Monday, September 04, 2006

Transcending Fresh – ‘Foods to Die For’ Meme Item #5

This is my continuation of a Meme called: ‘5 things you've eaten and think that everyone should eat at least once before they die’, started by Melissa, of The Traveler's Lunchbox. I was selected by Haalo, of ‘Cook (almost) Anything at least once’, to offer my thoughts on the subject. Where upon I promply broke the rules and called mine 'Foods to Die For'. This #5 in my ascending list of 'Foods to Die For'. Wth #s 4,3,2 and 1 still to come.

There was a time I used to seek out sushi places. Like the search for the Holy Grail, I was always looking for a better sushi. Better quality fish. A more interesting preparation. Always searching for that magic sushi.

Of course, I never quite found it. Not in San Francisco, or LA, or other places. Although the sushi there can be very, very good. Because, like with any addiction, there seemed to be no ultimate fix, only the never ending search.

A few years later, I got the opportunity to travel frequently to Japan. All the islands. With a focus on Tokyo. But also Osaka. And I eventually got the chance to visit Seoul, Korea, a few times.

And that is how I learned not only to truly love sushi. I learned also of the four types of sushi.

And that sushi is a very, very location sensitive thing.

There’s Tokyo style sushi. Which is the most familiar to people outside of Japan. The familiar slightly sweet rice ball, slightly flattened, with a hint of wasabi, and usually some sort of precisely cut, exquisitely fresh raw fish on top. Or maybe fish roe. Or sea urchin. Everything bite sized. The range of flavors and textures is significant, and limited mainly by the skill of the sushi chef and the daring of the customer. For example, sea urchin with raw quail egg on sushi rice wrapped in a band of nori and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. Yum!

For some very good Toyko sushi, you can try a place called ‘Benten Yama Miyako’, in the Asakusa area of Toyko. Serving sushi since 1866. Just a block or so up from the Asakusa train station. An insider tip from a native sushi connoisseur. If you really want to get crazy, try some natto sushi.

Then there is Osaka style. Or box style sushi. Here the fresh fish, egg, vegetables, etc., are pressed into a box, with the rice pressed on top. The result is then inverted (fish on top, rice on bottom), and cut to size into squares. The size being a bit large, if you are used to Tokyo style sushi. The basic idea is naturally similar. But the difference is not only in the shape. Geometric designs are often made with a variety of fish and marinated vegetables as they are pressed into the box, making for a fascinating visual presentation. And both the rice and the vegetables are seasoned differently in Osaka. I have to admit to not being entirely sure of the specific nature of the differences, but you can readily taste it.

And then there is Seoul style. Where the concept of fresh is taken to the extreme. Fish so fresh, it is literally still alive as you bite into it. As we walked into the sushi restaurant, sea creatures in huge aquariums (fish, urchins, sea cucumbers, who knows what all), were pointed out to the waiter by our host. They appeared shortly thereafter, on a plate, still very much alive. And were prepared before our eyes – sliced, carved, scooped and formed on top of rice. And inserted into our mouths, still quivering and seemingly gasping for their last breath. I can only say that a lot of Soju (a Korean sake-like drink) helps the first time.

The forth kind of sushi is found everywhere else in the world. If you talk to anyone from Tokyo, Osaka or Seoul, the forth kind is known as bad sushi. Not being native of these places, I cannot pronounce such a harsh verdict on 99.9% of the sushi in the world.

But this is just a description of good sushi.

Sushi to die for takes a little more work.

And lots and lots of 18 hour flights to and from Japan. With transfers in Vancouver or Honolulu (yea!), and a ride in from Narita airport on the express train. And lots and lots of dinners out with the teams from the various offices. Shabu-Shabu, sukiyaki, and lots and lots of sushi.

It is always hard to inject yourself suddenly into another culture without spending all your time comparing it with what you are used to. It takes time to learn the tricks and nuances, and to begin to generate a feeling of ease – on both sides.

But, if you are lucky enough to achieve this, then you are on the verge of sushi to die for.

Because sushi is a very social thing. And it is a very local thing. It is done best in groups of people very comfortable with each other, who have done sushi together many times. And it is best done at familiar locals where everyone knows everyone else, as they probably more or less live there several evenings a week, and are on intimate terms with the sushi chef. Plus they know from a lifetime of experience which are the best sushi places in general, with the freshest fish and best chefs.

It always starts the same way. After staking out a tatami area. With sashimi, slices of raw fish, often eaten with shiso leaves, and usually accompanied by the ubiquitous slivered daikon radish and pickled ginger. Beer or sake is always there as well, with the trick being to never let your neighbor’s glass become empty. It’s your job, all night long, to keep that glass from becoming empty. Which makes it hopeless to have any clue as to how much sake or beer you’ve actually had.

And then the magic starts. Experienced sushi eating experts have already ‘felt out’ the crowd. And have a hit list of sushi orders ready to go. People take turns, passing discrete orders to the staff, who keep close track of the guests. With the goal to both keep the party going as well as to sort of up the ante little by little, especially when an outsider is present.

The proficient are like sushi DJs at a top club, adjusting tempo, intensity level, and sequence to achieve the ultimate effect.

And the sushi chef moves into top form. Creative. Incisive. Precise. Beautiful arrangements move out to the tatami booth with increasing frequency. Wildly exotic bites interspaced with more familiar items. And the dinners engage these wondrous tidbits with remarkable respect, following the sushi rules of etiquette at all times, as well as with clear gusto.

The guests and the chef synergistically fuel off each other in an ever escalating orgy of sushi love. Both in the creation of the sushi, as well as in the eating. A rare intimacy exists between creator and admirer. One rarely found in other types of restaurants.

It’s the ultimate small plates dining experience, and in my opinion, one of the ultimate food experiences in general. Everyone gets a taste. And the tastes change with every order. With all of this enjoyed while more or less sitting or laying back on the cushions on the floor. Maybe not quite Roman-orgy style, but definitely in that direction.

In a seemingly unlikely transformation in a usually rigidly structured social hierarchy, the lines of outsider (me) and everyone else can sort of melt a bit (for the evening, anyways). A feeling of camaraderie, fueled no doubt in part by the sake or beer, and greatly facilitated by the common appreciation for sushi, provides for a transcendental experience.

And, unlike a dinner in America or Europe, there is no predefined end to this. It simply goes on until everyone is sufficiently sated. To me, there is also some magic in this concept. Instead of going through the dining motions, knowing in advance what is about to happen and pretty much how it is going to end, this magic is limited only by the imagination and stamina of the participants.

Sushi, whether toro, saba, ebi, anago, hamachi, tako, uni, ikura, it’s all good. And, in my opinion, can be elevated to one of the top 'Foods to Die For'.

Next: number 4 on my ‘Foods to Die For’ list.

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1 Comments:

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12:26 AM  

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