An Abundance of Sushi (also stuck in the Tokyo airport)
Here I am writing from the airplane… to San Francisco. Yes, that’s right. You heard correctly: San Francisco. We flew to Tokyo to make a connection, only to find that our United flight to Chicago had been cancelled due to a mechanical error, and for some reason, United didn’t have any extra planes on hand to fly off to Japan. Instead we got on a flight to San Francisco, but we ended up leaving more than an hour late, since they had to remove the suitcase of someone no longer on the flight from the plane. Originally, we had less than an hour and a half to get our luggage, go through customs, change terminals, go through passport control, and then board our flight to Chicago. Obviously, this is no longer an option. There are later flights, but who knows what time we’re going to get home? I’m pretty pissed off…
The good side to all of this is that we had a pretty good time in the Tokyo airport. I bought an awesome neon orange lunchbox with built-in food containers and a plastic case made specifically for storing bananas (a genius but maybe slightly overpriced invention) at a store called Moto Comme Ca… anyone heard of it?
We also had a delicious sushi lunch right next to our gate, although after last night, I had already fulfilled my yearly raw fish requirements. As usual, I’ll work backwards.
On our last night in Beijing, we were invited by some of our closest artist friends, Rong Rong and Inri, out to a Japanese restaurant for dinner. Even if I didn’t know Rong Rong and Inri personally, I would still love their art. Sometimes contemporary art is a little too conceptual for me (I can never touch a chair for fear that it’s part of the exhibition), but their photography is beautiful. For instance, a few years ago they did a nude photo shoot on Mount Fuji and nearly froze to death, and some of their most recent work includes shots of Inri’s disembodied pregnant belly, which is so round it looks more like a grapefruit.
Rong Rong is Chinese and Inri Japanese, and when they met, they couldn’t communicate at all except through photography. They both have practically knee-length black hair, and you can hardly tell them apart from the back. Their faces couldn’t be any less similar, though. Inri is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. She never needs to wear any makeup, and has smooth, pale skin, big eyes, and an unnaturally pointy chin. She styles her hair in ways so intricate it seems like she’s wearing extensions, and yet she makes it seem effortless, and every one of her outfits is original and usually something she made herself.
Originally, they wanted to take us to a tiny little sushi place with only a few tables, but sadly, it was closed that day. The place we ended up going to was bigger, but still completely hidden away in a typical shopping mall/ food court hybrid. We had to go up in a glass ladder and pull open a black curtain with the name of the restaurant printed on it in small white characters. In true Japanese fashion, we all had to take off our shoes and step up on to the platform that the restaurant stood on. The restaurant was completely empty except for us: it consisted of a sushi bar, sitting area of flat seats on the floor, and private rooms, where you also had to sit on the floor. The moment I walked in and saw that almost all the waitresses were Japanese, that the menu was only in Japanese, and when they told me that the chef was from Kyoto, I started to get really excited. I knew I was about to taste some truly authentic Japanese food—there would be no Rainbow Rolls at this sushi bar.
We chose a private room to sit in, and at first I was afraid we would have to kneel the entire meal, like in Japanese teahouses, but it turned out that there was actually a niche underneath the table so that there was plenty of room to stretch our legs.
The funny thing about this restaurant was in all its zen, minimalist ambiance (there was even a rock garden), the waitresses were constantly shouting orders, such as “I need five plates!” into walkie talkies.
Inri ordered everything for us, which is the way it should be. We all got some sort of set menu. Other than the obligatory edamame, we started with a small sampler of what she said was either sliced duck or goose, a fish cake-like square of shark, and a salad of greens, carrots, and shitake mushrooms. Obviously, I didn’t eat the goose, but I didn’t want to eat the shark either! I really try to stray from eating endangered fish (there was an incident in Singapore where we were all ordered shark’s fin soup), but to be adventurous, I took a bite. My mom said it didn’t taste like shark, and since fish is the hardest thing to translate from language to language, we couldn’t be sure. It was slightly sweet, almost a little bit like tamago, with a small chunk of a purple pickled vegetable in the center.
Next, we had the softest fatty tuna sashimi imaginable. While I’ve had fatty tuna before, I hadn’t had enough tuna sashimi to be able to note the difference, but even the color contrast is astounding: fatty tuna is a marbled opaque, pale pink, whereas regular toro is blood red, even purple, and an even consistency all over. The thickness of the sashimi was perfect: too thin and it’s not substantial enough, but too thick and you feel like you’re chewing a huge hunk of fish (sashimi always seems abstract to me… while I realize that I’m obviously eating fish, I always pay more attention to the flavor and mouth feel than what each individual piece is). As for the texture, it really did melt in your mouth: I love that classic sweetness that tempers the salty soy sauce and the zing of the wasabi.
