In my book eating is an important way of pursuing pleasure. And, being someone who could never be described as being risk-averse, I’m generally willing to try most things (I’ve foresworn whole fried birds and insects because I’m not big on fried food; well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it)
I was introduced to sushi in 1993, and have been addicted ever since. For many, the thought of eating raw fish is a concept not only devoid of pleasure, but possibly also nausea-inducing. If only they would open their minds to the experience they would find that the texture is not squishy, and nor is the flavour in any way fishy. On the contrary, sushi is ‘clean’ food – no oil, no cream, no butter – that leaves the body feeling fantastic. Anyone not convinced should visit any one of the many Okinawan centenarians.
To say that sushi is better in Tokyo than Cape Town is to open myself to accusations of name-dropping and pretentiousness. But it is so; apart from the skill and experience of the chefs, one has the choice of a vast array of fabulously fresh fish. Best of all, in a neighbourhood-type restaurant sushi can cost a third less than in Cape Town.
On a recent trip to Tokyo (I’d been twice before, taking part in the annual Foodex trade fair) I couldn’t wait to start eating. When I walked into a sushi restaurant on Monday night it was with a sense of excited anticipation. As I approached the intimacy of the sushi bar I could as easily have been a high-roller about to sit down at a blackjack table, with the croupier and sushi chef performing similar roles in administering the ‘high’. (Toss the potentially fatally toxic Fugu into the equation and one could as easily liken a sushi chef to a crack dealer.) The fish was everything I had anticipated, and more. I repeated the exercise on Tuesday and Thursday (at a different establishment), breaking on Wednesday for a hole-in-the-wall local-type spot purveying large bowls of noodles in soup.
On Friday, my last night, I returned to the first restaurant. All was going well; the chef told me (in broken English, it has to be said, but then my Japanese is so absent it cannot even break) about the restaurant closing for the annual holiday break, he told me about going to Bangkok to eat and play golf, and we established that we share the same non-low handicap. Whether he was trying to empty his fridges prior to departing, or whether he genuinely had taken a shine to his only Western customer, the chef then put a bowl in front of me. Well, it was more like an aquarium. A large number of fish, about an inch-and-a-half in length and translucent to the point of their intestines being visible, were rapidly swimming around in clear liquid.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in making friendships over plates of food it is that – not under any circumstances – do you without due expressions of appreciation and delight eat what is put before you. So, I dipped my chopsticks into the liquid, which only made them zoom around even faster. To my surprise I nabbed one, and then quickly transferred the wriggling creature to my mouth (it would have been very much more embarrassing to have the thing slither around the floor), taking care to get it straight onto my teeth so that its writhings could quickly be terminated.
I’m told that inebriated Japanese men often vomit in trains on their way home late at night. Not only do they do this, but it’s regarded as acceptable behaviour. However, I somehow don’t think that it’s quite the same thing for South African men to bring up wriggling fish all over a sushi bar.
I soon realised that fishing with chopsticks isn’t nearly as foolproof as shooting fish in a barrel. The chef motioned to me that I should bring the bowl to my mouth and shovel the contents in, Asian style. This was worse. Now I had no way of ensuring that I could get the blighters between my teeth. They were jumping around in my mouth resisting every effort on my part to swallow them. Washing them down with sake was not an option – it would have been a giveaway (as if my greening complexion hadn’t already done that!). Wishing away the death throes in my mouth I told myself that eating live oysters was – if only conceptually – no different.
To my great and everlasting relief the torture came to an end without any mishap. I then had the joy a little while later to see two bemused Japanese men go through the same experience.
During one of my family’s misguided attempts at keeping pets we had two goldfish, which we took delight in naming Sushi and Sashimi. Little did I know what gustatory adventure awaited me!