Masaaki’s sushi

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - JOSEPHINE ROWE

On Sun­day morn­ings at Ho­bart’s Farm Gate Mar­ket, the queue for Masaaki Koyama’s sushi is as much a fix­ture as his truck, air­brushed with fish scales and flow­ers. To at­tempt a de­mog­ra­phy via head­wear:

home-knit­ted bean­ies and brand-name bean­ies; a red­se­quinned beret and some­thing that looks like a re­pur­posed tea-cosy; AFL caps, rugby caps, hard­ware-chain hats; puffer-jacket hoods and hoodie hoods; and, op­ti­misti­cally, a pa­per-straw sun visor. All of these bob­bing in the uni­fied shuf­fle of a keep-warm dance.

Among the weekly faith­ful is a sub­stan­tial con­tin­gent of flight-tagged back­packs, MONA tote bags, bulky dig­i­tal cam­eras.

“Keep an eye on your purse, love,” a man stage-whis­pers to his wife. “We’re in con­vict coun­try.”

From this far back in the queue, the chef him­self can­not be seen. Only his hands are vis­i­ble, con­jur­ing at his sushi counter, now and again bran­dish­ing the or­ange-blue flame of a blow­torch to sear salmon aburi.

In the time it takes to reach the front, sev­eral kinds of weather pass over­head. In­nocu­ous cloud cover gives way to light icy rain that hits with de­lib­er­ate, min­i­mal­ist pre­ci­sion be­fore fierce, vis­cous sun­light scorches through, threat­en­ing to wilt the as­tro­turf.

Some­times peo­ple cheer when they reach the front. Masaaki and his mar­ket wing­man, Al­lan, cheer back.

Passers-by dou­ble-take, be­mused. “Must be some bloody good sushi.”

It has all the hall­marks of a feel-good film treat­ment: Ex­otic Stranger with world-class culi­nary ex­per­tise moves to small town at the bot­tom of an is­land at the bot­tom of world (ideally for love) and sets about ply­ing the trade he knows best, un­fa­mil­iar though it may be to his adopted home. At first, it seems like lu­nacy. Lo­cals are wary of the for­eign fare, and busi­ness is ag­o­nis­ingly, heart­break­ingly slow. The ta­bles in the mod­est restau­rant stay mostly empty; there’s much left­over rice. But the res­i­dents are grad­u­ally, steadily, over­whelm­ingly won over, and fer­vour trick­les out beyond the edges of the town to reach the ears, mouths and hearts of the state, the na­tion, the world. (Cue pho­to­graph of chef beam­ing, in wet­suit with surf­board tucked un­der one arm; an­other of chef beam­ing, cradling freshly caught tuna.)

Known fondly around Tas­ma­nia as the surf­ing sushi chef, Masaaki did in fact move to Aus­tralia for love: his for­mer English teacher in Osaka, a Tas­ma­nian girl. His tiny, epony­mous bricks-and-mor­tar in the Huon Val­ley town of Geeve­ston, an hour south of Ho­bart, is open Fri­day and Satur­day af­ter­noons, and books out weeks in ad­vance. The Farm Gate stall has been great pub­lic­ity for the restau­rant, but there’s also some­thing sweetly egal­i­tar­ian about it, al­low­ing peo­ple the op­por­tu­nity to try the best sushi in Tas­ma­nia in small, af­ford­able doses, with­out the long drive. Hence the queue.

So, is it worth the wait? Yes, in part for the sev­eral min­utes spent up close, watch­ing him com­pose. Be­tween or­ders, Masaaki sweeps his counter clean. Tab­ula rasa. He greets new cus­tomers gra­ciously, thank­ing them for wait­ing, then pre­pares each sushi roll with deft, un­ruf­fled at­ten­tion. Ev­ery­thing is metic­u­lously, el­e­gantly har­monised: vi­brant threads of lo­cal wakame, car­rot, beet­root and kin­shi tam­ago rest atop rich, dark tuna. A pre­cisely placed mesclun plume, a swipe of freshly ground Tas­ma­nian wasabi. Along with the han­dling of money, wasabi prepa­ra­tion is a task en­trusted to Al­lan. (Masaaki used to have an­other helper, but all the wasabi-grat­ing is not kind on the wrists.) The two have a quiet, com­fort­able rap­port, some­what vis­ually in­con­gru­ous in that small space: the tall burly An­glo, the fine-framed Ja­panese chef.

By 3 pm the sky has set­tled on sear­ing, and the mar­ket has been swept up. Masaaki’s sushi truck is now shut­tered and parked in the shade on the op­po­site side of the street. He ap­pears with chef gear swapped out for Tassie civvies: Kath­mandu po­lar fleece. But his ge­nial­ity re­mains, de­spite his hav­ing been awake and prep­ping at 1 am. Masaaki gently pro­poses cof­fee and is soon savour­ing a cap­puc­cino in small sips.

“Lucy wanted to go home, and I wanted to go … some­where,” he elab­o­rates of the shift to Aus­tralia. Some­where turned out to be Dover (pop­u­la­tion 958) at the base of the Huon Val­ley, a world away from Osaka, where Masaaki had worked as a sushi chef. He spent his first year in Tas­ma­nia fish­ing, chop­ping wood, and do­ing paint­ing and re­pair jobs for Lucy’s par­ents.

“And I en­joyed the en­vi­ron­ment – it’s beau­ti­ful here. The surf­ing is so great. More sharks, but less peo­ple. To be hon­est, I’m a lit­tle bit wor­ried about the sharks, but I al­ways for­get.”

Culi­nar­ily, Masaaki tested the wa­ters by set­ting up a sushi stall at the Taste of the Huon fes­ti­val. En­cour­aged by its suc­cess, he opened Masaaki’s Sushi in 2009, in a holein-the-wall next to his fa­ther-in-law’s Geeve­ston jew­ellery shop. At that time, many of the res­i­dents had never tasted sushi, and Masaaki had lit­tle English with which to per­suade them.

“For ba­si­cally two years I couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate. But I’m very friendly – I could live any­where.”

He com­pen­sated by smil­ing a lot, and let his sushi do the rest.

“One day I saw Lucy’s dad, Howard, laugh­ing and tak­ing a pic­ture of my open sign. I went out to see what was so funny. I’d spelled it like this: OPNE. I don’t know how many days it was like that.”

These days it likely wouldn’t mat­ter if the sign read OR­ANGES; peo­ple would still turn out in droves.

Masaaki is cu­ri­ous about the length of this morn­ing’s wait, and on hear­ing the an­swer he looks stricken. He has given a lot of thought to this, the per­plex­ing will­ing­ness to wait. It’s the im­pe­tus be­hind his pre-made lane: a con­so­la­tion

slip­stream for ready-to-go sashimi, inari and miso soup. It’s all de­li­cious, even if the artistry is not di­rectly wit­nessed – the miso a heartier broth than ex­pected, en­riched by cray­fish and stripey trum­peter. The like­ness of the lat­ter is painted on a board, mas­cot-style, in­side the truck.

But just as Masaaki ex­udes pa­tience – in the craft­ing of each dish, through the restau­rant’s lean early years – so too do his cus­tomers, new and old, in the weekly queue. And for most, per­haps, the wait­ing proves its own re­ward.

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