by Kate Heyhoe
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
First Stop: Tokyo, Japan
"Irasshaimase!" The sushi chefs burst out this exuberant welcome as I enter the sushi-ya, or sushi bar, ducking beneath the traditional blue-patterned curtains.
The main sushi chef (the itamae) tries to tempt me with fugu, the poisonous puffer fish considered a delicacy in Japan. The other diners at the sushi bar wait in expectation, grinning and wondering whether an independent Western woman will take the challenge. Behind cupped hands, a slender, young woman whispers something to her companion. They look at me, eyes dancing, then at the sushi master, then titter quietly in anticipation. Will I be tonight's entertainment? Will I try the fugu?
Japanese dining is full of rituals. Even the seemingly casual sushi bar is laden with do's and don'ts. Do trust your sushi chef to select and create a masterful meal for you. Don't try the fugu.
Perhaps I'm overreacting here. Throughout Japan, the finest sushi masters know how to precisely serve the fugu so that minimal toxins create a tingling effect which thrill-seekers cherish. But just as mountaineers may perish on a slippery slope, some 300 fugu-eaters die annually from their merry little dance with Death's delicacy. Personally, I'm not that crazy. (Until it was outlawed in 1984, the liver of the fugu, known as both the tastiest and most toxic part, spawned even more deaths.)
I politely decline the fugu. Good natured mock expressions of disappointment travel down the sushi bar, but in a gesture of goodwill, the sushi chef himself raises a cup of sake. "Kampai!" he cries, uttering the traditional Japanese toast. Then wham! He slams the contents of the cup down his open gullet and bangs the empty cup down on the counter again. We all do the same. "Kampai! We shout in unison then wham and slam the sake. I think to myself, knowing how potent the kampai toasts can be, that I'm now even more glad I declined the chef's offer for fugu. Nothing like a wrong slip of the knife to really kill an evening, literally. (Can you imagine what he'd do if I'd actually accepted? Sake has an alcohol content of 16 percent, and a few kampai's add up quickly.)
"Itadakimasu!" Bon appetit! Itamae-san has crafted a special, nonlethal dish in my honor: sugatazushi. This unusual dish consists of a whole fish, in this case, a mackerel, which is stuffed with sushi rice, sliced, then served in its natural, original shape. I've never seen this type of sushi before, and I give my hearty compliments to the chef and share the treat with my companions.
That mackerel, and the other bites of sushi and sashimi, no doubt first touched land at the huge, bustling Tokyo Fish Market. With more than 60,000 fish mongers, sellers, packers, and movers, the sheer number of workers there is seven times larger than the town I live in. In fact, the market is more commonly known by the neighborhood it's located in, Tsukiji, and the whole place buzzes with the neighborhood's residents—friends, neighbors and relatives. This is the town and the wholesale market is the town's industry.
Tsukiji also sells meats, mushrooms, vegetables and other foods, but the driving commodity in the market is fish, to the tune of 5 million pounds per day, coming from more than 60 countries worldwide as well as local waters. By 3 AM, bicycles, trucks, carts, and forklifts ram and cram through every inch of walkable space, auctioneers disperse millions of dollars of the world's finest fish, and students of all ages participate in such classes as knife control, fish cookery, and sashimi and sushi mastering. By the time most receptionists are first answering the morning phones in downtown Tokyo, the people of Tsukiji are winding down with cold beers, dinner and preparing for bed.
I discover that our sushi chef is among the graduates of Tsukiji's rigorous fugu classes. The Harmonious Fugu Association prepares students for the national licensing exam required of all who plan to prepare fugu. A nerve-wracking competition, the exam takes place over two days. The written part on day one takes two hours to complete. The next day brings the intense hands-on evaluation, in which students have 20 minutes to precisely slice and separate the poisonous parts of the fish from the nontoxic sections. The written part of the exam sounds fine, but it's never been clear to me how the last part of the exam is judged. Do they make the students sample their own wares? Is the penalty for failure death by fugu ingestion? If the student eats the supposed nontoxic pieces and survives, does this automatically entitle him to the national fugu-chef seal of approval?
I guess that just as I have a reflex action against eating fugu, many foreigners have the same reaction just to eating raw fish, as either sashimi or sushi. Fortunately for them, the Japanese culinary repertoire includes fried foods (a technique introduced by the Portuguese), simmered beef sukiyaki, slurpy noodles, grilled teriyaki, and of course, rice.
Back at the sushi-ya, I enjoy more fugu-less bites of sashimi and sushi, sampling the kaki, maguro, and uni (oysters, tuna, and sea urchin), before craving something different, a new course. The itamae nods and utters a few words to his assistant. In a few minutes, I'm presented with chicken yakitori, grilled tidbits on bamboo skewers, and a small bowl of plain rice. Simple but satisfying and very tasty.
While fresh fish from Tsukiji may not be within your access, you can prepare other wonderful Japanese appetizers, such as chicken yakitori following the recipe below. And while rice in Japan is mainly eaten plain or as sushi-rice, there are a few variations that make a meal in themselves, even without fish or meat. But whatever you do in your own Japanese kitchen adventure, don't forget the best part of all...
- Chicken Yakitori
- Gyoza (Japanese Potstickers)
- Chirashi Sushi
- Sushi Rice 101
- Japan: Global Destinations (includes more recipes)
- Japanese Cooking: Contemporary & Traditional
Traveler's Tales Guides: Japan
True Stories of Life on the Road
Edited by Donald W. George and Amy Greimann Carlson
1999, Travelers' Tales Inc., $17.95
Buy the Book
October 1999 Itinerary...
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
About Kate's Virtual World Tour: A Progressive Feast
From September 1999 to January 2000, this progressive banquet begins with Appetizers in Asia, continues with multiple courses across India, the Middle East, and North Africa, and around Christmas, crosses over to Europe for Desserts in Deutschland. Recipes, country backgrounds, local attractions, and special travel tips make each stop vivid and exciting, as if you were right there, experiencing the journey yourself. These world tour specialties and authentic recipes will inspire you to create your own unique and festive holiday tables, fit for kings and queens. No passport needed, just a fork, a stove and a hearty appetite!
Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created October 1999 and modified August 2007