“I can eat anything you can eat” I boasted to my Japanese distributor, in yesterday’s post, thus laying down the challenge that found me in one of Tokyo’s best known sushi bars.
It was a local’s only affair with no pretensions to fancy or expensive. This tiny restaurant was all about the food and the owner had closed the place for the night: feeding only me, my distributor and a few dealers who were there primarily to watch this loud mouthed American eat a healthy portion of crow.
The meal began simply enough with all six of us lined up at the sushi bar enjoying a few beers, and lots of friendly “Kanpais!” which is the Japanese equivalent of “cheers”. The chef was working hard at bringing out the first appetizers and they certainly looked innocent enough. My expectations were that we’d get little sushi plates with our first courses on them, but instead I was surprised to find that the food was placed directly onto the shiny black counter in front of me at the bar. No plates at all. No chopsticks either. This reminded me of the first time I went to a fancy dinner and found multiple copies of forks and spoons in front of me. Which implement does one use to start with? I politely waited to see what the others would do. They politely waited to see what I would do. It was a standoff.
“How do you eat this?” Not a good start for someone trying to impress my hosts of just how Japanese I was.
“Just use your fingers.” He demonstrated by picking up the sushi, gently dipping the smallest portion into his soy sauce and eating it. I later learned that the word Sushi actually means “finger food” but that night it was all new to me. Cool! This would be fun. If I ate with my fingers as a kid my father would pop me on the head with a spoon. Here it was the way to do it. I picked up my piece of sushi and proceeded to drown it in my soy sauce and eat it. I saw every eye on me and they weren’t giving approving looks.
“You cannot enjoy the fish if you use so much sauce.” Approving nods went around the bar as they gently dipped just the smallest edge of the fish and rice morsel in the soy sauce. I had also noticed that unlike me, only the tiniest bit of the green Japanese hot mustard called wasabi was used. Mine was a grey mass floating in a pool of soy sauce and I cringed at my un-Japaneseness. I had a lot to learn.
The evening went on and the food got increasingly “challenging” as the chef would prepare something, place it on the counter in front of us and watch carefully as each consumed their share. It was nearly two hours into the meal and we had just finished eating live clam. My hosts delighted in watching my face as the chef took a live clam, still wiggling every time he whacked it, and quickly divided it up amongst the six of us. This thing was still moving! ”Chew it lightly and then release it so you can feel it move in your mouth. Very fresh.” I smiled and said I would but I didn’t. I pretended to follow the suggested protocol but instead bit down as hard as I could to end it for the little fellow quickly.
Next came plates and chopsticks and on those plates was a deep fried shrimp head complete with antenna, eye balls, what looked like a mouth and something fairly disgusting coming out of the severed part of the head. ”Mmmmmm” I said as I crunched the little fellows. It is good to make such noises to show you enjoy your food. Nothing challenging here was the message. Actually, between the many beers and the great chef’s abilities, I was actually able to enjoy these shrimp heads, much to my surprise. Down they went and I was ready for more.
My distributor had a long conversation with the chef and turned to me with great disappointment. Apparently the Puffer fish they were expecting did not arrive and we wouldn’t be eating it that evening. I later learned that this is an extremely poisonous fish and it takes great skill of the chef to serve only the portions of the fish that don’t kill you. One wrong move and you’re toast. I suppose it’s not good form to kill your customers either, they probably don’t pay the restaurant tab when you do. None the less, we wouldn’t be challenged that evening with the deadly fish. Instead they opted for spine. Yes, the spine of a fish.
The chef had a giant creature laying on his table that he expertly extracted the entire spine out of and handed it over to the woman assistant that watched his every move. The two of them never spoke to each other: the one seemingly reading the other’s mind and reacted perfectly, instantly, every time. She carried off the precious spine and a few minutes later it was returned to us on small plates, apparently being deep fried again. All eyes were on me to see if I would eat it. Heck, I’d come this far. I gingerly crunched the spine, chewed it up and swallowed. Approving looks all around the guests at the table. I passed.
Coming up on midnight I had eaten everything placed in front of me. I am not sure I had ever eaten that much food and clearly everyone was a bit uncomfortable with all the beer and food but we were soldiering on. My host said “You have done well Paul-San. Better than any American hi fi manufacturer yet. You are almost Japanese. We have one more challenge for you.” Ok, they’d thrown their best curve balls and I got through them all. It was nearly over. What could possibly be more challenging than what I’ve had so far? Natto.
Natto is not a fish. Rather, it is a simple concoction of fermented soy beans. For the truly diehard natto eater, there are apparently varying degrees of challenge to this meal, even for the Japanese. As you can imagine, fermenting something takes time. The more time you ferment something the greater the change to the original substance you start with. Thus, a very special version of this classic Japanese dish happened to be the specialty of this restaurant. Aged for a long, long time this was considered to be a challenging delicacy to be eaten at the end of a meal in this restaurant.
Six small bowls were placed on the sushi bar, one in front of each diner. All eyes were upon me as I stared down into the natto. If I hadn’t known better I would have guessed someone had blown their nose into my bowl. Great gobs of slime stared back at me. It was, perhaps, the single most disgusting “food” I had ever looked at. Was this some sort of joke to see if I was dumb enough to eat it and then they could all have a good laugh? You know, like when you convince the new employee that everyone dresses for Halloween and no one but he does? They waited. Then I noticed the smell.
It’s one thing to close your eyes and consume something that looks disgusting. It is quite another to eat something that smells as bad as it looks. I had come this far and these guys weren’t getting the best of me. This was, after all, a challenge and I had my honor at stake. Heck I had the honor of all Americans at stake! I dipped my chopsticks into the goo, pulled out a long slimy, stringy piece that had trouble separating itself from the mass in the bowl and put it in my mouth. Crap. It tastes like it smells. I grimaced and swallowed, hopeful I wasn’t going to pull a George Bush Sr. and hurl. It went down, I survived.
Applause from the five companions and the sushi chef erupted as I opened my eyes.
“You are now Japanese.” That was a great honor and a meal I will never forget.
Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.