Posted 17 June 2002 - 06:21 AM
Posted 17 June 2002 - 06:35 AM
I don't care if it costs a C-note to walk into a good sushi bar. That doesn't make it special, any more than spending a C-note at the local tap is special -- although you get to hear a lot more George Jones there. And I don't care if the Japanese have practiced the sushi arts for thousands of years. These are people, after all, who go ape shit over clear soup and a bowl of white rice.
Sushi is little more than OK. It's nourishing and a decent change of pace if you've been binging on too much heavy, spicy food. My objections are to the way it's comically overpriced and to the preening fools whose eyes roll back in their heads when they describe the exquisite joys of the stuff.
Come on, now. The best specimens of sashimi...the really, really fresh and beautiful stuff...well, it tastes like...like...nothing.
Subtlety is one thing. But waxing poetic over the fine shadings of blandness in the sushi world is a little like getting excited about a taste test between loaves of supermarket white bread. You know there's something wrong with a cuisine if you can only taste it when it goes bad.
Yeah, yeah, there are barely noticeable differences in flavor and texture between raw tuna and yellowtail and mackerel and the rest. But they are about half as interesting as those found in a 99-cent bag of trail mix.
Lest sushi lovers dismiss these as the rantings of a palateless oaf, let me stipulate that I like my steaks as bloody rare, my veggies and pasta as al dente, and my wine as complex as any culinary snob does. When I was in fighting shape, I could put on a blindfold and correctly identify six different snifters of cognac, one after another, in a smoky room.
So I don't need some raw fish lover looking down his nose at my taste buds, particularly after he slathers those tiny pieces of flesh with enough wasabi sauce to loosen a healthy man's molars. Subtlety, my arse. I dare any sashimi lover to tell me the difference between a slice of halibut and a slice of bulldog butt, if they're both covered in horseradish.
Wasabi has no business being within a mile of anything that's supposed to be a subtle delicacy. If you like the stuff, fine. Safe yourself a Franklin and spread it on an oyster cracker or a ball of tortilla dough.
People who croon over sushi and sashimi remind me of a waiter we had a couple of years ago in San Fransisco. When I asked for a glass of water with my cocktail, he clutched his pad to his breast and asked if I was feeling adventurous. Hey, I go to sleep every night without a loaded pistol at my side, so of course I said yes.
"We just got a limited shipment of the Evian millennium edition," he said. "It's nothing short of superb." I told him to bring it on.
He brought the bottle, swaddled in linen, and opened it ceremoniously. Then he poured a small taster's sample, rounding up the neck as if he were handling a 75-year-old Bordeaux. He leaned forward expectantly, my wife and I looked at each other with Peter Lorre eyes, and I took a sip.
To this day one of my life's great regrets is that I did not do a Danny Thomas coffee-spraying take at that moment. Instead, I said it was nice and asked him to leave the cap off so it could breathe.
For the benefit of sushi lovers, I should mention that the water tasted pretty much like water.
To be fair, I'll admit there is much to like in sushi bars. The atmosphere is typically serene, and the presentation rituals are nice. Some of the seaweed-wrapped rolls actually have interesting combinations of fish, rice, roe, vegetables and spices. And after a few table-slapping giggle sessions with friends, I've come to understand the righteousness of warm sake.
I'll also grant that I'm put out with people who are put out with the mere idea of eating raw fish. In Texas, where I live, there are millions of such people. A few months ago, I asked a friend after a round of golf if he felt like stopping in at a sushi bar. Here's a transcript of the exchange that ensued:
No, I don't like sushi.
Have you ever tried it?
Because I don't like it.
As my father used to say in other contexts, that's just plain ig-nernt. I would sympathize with the sushi fans' exasperation with that kind of know-nothingism, if they'd just admit that sushi, for all it's modest charms, can't hold a candle to a plate of Mexican or Indian or Chinese or Italian or Vietnamese or just about any other cooked, seasoned, non-British food.
The best advice I can give sushi lovers, or food lovers in general, is to save a small fortune by eating the best sushi of all -- the unrinsed raw Gulf Coast Oyster (or, as it's know here, the Guff Coast Oyschur). And forget that stuff about R months. Oysters, like boiled ham, are always ready to go.
A personal aside: Here lately the oyster bar up the street has been selling them for $2 a dozen at happy hour. They're salty, solid, brimming with muddy flavor, and as big as hamsters. Normally such size works against oyster excellence, but these are the best I've ever had.
That's saying a lot, because I've had a lot of them rascals. In the old days my brother-in-law, before he became a Bataan Death March-looking vegan, used to challenge me to oyster-eating duels in the French Quarter every New Year's Eve. You could buy 'sters on the Bourbon Street sidewalks then, and you'd slosh down each slurp from a milk carton filled with cold Dixie Beer. We'd eat so many of the damned things we'd come home with blisters on both sides of our mouths from the shells.
Two bucks a dozen. Imagine. Two bucks will almost get you a shot of soy sauce at a sushi bar. Or a glass of water in San Fransisco.
Come to think of it, if oyster shuckers would start charging fifty bucks a dozen for their little treats, they'd have yuppies lined up around the block.
Posted 17 June 2002 - 12:54 PM
Nice column, Joe. In my career as a very amateur anthropologist, I've concluded that the Japanese didn't develop sushi because it was so delicious. They developed it because they had to.
Living on a small set of mountainous islands short of arable land and surrounded by the sea, the Japanese had to develop seafood as their primary source of nourishment. Because their cities were also historically susceptible to fire -- a fact that the U.S. Army Air Corps exploited in the Big One -- they weren't real big on cooking with flame. Hence, raw fish.
Oh, by the way, to all sushi lovers: Sushi is raw fish. Doesn't sound so exotic this way, do it?