At this point, my parents were brought small slices of steak, also accompanied by shiso leaf and wasabi. The rest of us got a small dish each of warm okra, taro, daikon, winter melon, and shiitake mushroom that tasted as though they had been simmered in a little miso. For some reason Rong Rong and Inri aren’t eating beef, although I couldn’t quite figure out why (something to do with what a feng shui specialist said?). My parents said the steak was excellent, although they didn’t finish it (saving their appetites for sushi? Smart move). I really enjoyed the vegetables, especially the taro—I should really start cooking it more, substituting it in for sweet potatoes and the like. The texture is similar to that of the Japanese/Korean yellow-fleshed sweet potato, but with a more mild flavor. In fact, I have a minor obsession with root vegetables and winter squash, which is why I can’t wait to get back to Chicago for butternut squash!
By then, the feast was only just beginning. We were each brought small covered ceramic bowls of what I thought was going to be miso soup, but which turned out to be one of my favorite dishes, ji dan geng (steamed egg custard). Of course, the Japanese version is different: the Chinese version my dad makes is nothing but eggs and water, and is garnished with soy sauce and scallions, whereas the Japanese version (correct me if I’m wrong) tends to mix in dashi and usually has vegetables and seafood in it. I was so disappointed when I found out there was supposedly chicken in it! But then I looked and looked, and only came up with a tiny chunk of chicken… the rest was unaffected, and didn’t smell like any chicken broth or anything else had been used. Maybe it was a bad vegetarian mood on my part, but I ate it. So sue me, it was delicious, and instead of seafood, it was filled with shiitake mushrooms and was much soupier than what I’m used to.
The next course was another one of my favorites: grilled mackerel! I used to dislike especially “fishy-tasting” fish, but now I find that I prefer the stronger-tasting, firmer-fleshed ocean fish such as tuna, salmon and mackerel to the boring, mushy fresh-water fish such as carp. Inri ate her mackerel different than the way I’m used to: she took a chopstick to take out the backbone, filleting the fish so that it was easier to eat. That was smart, since when I eat mackerel I always have to make sure that I don’t swallow any tiny bones (although it forces me to eat slowly, which is a good thing). What I liked about the mackerel was that it was served with a wedge of lemon and a pile of practically pulverized daikon with a drizzle of soy sauce. Because the fish was so salty and chewy, it was incredibly refreshing to balance it out with the cold temperature of the mushy (in a good way) daikon. The thing about daikon is that its taste is intrusive but mild at the same time: when you first try it, you feel like it has no flavor, but then you realize that it has a pungent bitterness almost similar to horseradish. It’s not something I could eat straight up.
I was already getting full, but when our sushi arrived, I forgot all about it. We were each served a platter of nigiri that I originally thought was for the table to share. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much raw fish at once in my life (and I didn’t even have that much!): There were salmon, tuna, fatty tuna, scallop, a vinegar-marinated silver fish similar to sardine, a white fish (fluke, maybe?), kampachi (similar to yellowtail, which is my personal favorite), sea urchin, salmon roe, and a dark fish similar to mackerel.
I didn’t know where to start! It seemed stupid to eat up all my favorites (salmon, tuna, kampachi), because what if I didn’t like the ones I hadn’t tried before? However, since my mom loves fatty tuna and we had already had it, I traded her mine for an extra piece of salmon (I love salmon). The regular tuna was the darkest I’d ever seen, and Inri and the waitress had a long conversation of whether it had been marinated or not to change the color (I don’t think it had). I took a taste of the uni (sea urchin), and found nothing wrong with the taste: just slightly briny like the ocean, but I couldn’t bring myself to put the piece in my mouth. Something about the texture: a mushy and suspicious puree, it could have come from anywhere! I think it’s something I’ll learn to like—in fact, when I took out some friends for sushi for my birthday and forced them to try sashimi, they said what they didn’t like was the texture, not the taste. In my opinion, texture and taste are equally important when it comes to food.
Another fish I didn’t love was the white fish, just because I never have loved white fish… it’s strange, though, since fish that’s much chewier when cooked (salmon and tuna) is soft when raw, but fish that turns mushy when cooked is too hard to chew as sushi. I couldn’t even bite off a piece, and it didn’t seem to have any flavor.
