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Thursday, June 24, 2004


By the way, how do I look with this raw fish?

There's sushi, and then there's SUSHI. There's the kind you eat in a noisy, friendly atmosphere with all the prices written out in big black characters and taped to the walls. If you feel the act of reading and choosing is too much, just ask for any one of the various sushi setto (sets), depicted in laminated photographs stacked on every table.

On the other hand your sushi could just be rotating on a conveyor belt (called kaiten) right in front of you, in which case all you'd have to do is pick up the plates of choice (color-coded according to price) and eat until kingdom come. Such places are designed to minimize the stress of sushi-eating, by slashing all but the most basic communication between sushi chef and customer. Call it a sushi safe house.

But a lot of shokutsu (gourmands) will say that sushi is meaningless without the stress of engaging in sushi warfare. Which brings us to the third kind of sushi: the kind served in upscale restaurants with counters that often have no price list, much less a menu, and force one to confer meekly with the stern, disciplinarian sushi chef every two minutes.

My brother refers to such fare as tatakai no sushi (combat sushi) and refuses to partake of it unless he's in aggressively good health and has just been paid, which very rarely happens at the same time.

You can't blame him for wimping out -- in these establishments, the atmosphere is thick with tension and anxiety, causing the faint of heart to secretly clutch their wallets for support.

To the Japanese, entering a good sushi restaurant is similar to entering the confessional booth: you're rewarded, yes, but at the same time you'll get your dose of punishment.

For the shokutsu, punishment is part of the joy. But to reach that stage of sushi satori, they have spent years of their lives and hacked chunks off their incomes.

It is said that only people over 50 and of a certain social status can really carry off the art of sushi-eating. They are the ones who have earned the privilege of calling the chef oyaji-san (father) or taisho (boss) and engaging in some nice, predinner conversation involving politics and the weather. They have also earned the right to casually deploy such sushi jargon as gari (ginger slices), murasaki (soy sauce) and agari (tea).

To overdo the display of knowledge however, is tacky. A true shokutsu will know when to stop, and in any case will refrain from talking too loudly or too much. Fine sushi involves the wordless kakehiki (wheeling and dealing) between the chef and customer -- and the unwritten agreement is that if the chef deems you worthy, he will serve the best fish available, at reasonable prices.

The standard for worthiness may vary but a valued okyaku (guest) is expected to know what fish is in season, what kobachi (appetizer) best accompanies the fare, and whether the fishing boats in Hokkaido are doing good business. But even this is not enough.

The measure of the okyaku is in the all-important hajime no chumon (the first order) he makes after briefly scrutinizing the day's catch glistening in the glass cases.

With the voicing of this chumon, the chef will know exactly who he's dealing with. If the okyaku should choose anything off-season, or something outright expensive, like uni (sea urchin), or go straight for the greasy otoro (fatty tuna), then he will feel a chill descend over him, almost imperceptible but definitely there, emanating from the chef.

Fine sushi is never about satisfying your basic desires; it's about elevating the act of eating to an art form.

Before the days of kaiten and discount places, most sushi restaurants operated more or less along these lines. Back then, sushi wasn't something to actually taberu (eat), but to tsumamu (pluck off the plate), accompanied by a bit of beer or sake. It was never supposed to be filling, or meant for excessiveness. And the concept of the tabehodai (all-you-can-eat) was simply nonexistent. Sushi was in fact the coolest, snobbiest thing one could consume.

I once asked my grandmother, married to a cranky, self-absorbed male chauvinist for 50 years, what on earth had tied her to him for so long. Without hesitation, she came right back with the reply: "Sushiya ga yoku niau otokodene (He was a man who looked good in a sushi place)."

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