Posted 17 June 2002 - 12:55 PM
You've got a plausible hypothesis for the origin of sushi and sashimi in the Empire of the Sun, but I wonder about the flame bidness. They had to cook their rice, after all.
This reminds me of another San Fran experience. The day after the Evian Millenium unveiling, we stumbled into something called a yakatori bar, which kicks the ever-loving tofu out of sushi bars. There the chefs flash-grill (over roaring flames) tiny wooden skewers of marinated meats, fish and veggies. Now we're talking.
I should mention now that what prompted my column was a typically over-the-top sushi review I read recently in the Houston Chronicle. On May 24, restaurant critic Alison Cook wrote a sublimely fatuous paean to Kobu's, a Yuston sushi joint. As raw fish heads might say, here's a breathtakingly, exquisitely, delectably apropos excerpt:
"Here, in front of a wall of austere gray stone, reigns the stern-looking sushi master, Hajime Kubokawa (the "Kubo" for whom the restaurant is named), along with a tall, round-faced young lieutenant who may actually crack a smile. Separating congregants and priests are the sacramental fishes, meticulously carved up and just as meticulously arrayed in a low glass case atop the counter.
"Amid the restaurant's dimness, the fish are as glowingly lighted as museum treasures, as gleamy and mesmerizing as the wares in a high-priced jewelry store. You point, you murmur, and the ritual begins. The knives come out. The chosen fish is extracted from the case and sliced with surgical precision -- not to mention notable generosity. It is molded around a carefully formed bullet of sticky sushi rice. It is placed before you on its chaste porcelain rectangle with its chaste mounds of spring-green wasabi, the piercing Japanese horseradish, and peachy slivers of pickled ginger.
"You consider. You eat. And right away you realize that at Kubo's the usual dish of soy dip is irrelevant, an annoyance that just gets in the way of one of life's pure pleasures.
"There is glorious pale yellowtail so mild and melting that a baby could love it. Shiny-skinned, rosy mackerel that is the sea made solid, its brassy flavor counterpointed by a gemlike dot of wasabi and shaved scallion. A soft slab of maguro, the rose-red lean tuna that has such a clean, meaty taste. And, on lucky days, an even softer slice of toro, the paler, fatty tuna that is all velvet opulence -- an indulgence that would seem purely wicked were it not for all those omega-3 fats that are nothing but good for you."
Whoo-eee! That's damn good sushi!
Along them lines, allow me another word about oysters. As much as I love raw ones, the best way to have those babies is to toss the shells on a barbecue pit and let them simmer in their own juices. When they crack open or start bubbling around the lips, they're done. They are much easier to open now, releasing a puff of salty steam when the velvetine foot gently releases. (How's that, Alison?) Slurp 'em a la carte, or dip 'em in a bowl of garlic butter -- and then see if you've still got the nerve to blather about the wonders of raw snapper.
Man, I didn't know I had so much sushi material. And I'm not even finished. Permit me, oh gastronomical supplicants, to close with a true story.
Back in my Caribbean sailing charter days, I hosted a Caucasian couple whose adopted Japanese-American son had decided to eschew college to search for his ethnic roots -- in Dallas, of all places. One night during dinner they confided, with some discomfort, that their son was now an assistant chef in a sushi bar. Oozing empathy, I topped off their wine glasses and said something like, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."
Then I sank back into the main salon and reflected on the oxymoronic apotheosis that the term "sushi chef" represents. And I earned my week's charter fee by resisting the temptation to poke my head out and ask them to say "sushi sous chef" three times in a row.
Posted 17 June 2002 - 01:15 PM
Why is Christianity alone among the megafaiths in not attaching much religious significance to food? The Jews, Arabs and Hindus find profound moral implications in simple dietary preferences. Buddists perform tea and sushi rituals with almost the same solemnity Catholics display during the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. On the other hand, the Western civilization's secular culture is marked by a devotion to food that the Eastern world finds ridiculous.
Finally (for now), I remember a comic who talked about another culture clash centered on fish. He had a Cajun father and a Japanese mother. Dad often took the family fishing, he said. But by the time they got to the water, Mom had always eaten the bait.
Posted 19 June 2002 - 06:02 PM
You start with haddock, dip it in beer batter and deep fry (i.e. cook) it. It is accompianied by french fries, cole slaw, macaronni & cheese (the baked kind) and of course, a glass of beer.
Now why would anyone eat raw fish?
Posted 28 June 2002 - 06:44 AM
Next time instead of the expensive soy sauce ask for some ketchup. Gee first it was
bottled water, then designer bottled water and now premium desiger bottled water?
One thing I will have to give credit to is the REAL Kobe beef. Now that's a steak
like no other.
As far as sushi goes.....well the saying goes "fish or cut bait".
Sushi Sous Chef, Sushi Sous Chef, Sushi Sous Chef......I did it.
Posted 16 July 2002 - 04:21 AM
First, if you look around carefully, it might be possible to eat the stuff without selling your children into bondage. A dear friend of mine who is a sushi cultist recently took me to an actual sushi buffet down in Clear Lake, TX. We were able to eat all the raw salmon, shrimp, giant clam and halibut we wanted for $8.95. There also was a nice variety of sushi rolls and a generous assortment of traditional Oriental dishes for those who insist upon tasting what they eat.
My second mistake was assuming sushi is the exclusive purview of Lexus-driving yupsters. This place was swarming with as many beer bellies, blue jeans and backward baseball caps as a .38 Special concert.
I stand by my primary claim, however. My buddy waxed lyrical on the taste explosions he was experiencing with every bite. But if you had blindfolded me, I could have been persuaded I was slurping down chunks of heavily condensed air.
I had a few jiggers of warm sake, though, so I left the place feeling right with the universe -- and with a good and patient friend.
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