I enjoyed everything else, although I also gave away my salmon roe (which is something I enjoy as a garnish, but again, not something I could eat a lot of in one bite). The sardine (or whatever it was) was great—it’s amazing how simply marinating, not cooking, changes the entire texture of a fish—I had a hard time believing it was raw. The mackerel (again, not sure what it was) tasted pretty much the same as it would have been cooked, but for some reason my mom didn’t like it.
The best piece of all, which I saved for last, was the scallop. I only realized how much I love scallops last year, but I’ve never had them raw. This might be because the opportunity has never arisen, or just because I find raw clams and oysters altogether too slimy. However, since scallops are so soft and chewy when cooked, eating them raw was extremely similar. In fact, other than the mackerel, they were the only kind of seafood I’ve ever tried that tastes almost the same raw as it does cooked—except eating the scallop became ten times more sensual: it was sweet, slippery, and yet you had to work to chew it. I can’t even describe how delicious it was, and I felt tingly all over the way I do when I taste something new that I really love… I know what I’m ordering next time I go out for sushi!
Of course, you can’t have sushi without miso soup, and even the miso soup at this restaurant seemed more fragrant and dark than normal.
With this meal, we also ordered sake: I had less than one of the little shot glasses, but I absolutely love it. Mild and sweet, it pairs wonderfully with such salty food (although now that I think about it, Japanese food uses a lot of sugar).
Dessert was included with this set menu, and it took a while for us to understand what the waitress was saying they had: she kept saying “vanilla, green tea, ice cream, pudding, peach compote,” when it turned out that vanilla and green tea were the ice cream and the pudding was a separate dessert. I wanted fruit, but I also hadn’t had green tea ice cream in years (it used to be my favorite flavor). My dad wanted the ice cream, so I got the fruit. The portions were ridiculously small, but even that seemed right after everything we had eaten. Each person only got three peach slices, which were sweet and fragrant: basically a gourmet version of canned peaches. The green tea ice cream was served in a block, and made me remember why I love that flavor and made my mom remember why she hates it.
After dinner, we talked to Inri a bit about these new-fangled American rolls. She had never heard of soft shell crab, and she definitely hadn’t heard of sushi with strawberries in it. While those rolls are fun, especially texture-wise, they have mayo more often than not, and I think I prefer the simpler, more traditional sushi that allows you to just feel and taste the fish.
Back to the airport… this restaurant only had sushi, but we were starving (I ate breakfast at five AM and it was two in the afternoon) and in need of something more substantial. Besides, I didn’t want a total repeat of last night, so we both ordered chirashi. I got the salmon-don and my mom got the mixed chirashi-zushi, which was topped with lotus root, tamago, tuna, scallop, shrimp, unagi, shiitake mushroom, hamachi, salmon roe, squid, and shiso leaf. Mine was obviously just salmon, salmon roe and shiso leaf, but the rice in both bowls was mixed with thin ribbons of nori. I also ordered a miso soup. It was so hard to believe that we were in the airport! America, especially O’Hare, really needs to work on their airport food courts. The only problem with ordering chirashi with only one topping is that it gets a little monotonous after a while. Luckily, my mom and I were able to do some trading, and she very nicely gave me her scallop and a little bit of her unagi and tamago.
The embarrassing part of eating in the sushi restaurant was that this morning, without thinking, I wore this shirt that I bought in Beijing that says something in Japanese, and underneath that, “Skate Sushi.” The design is of two pieces of nigiri sushi, only instead of fish, they have skateboards on top. The waitress came over and asked me where I got it, saying that they could read the Japanese and it seemed to have some typo in it… either that it was a pun in that “skate” also meant something else… “hoodlum” or something? Either way, when I left the restaurant, everyone said goodbye to me, including all the sushi chefs! It was super embarrassing, but also cute.
And now I’m sitting on this ridiculously long flight. Luckily, the food wasn’t too bad. I feel so spoiled… being on economy class after being pampered in Bali and Singapore feels so strange. United has definitely improved their food! I didn’t get a photo, but I had a vegetable stew with chickpeas, carrots and peaches very similar to the tagine I make at home, served with Israeli couscous. I think when you sign up for vegetarian meals they automatically assume you’re vegan, so there was also this very delicious “healthy” vegan cookie with nothing but whole wheat flour, applesauce, brown rice syrup and fruit juice, and of course cinnamon, that my mom would have hated. I’ve tried a lot of great things this summer, but man, I can’t wait to go back to eating healthily.
My mom and I are planning on going to the farmer’s market tomorrow morning (if we’re still alive), and she wants me to write down a menu plan of weekly meals, since my dad is still in China and it’s going to be hard with me being starving after swim practice every day. I really would cook if I could, but there isn’t going to be time! I don’t know how I’m going to be able to cook at all, let alone blog.