Literally, "sea grapes", umi budo are a type of sea kelp that gets its name from their physical resemblence to grapes. They are found in the warm seas of Okinawa and then shipped to various other locations in Japan in a plastic sac filled with salt water. Before serving, they are lightly washed (to wash off the sea water) and then soaked in room temperature water for about 3 minutes to bring it back to its fully buoyant state.
It sounds harmless enough, doesn't it? Well, the first time I followed this procedure, I nearly had a heart attack. Let me explain.
Yikes! It's like little worms coming to life! Slightly disturbing, but way fun all the same. As you can imagine, once fully inflated, they make popping sounds when you bite down on them with your tongue and mouth. The taste? Compared to caviar they are less salty and bigger; compared to ikura (salmon roe) they are smaller and contain less liquid; kazunoko (herring roe) is much more rubbery than umi budo whereas tobiko (flying fish roe) is way more crunchy. Hmm, I managed to almost completely
But wait, wait! That is not to say they are boring, and in fact, they are very good, especially because you can dip them in various sauces to enjoy various flavors! With just the right amount of salty and fun texture, they make a great otsumami (or snack, usually accompanied by an alcohoic drink like beer). I eat them dipped in ponzu (a mixture of soy sauce and yuzu or sudachi citrus) but that already means you can try them with soy sauce and wasabi, plus I have heard of it being served over sushi rice as a donburi (rice bowl). This is definitely something worth trying--at least so you can say you have, and at most because you might even like it! In Tokyo, visit Okinawan restaurant Achi Ko Ko in the Shinbashi/Yurakucho area, where they serve 'em fresh (I'm guessing freshness is key with these little guys). And while there, order a glass of authentic Okinawan liquor to complete the otsumami experience: awamori is a 60-proof, distilled rice wine from the southern islands.
海ぶどう umi budo
Achi Ko Ko (あちこーこー)
2-3-2 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku