READING BETWEEN THE CHOPSTICKS
What other cuisine has trendies, health fiends, heart watchers, diet maniacs, gluttons, vegetarians and thrill seekers all fighting over the same bottle of soya sauce? All while keeping restaurant owners, who love the alarmingly high buck per plate ratios they can get away with, happy as well.
And South Africans have not been left behind. Oh, no. We’ve staked out our own spot at the global village dinner table by proudly throwing up new sushi joints faster than Ronald can say McDonald. No one could accuse us of still thinking ‘eeww, raw fish’. Nu-huh. The thing is though – if we have really got this sushi thing so under control, why do we all act so intimidated by it?
It’s true. Perch a bunch of people around a rotating sushi bar and suddenly, there’s a palpable tension in the air. Everyone is watching everyone (while of course pretending not to be watching anyone) and grading each other on their sushi-bewusness. It’s as if how you handle your sushi has become one of the sophistication tests of the new millennium.
First of all, it seems people can’t just eat their sushi. They need to talk about sushi while they are eating it. So, while the man across the way starts lecturing his date on the merits of yellow tail vs red roman, or fatty vs. ‘regular’ tuna, someone else will be waxing lyrical about the incredible sashimi available at the intime hole-in-the-wall venue she has just discovered. It’s as if someone flicked a pretentiousness switch on when they turned off the oven.
Then there are the rules of sushi eating, and for a bunch of people who don’t get to Japan much, we seem to have come up with rather a lot of them. Wasabi management is our first fixation. It seems you can tell a lot about a person by how they handle their wasabi. Cast your eye down the conveyor belt and you are sure to find a whole range of approaches. There’ll be someone manically stirring their wasabi into their tiny bowl of soya sauce. The jury is out on this one. Some say it is an uber-in-the-know thing to do, while others think it is frankly a little gom. You know… like slathering your chips in tomato sauce.
Then there are those who think that the right way to do it is to carefully measure up little green dabs so that you get exactly the same fish to wasabi ratio with each bite. And, of course, there are the people who use wasabi the way others use a limber bar, replacing ‘how low can you go’ with ‘how much can you stand?’ You can always tell when people are doing this because they suddenly lose track of the conversation completely for a few seconds, as their eyes well up with tears and their noses start to run.
Then there’s that little clump of pickled ginger. While ‘little-green-dab’ person is carefully apportioning pink slithers on top of the wasabi, others seem to treat it as a kind of Japanese sorbet, taking a little between bits of sushi as a kind of palate clearing thing. Still others simply scoff it down at the beginning and look longingly at their date’s pile. It is all too fascinating.
But the real entertainment comes in watching people rate each other’s choice of sushi. Because it isn’t enough to have found your way around the wasabi and ginger hurdles and managed to crack open your complimentary ‘I-give-not-a-jot-for-the-rain-forest’ disposable chopsticks without making them splinter all funny. You need to be able to identify which sushi is acceptably cool and which isn’t. Your rule of thumb here is the rawer and fisher, the better. So tuna sashimi would score well, while cucumber maki…not as well. Luckily you don’t need to know that much about sushi to make these decisions as the restaurateurs have given us a helpful nudge – the more expensive the plate, the more sophisticated the sushi.
Hence the guy who slaps his dinner date’s hand away as she reaches for a salmon and avo fashion sandwich on the grounds that it isn’t ‘real’ sushi. Or the person trying to talk another into eating raw eel – which rates very high on the ‘sushi-you-should-really-be-eating’ scale. And if you think the person who sticks to the safer ground of Norwegian salmon gets condescending looks, you should try reaching for one of the deep-fried crabstick’n’cheese thingies that are doing the rounds.
In fact, the more you get into sushi culture, the more ridiculous the rules. Well, I say, burgers to that. I say, start slopping soya sauce all over with abandon. Lose the sheepishness you feel when you get stuck with half a California roll in your mouth, your bite thwarted because you didn’t think the nori was going to be so tough to get your teeth through. Or drop the rice out from under your sushi. Or get seaweed stuck in your teeth. Order as much cucumber as you like. And do what ever the hell you want with your ginger and wasabi.
Oh, and while you’re at it… feel free to use your fingers.
This article first appeared in Imagine Edgars Club magazine in May 2003