If you knew sushi . . .
A raw-fish fan gets to grips with an ancient staple
MY appetite for a fine sushi dinner has been piqued at Shimizu Sushi Museum in Shizuoka City on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Strolling through a re- created 100-year-old village filled with parasols and rice barrels and temples, I discover that sushi is a foodstuff first eaten by the Japanese in its simplest, fish-only form more than 2000 years ago.
Its evolution was gradual, with vinegar- spiked, fermented rice added to the fish as a preservative around AD1400, and the sushi with which most of us are familiar — fish and rice rolls sealed in a layer of kelp — made an appearance in the 1700s.
At nearby Tairyo Ichiba sushi restaurant, I anticipate a simple supper but haven’t reckoned on the diversity of seafood served up in this city that lives off the ocean’s fruits.
My meal starts with delicate shrimp tempura and a hot pot lined with concertinaed paper and filled with crab, clams, cod, shrimp, squid and a rich miso broth. A flame beneath the pot causes the broth to bubble and hiss around the juicy carapaces bobbing within.
These courses leave me replete, but there is more to come — chawan mushi (custardy steamed egg with fish and mushrooms); crispy fried abalone served inside its pearlescent shell; and sushi that somehow looks more authentic and grown-up than the sushi I eat back home. There are six little mounds of rice on this platter, each with raw seafood draped artfully across. There’s red shell mollusc, roe-scattered seaweed, butterflied prawn, sea bream, crab and glazed ocean eel, which contains less fat, I’m told, than its freshwater counterpart. I lift these morsels to my mouth with my fingers, having learned at the museum that true sushi lovers never use chopsticks.
This is a feast fit for an emperor, but now there is a yellowfin tuna worth about $3000 lying fat, glassy-eyed and shiny on the bench. Under the watchful eye of the restaurant’s chef and president, Miyazaki Shinji, young fishcutting specialist Kawase Toru slices confidently through the tuna’s silver-grey skin. He removes the head and segments the body, lifting out thick, pink flanks, cradling them as though they are babies; then he scrapes the bones clean with a spoon.
The exposed tuna fillet is silken, its colours graded from white to deep red. Shinji slices it into sashimi slivers and hands them to me on a plate. The red flesh, okomi, is ‘‘like ordinary fish’’, he says dismissively; the pink flesh, chutoro, is ‘‘middle of the range’’; but the white flesh, otoro, is most valuable of all. Sweet and fatty, it melts in a pool on my tongue.
Shinji holds aloft the denuded bones, and the fish’s yellow fins frame a skeleton of which I’ve consumed just a fraction — just as well, considering the fish’s value.
Toru turns his attention to making fish broth from the tuna’s head, and recouping the fatty, tasty meat and eyes for a special menu. Shinji looks up at the bones, still held aloft, and laughs. ‘‘It looks like I’ve eaten it all myself . . .’’ Catherine Marshall was a guest of JTB Central Japan and Singapore Airlines.