of my mind until yesterday when I passed by Sakura-ya and grabbed another container of seasoned scallop. At the register I asked if I was purchasing hotate and was assured that it was scallops and not conch or some other mollusk. Back home I tore open the package and dug in. It was just as delicious, but this time there was a bonus: a few tiny sweet nuggets of meat that were obviously bay scallops. Despite what they told me at Sakura-ya I still couldn’t believe that those noodly bits had come from the same creature.
After half an hour of wading through Japanese web sites my head was spinning. So I called Sakura-ya to help solve this oceanic mystery. It turns out that the only mollusk used is scallop. The slightly crunchy dark-fringed bits come from the mantle, which rings the inside of the shell and holds in the other organs, including the eyes. It's seldom eaten in this country, hence the reason I associated it with the dark-edged chewy scungilli of my youth. For a mere $2.99 and a little web research I managed to score a yummy snack and a lesson in bivalve anatomy.
73-05 Austin Street , Forest Hills NY 11375 (nr. Ascan Avenue, map)