I’ve just failed miserably at my first attempt to form a compact ball of sushi rice. But my teacher, Koichi, an Osaka brain surgeon by day and sushi aficionado on the weekend, reassures me that it takes years to perfect this art. He lets me smoosh some fresh wasabi root on a nifty grater made of shark fin, instead. “Grind it in circles, but not too fast,” he counsels. “Too high a temperature will spoil the flavor.”
I found my way to his compact kitchen through the Kansai Volunteer Guides’ website, where Koichi, who wants to practice his English with foreign visitors, mentions his love of sushi and desire to share its history with travelers. I’ve had previous memorable experiences with Kyoto Free Guides and Tokyo Free Guides and the prospect of learning more about my favorite food–sushi–during my brief stay in Japan was irresistible. I didn’t realize this tour was going to be so hands-on.
We started with lunch of traditional Osaka style pressed sushi at a 200-year old restaurant, which is currently situated in the middle of a noisy, colorful shopping street. (Website of Fukusushi restaurant is only in Japanese.)
As we enjoyed our lunch of Osaka style hakozushi, which is formed by pressing rice and prepared fish in a wooden box, Koichi explained a little about the history of sushi, which spans hundreds of years in Southeast Asia and Japan, and was originally a technique of preserving rice and fish by fermentation. The nigiri sushi using raw fish that we are most familiar with (known as Edo or Tokyo style) is a relative newcomer, only about 150 years old.
Without refrigeration, raw fish could not be eaten, unless it was dockside. So all the fish featured in our Osaka style lunch was cooked or cured in vinegar. After pressing in the wooden box, the resulting large block of sushi is cut into bite-sized pieces, each with two or more varieties such as shrimp, tamago, hirame and eel. Another Osaka specialty we sampled: large rectangles of pressed and sliced mackerel wearing a delicate kombu veil.
No wasabi was in sight and Koichi said our sushi didn’t really need soy sauce. He disapproved of the thick sludge of wasabi and soy sauce I told him most Americans stir up to slather their sushi.
After a detour through a “chefs’ street,” perusing shops selling every incarnation of plastic display food and ogling gleaming professional knives costing several thousand dollars, we ended up shopping for the freshest fish at — of all places — Takashimaya department store basement. Actually Japanese department store food basements are a wonderland of every possible delicacy, attractively displayed – often with sample tastes – easy dining for non-Japanese speakers – all you have to do is point.
Koichi was thrilled to find some beautiful sanma (pacific saury), a harbinger of autumn. He could tell it was very fresh from its gleaming silvery blue skin, transparent eye, and moist tail. He put a pair in his basket along with, anago (sea eel), tai (sea bream), tuna, aji (horse mackerel) and several other ingredients.
At his condo, I met Koichi’s wife and baby daughter and Koichi demonstrated the many rituals of the sushi preparation while I watched attentively from a ringside seat. Throughout his measuring, mixing, boiling, steaming and slicing, Koichi thoughtfully shared his recipes and provided me with a steady stream of tastes.
First challenge: tamago, the egg omelet. This seemingly simple inclusion in many set sushi menus back home is actually extremely difficult to make. As he poured, folded and refolded the mixture of egg, mirin, sugar and soy sauce in a series of moves in a special pan, Koichi confessed that his success rate is only about 50%. Today was a lucky day and he nailed it.
Then the eel had to be boiled, the tai skin seared, and the sanma gutted and deboned and the other fish thinly sliced. Koichi offered me a knife but I’m a little squeamish with blood and guts and, considering he works as a neurosurgeon, I figured that sharp metal objects would be better off in his seasoned hands.
I asked Koichi why he didn’t buy already prepared sushi, since Takashimaya had plenty of tempting platters. “Sushi is my hobby, “ he replied. “It’s exciting, with many small details. It’s simple, but difficult and easy to fail.”
After the buttery tuna, he served me a new taste: scallion sprouts, a delightful, palate cleanser.
As we enjoyed our dinner, I mentioned that my favorite sushi is mirugai (giant clam). Koichi was impressed (and I was glad to be familiar with more than just California rolls). As we said our goodbyes, Koichi presented me with a book on sushi in both Japanese and English for a “fellow sushi maniac.” I can’t imagine a more thoughtful gift to end a day that was totemo oishii (totally delicious).
This is an amazing story! And to think that he was a total stranger. I love how people connect through food.
Thanks, Dianne. I agree: food is the best cultural ambassador and engaging with people over a shared dish can provide more insight than any guidebook. I’m also lucky that my friend Tomoko helped me interview two food artisans: a soba master and a yuba maker. Her interpreting allowed me to witness their passionate commitment to their crafts.
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