It has come to my attention that I am late to another party. It’s not the black dress shoe party – just last week I replaced the ones I’d been wearing since 1987. It’s not the DVR party, because we upgraded to one of those when we moved houses last month. And I’m not talking about the iPhone party, either, though I’m still waiting for just the right moment to jump on that bandwagon. I’m talking about the sushi party.
Though the term was already familiar to me, I faced sushi for the first time twenty-six years ago (not long after I bought the aforementioned black dress shoes.) The scene was a grocery store in Hawaii, the location of my summer job. My host, Geno, stopped at the supermarket on the way from my orientation to his house, where I would be staying for the next three weeks. There was sushi everywhere, but it wasn’t the kind of sushi I expected. This sushi was mostly rice in a seaweed wrapper. Where was the raw fish, I wondered?
Over the course of those three weeks, I went on a culinary tour of Asian food that I would dearly love to repeat. Prior to the pick-up, I went with my orientation group to a Mongolian Barbecue place that I still remember fondly. With Geno I discovered delicious Chinese food that to this day I have yet to see on a mainland menu, Korean Barbecue (who knew?), and Japanese tempura. It was at the Japanese restaurant that I truly began my sushi-cation. (That’s not a sushi vacation – I’m not quite ready for that yet – I’m talking sushi education.) Geno and his wife, Emiko, had already explained that sushi was more about the rice and the wrap, and that it may or may not include the raw fish I had long assumed was the essential ingredient. Raw fish, I learned, is actually called sashimi.
While I crunched happily away on my tempura, Geno ordered a plate of sashimi and offered me a bite. I don’t think he actually double-dog-dared me, but I didn’t want to leave the island without at least trying it. I doubt I chewed it very long. More likely I treated it much as I do a raw oyster: heavy on the sauce and light on the tongue time. But I tried it. Check sashimi off the bait – er, bucket – list.
Since that summer I could probably count on one hand the number of bites of sashimi I have had. In this same time period sushi (with or without sashimi) has become a sensation across America. My first encounter with something akin to a California roll was a couple of years ago here in Starkville at O.E.C. Japanese Express. I thought it was pretty good, and I was surprised to see all the ingredients that are going into sushi these days.
Despite the positive experience, two years later I doubt I have had another bite. If I go to Umi and have to choose between sushi and hibachi, I’m going with hibachi. I get dinner and a show, and I love that ginger sauce on everything they throw at me – literally. It won’t surprise you, then, to hear that on a recent trip to Oxford for a show of another kind, I was a bit wary when College Buddy suggested we check out the new sushi place. But we have eaten together many times in the last few years and he has yet to lead me astray, so we agreed to meet him and his wife at Jinsei.
Here’s the funny part. I didn’t order sushi. And there were plenty of options that actually included seafood that been properly battered and fried as the good Lord intended. Yet I did end up with two plates of raw meat.
The Wife ordered nachos for the table. I thought this was a bit odd for a Japanese restaurant, though I am certainly not averse to going out on a culinary limb. The chips were triangular and there was an adaptation of guacamole, but any similarities to Tex-Mex nachos ended there. This dish had shredded cabbage, carrots, edamame and little bits of barely-seared tuna. It took a little getting used to, but I ended up enthusiastically eating my fair share.
College Buddy got a couple of fancy sushi rolls for dinner but I stuck with a hot dish. A very hot dish, in fact. 525 degrees, according to the server. They called it River Rock Kobe, and it was the river rock, brought to the table on a bed of rock salt, that was so blooming hot. On a separate plate were about six thin slices of Kobe beef and a little dish of ponzu, a soy-based citrus sauce. This was a DIY dinner. I took a slice of Kobe, dipped it in the ponzu, and laid it on the rock a few seconds per side to cook it. There was smoke, there was sizzle, and it was delicious. Dinner and a show.
I may not quite be inside the party just yet, but I’m working my way to the door. Maybe if Little Dooey would put together a little pulled pork, a crawfish tail, and a tempura-fried dill pickle inside some Cajun dirty rice, and roll it all up in a turnip green, it would be an easier transition.