Love at First Bite
This essay was first published in:
city works 2012
San Diego City College Literary Anthology
Which do you recall with more pleasure, the first time you had sex or the first time you ate sushi? No contest for me. It was the early ‘80s; I was an undergraduate at San DiegoStateUniversity and Bob was a graduate student in sociology. “Older” students in our late thirties, we shared gossip and complaints, a cynical view on life, and sociological insights, both academic and applied. Like the time he chastised me for turning up my nose at the idea of going to a video arcade: “You have to experience your culture,” he said. So when he learned that I’d never had sushi, he rubbed his hands in glee: “A virgin! You poor dear, what you’ve been missing.”
My initiation at a nondescript place on Pacific Highway called Yakitori started with pickled cucumber in sesame oil and steaming miso soup with a tangy aroma of green onions and soy that we sipped from enameled red bowls. A seaweed salad was next—spicy, chewy, pleasantly brackish. Then came the main event, an array of rectangular plates, a visual splendor in themselves—hand-painted with colorful glazes of turquoise, umber, pearl white—holding the fruits of another art form. Glistening slices of deep rose-tinted tuna, sun-kissed salmon, and pale opalescent halibut topped hand-formed lozenges of rice. Some were garnished with bits of radish or onion, a scarlet dot of hot sauce, or bound in obi-like sashes of toasted seaweed. Nests of pink pickled ginger and cones of green wasabi adorned each dish.
I picked up a piece topped with tuna the color of a ripe summer plum and dipped it in wasabi and soy sauce. Bob watched as I took my first bite. A sharp intake of breath, a smile of wordless gratitude. I reached for another. The taste and texture were sublime, incomparable. I’d eaten cured, pickled, and smoked fish; this was fresher, delicate yet distinctive, leaving a tingling after-taste on my tongue and the roof of my mouth. The Japanese use the word “umami” to refer to a certain taste that results from a synergy of flavors—this had to be it.
Since that beginning, eating sushi has followed the trajectory of my life: my fortunes, my relationships, ebbing and flowing through good times and bad, fat and lean.
My fortieth birthday was a peak time in my life. Four years earlier I had left dead-end work to go back to school; I completed my undergraduate degree and was now working toward a master’s, with a promising new career in my sights. I wanted to celebrate, so I gave myself a party and invited forty guests. A friend brought the showstopper of the night, a tray of sushi rolls forming the numbers “4” and “0,” about a square foot each, surrounded by garlands of seaweed, scallion and ginger. We all gathered around it, oohing and aahing as we would over a fruit sculpture or chocolate swan, reluctant to mar its perfection, until someone lit the candle on a center piece. I blew it out, removed it, and popped the piece in my mouth; the platter was quickly emptied.
Around that time I was engaged in a clandestine affair with one of my professors. Being taboo gave it added spice. We went to under-the-radar restaurants—the kind you learn about by word of mouth and where you don’t see anyone you know—for authentic ethnic food, unusual dishes. One of our favorites was a sushi bar tucked into the corner of a strip mall near the university where we always ordered the sushi boat for two, a wooden ark about two feet long with a Japanese flag—red rising sun on a white field—flying from its mast. On deck were pairs of nigiri, selected, constructed and artfully arranged by the resident Noah of sushi chefs. We were adventurous eaters with one exception each. For me it was the uni—sea urchin—ochre globules with a squishy texture, stale taste, and lingering sour aftertaste. Once was enough, though I’ve been told that it’s exquisite—a delicacy—when fresh. He wouldn’t eat the salmon roe, those tiny, briny orange marbles that burst in the mouth. So we traded those two and accompanied our feast with thin-necked carafes of warm sake.
But shared food fancies weren’t enough to sustain our attachment. The end of the affair and its frequent meals out rescued my finances, often overextended during my school years and starting out in the low-paying nonprofit world to which I was committed. A friend and I signed up for a sushi class at an Asian market—we would make our own and save money. We copied the instructor as she smoothed layers of sticky rice onto toasted nori wrappers, added the fillings and rolled them up in a bamboo mat, pressing and securing, then sliced them just so with slashes of her sharp knife. “What fun,” we said, delighted with our decorative and delicious results.
Economy fell by the wayside as we acquired the fixings: bamboo mats and short-grain rice, sheets of seaweed, wasabi powder, soy sauce, rice vinegar and ginger. For our inaugural venture, we bought sashimi-quality tuna, salmon and yellowtail, logs of fake crab, plus avocado, cucumber, carrots, and chives. We made nigiri, California rolls, and spicy tuna hand rolls; we customized our own rolls out of the array of ingredients. It was an awesome output, and our guests were suitably wowed. We’d spent too much and worked too long and hard, but with practice we were able to streamline both the preparation and expense.
