I want to talk to you about sushi. Not your everyday breakfast sushi. I don’t want to talk about the standard sushi/udon lunch set sushi, and I certainly don’t want to talk about magical, touched-by-angels sushi. I want to talk to you about the experience of sushi in Japan.
I know many of you think that living in Japan means eating sushi every single day, and I know that many of you think that sounds like heaven on earth. And yes, at first, all that shoe-removing, chopstick-yielding, plate-sharing, floor-sitting fish for breakfast is awfully special — something that traditionally happens very far away. But living in Asia has a tendency to take the novelty out of eating it and before you know it, you are choking down fermented skate across from an elderly public official with hair coming out of his pointy ears and you are wishing you had never liked sashimi enough to be tricked into putting that stuff in your mouth. I promise you. Delicious and revolting aside, it does lose its appeal. Over time, it’s tacos or a decent slice of pizza that are exotic.
The sushi? It’s good, I will give you that. It’s really, really good. But what is most memorable about eating sushi in Japan is always, without question, the entire experience. Crowding around a low counter with friends, drinking beer and cold sake, while plate after plate of delicately prepared sashimi makes its way to the table.
In Okinawa, we have claimed Jiro-cho in Chatan as our own. We chat with the owner, while he carefully opens oysters from behind the bar. We order piece by piece and take his recommendations for the best cut of eel. We dip pumpkin tempura into green tea salts and munch on fried squid dipped in chili mayonnaise. We marvel at the deep fuchsia of the tuna and the vibrant coral of the salmon.
Jiro-cho has given me the incomparable pleasure of fresh grated wasabi. Prepared wasabi paste is still the more commonplace offering, even in Japan, and is hardly in the same category as the fresh pulp of the actual horseradish root. It has a clean and bright taste with that unmistakeable burn, right through your nasal passage and then just like that, the heat is gone in an instant.
When we eat sushi in Japan, we ooh and ahh at each new plate that is served and we take our time. We linger. As my friend Ricardo says, “We order until we are done.”
And whether or not the sushi is good empirically, I can assure you that the sushi-eating is indeed magical and touched-by-angels.