I used to look on new food finds as challenges to my culinary skill and balm to my budget as I attempted to duplicate them at home. Both my successes and my failures taught me that certain things should retain their distinctive ambiance. Cheese enchiladas are my favorite comfort food and easy to prepare, but I’d rather have them out with a basket of chips and salsa and a margarita (with salt, on the rocks). Lasagna is expensive and time-consuming to make—why bother when I can go to DiMille’s or get take-out from Mona Lisa? My Thai, Indian and African cookbooks have pages that are worn and smeared with oil, tomato paste, and red wine, but now they sit idly on the shelf. Eventually I retired my bamboo mat, and sushi joined those cuisines that are better left to the pros.
My career and a new relationship became my priorities. It was a small matter that Ray didn’t like sushi. After all, meat eaters and vegetarians can live happily ever after; butter pecan ice cream and chocolate fudge brownie can co-exist in the freezer.
And I could eat sushi with other people. I went out to lunch once a week with my colleagues Stephanie and Tom. After sampling widely around our office’s predominantly-Asian neighborhood, we singled out Shogun as qualitatively superior. Lured by their lunchtime sushi specials, we returned often, craving the albacore, fresh and buttery, with a pinch of green onion and a drizzle of ponzu sauce. Tom and I didn’t always see eye to eye about work matters, but our lunches provided a camaraderie that we could balance against the friction that strained our professional interactions.
I was on my own again after Ray and I went our separate ways. I lived frugally: I drove an old car, lived amid second-hand furnishings, bought clothes at thrift stores. But I had my priorities—I traveled and I ate well. I found a neighborhood sushi bar where Kazumi, the owner and chef, was a master and a showman. He prepared each order with a flamboyant flair—dramatic flashes of the knife, twists of the wrist, his fingers working nimbly as he held court with his devotees seated around semi-circular bar. If you ordered something that Kazumi didn’t think was perfect that day, he would suggest something else, and you always took his advice. The regulars would exclaim, “Ahhhh,” when he announced that he had fresh pompano. He would carve the flesh off the bone of each small, delicate fish, making four shimmering pieces of nigiri. Then he would deep fry the skeleton—head, bones and all—and arrange them together with fresh chewy seaweed. The contrast between the sweet cool tender sushi and the warm crackly carcass was exquisite.
I would watch what Kazumi made for other people and ask what it was. Or just point and nod and say: “Ooh, yeah, I’d like to try that.” I discovered kaki, a ring of rice-filled nori topped with a fresh raw oyster, masago and a comma of blistering hot Sriracha sauce. And mackerel, with its silvery flesh and pushy, fishy flavor, its slightly gritty texture. I said no to monkfish liver, but everything else was fair game.
When I met Don, now my husband of fifteen years, I found a willing accomplice who shared my goals and values and my passion for travel and food, especially sushi. We would make weekend jaunts to San Francisco, diners’ paradise. With all its fantastic restaurants it would be possible to try a new place for every meal and never run out, but we established our favorites and stuck by them. It was usually Tomaso’s in NorthBeach for Italian, Yuet Lee for Chinatown feasts of clams in black bean sauce and garlic shrimp. We would fly up from San Diego on a Friday morning and head to Akiko’s Sushi for lunch as soon as we checked into our hotel, starting our feast with spicy tuna hand rolls—sesame seeds lending them a bit of crunch and a hint of oily sweetness—and the locally-branded Forty-Niner Roll, shrimp tempura and avocado topped with fresh salmon, masago, and paper thin slices of lemon.
At home, we had to set some limits. Kazumi was breaking the bank, so we relegated it to special occasions rather than jeopardize a trip or other deferred treat. We tried more modest places, and soon Kazumi disappeared from our repertoire. A character in the play “Separate Tables” defends the meager life to which he has descended. Asked, “Do you call that living?” he replies, “It’ll do.” That’s how we felt at first about the prosaic Ichiban, a take-out place with a handful of tables. The sushi was prepared behind the scenes, but the half-price specials compensated for the absence of show. “It’ll do,” we said. Then we found RK—a cozy place just a couple of blocks from our house—and we came to find these no-frills spots more than adequate.
Now we’re really living on the cheap. Don’s been out of work for several months, a victim of the times. Eating out is limited to pizza and Mexican take-out, but once in a while we indulge in an at-home splurge—impeccably fresh sashimi-grade yellowtail from our trusted fish market, sliced thin, with steamed brown rice and a cucumber salad. We’re roughing it in style, together.
The day Don was laid off, after the initial shock, we looked at each other and shrugged: “Let’s go to RK for lunch and make a plan.” Sushi is a luxury now, but we’re champs at tightening the belt and do it with such panache.