Episode 28: How to eat sushi, and then some

I love sushi, plain and simple. I love the taste of raw salmon, the sweetness of the sushi rice, and the sudden burst of wasabi in every bite. Anyone who’s into Japanese cuisine would have sushi among their favorites, along with ramen, tempura, curry rice and yakiniku. It is, after all, the most popular icon of Japanese cuisine.

So when Century Tsukiji (at Century Park Hotel) announced that it’s having an all-you-can-eat sushi promo, I thought why not go for it, I can enjoy as much sushi as I want. It’s the Japanese food fan’s ultimate fantasy! But what I thought was a simple food raid turned into a crash course on the Japanese way of eating sushi.

As soon as MC and I entered Century Tsukiji, we took our seats at the sushi bar, where all the fresh fish are at. If you’re having sushi, the bar is said to be the best place to have it; not only is the service faster; you can watch how the sushi is prepared and served.

Chef Yamazaki, Century Tsukiji’s sushi chef, was at the bar to take my orders. Right beside his station are thick, chilled slabs of fish and other seafood, including octopus legs. Damn, they look fresh and tasty. Heck, come to think of it, it’s the freshness of the fish that makes sushi special.

The server brought us some oshiburi (hot towels). I remember reading that some Japanese restaurants give oshiburi to customers before they dine. It’s supposedly the norm. After wiping our hands, the server poured some hot tea and soy sauce of us.
While my sushi is being prepared, the server brought a pot of dobinmushi (clear soup with shrimp, chicken, mushroom, and calamansi on the side), and chawanmushi (steamed egg custard with shiitake, ginko nuts, chicken and seafood). I learned that just in case the sushi chef takes a while to serve me, I can have some of those.

A server set a plate near the bar counter, and Chef Yamazaki placed piece by piece of sushi. He said I’m allowed to dig in at this point and he’ll just fill up my plate as I go.

And fill the plate he did, as he served what turns out to be a total of 21 varieties of sushi for me. There’s the tuna and salmon, crabstick, octopus, cuttlefish, sea urchin, mackerel, shrimp (boiled and raw, salmon roe, eel, egg, maya-maya, flatfish, tawilis, octopus… Ack, I can’t remember the rest!

With the sushi in place, I knew it was time to attack. I quickly took out the chopsticks set beside me…
“No chopsticks! Eat the sushi with your hand!” Chef Yamazaki suddenly said.
While eating sushi with chopsticks is fine for some, more traditional Japanese prefer that you eat them with your hands. Hence, the oshiburi. (Also, it ensures that you don’t drop the sushi in case your hands go numb from holding chopsticks.) Your mileage may vary, though.
At the plate is a small mound of gari (pickled ginger) and wasabi. Eat only a little bit of gari to clear your palate, I was told. No wasabi on your soy sauce; wasabi loses its flavor when mixed in soy sauce. If wasabi is added, apply it on the fish using chopsticks if you wish.
By the way, trust the sushi chef to know how much wasabi would make your sushi taste good. If the wasabi’s flavor crawls to your nose on the first bite, banzai!
You’re not supposed to dip the sushi rice first, because the rice would absorb the soy sauce and fall apart. Dip the fish side instead. Toppings with their own sauce, i.e. eel (unagi) should not be dipped in soy sauce.
A sushi meal is traditionally ended with a bowl of soup, hence, the dobinmushi. I sipped everything and ate the morsels while eating the sushi. Oh well.

After finishing all 21 varieties of sushi, the real fun started. Anyone would be satisfied with eating the whole line-up of Century Tsukiji’s sushi, but no, Barangay Ginebra, I’m here for the all-you-can-eat sushi promo, and eat all I can is what I was about to do.

First up was some California maki, rice roll with crab, mayonnaise, nori, rice, sesame seeds, and tobiko. Some enthusiasts say California maki is for wimps; why eat this when there’s good sushi available? Futo maki, (fish powder, egg, gourd, vegetables, rice, and nori) was next, followed by some octopus sushi, raw shrimp, salmon, and whatnot.
 While all of this was going on, we took the time to talk with Chef Yamazaki. He helped us identify some of the fish I had, and then went on to proudly say how fast a sushi chef he is; in fact, back when he was younger, he could prepare 120 pieces or so of sushi in one hour. (Wow, that restaurant where was in must have been really busy!)

Accommodating and cordial as he is, the chef looks very dedicated in his craft, and strict when it comes to enjoying sushi the traditional way. In any case, it’s nice to strike a conversation with the sushi chef; it establishes rapport and the chance that you’d be recognized as a valued customer.

Soon, Century Tsukiji was about to close for the afternoon. Any last orders, I was asked. “One more of that first set I had earlier,” I answered.
“What? You’re gonna eat all of that?” MC asked. He should have known better.
MC didn’t avail of the sushi promo since he didn’t want to stuff himself and go fat. Instead, he ordered a bento meal with sashimi, several kinds of appetizers, chawanmushi, salmon teriyaki, assorted vegetables and seafood, stir-fried noodles, shrimp and vegetable tempura, and rice (his most hated part of the meal).
It’s not the only stuff that Century Tsukiji serves; they also have teishoku (set meals), sashimi, noodles, salads, grilled dishes and desserts. They also serve beer and Japanese sake, just what you can expect from a place that takes pride in being as authentic as a Japanese restaurant can be.

Eating norms vary in every country. Filipinos, for example, can eat with or without utensils, though if one want to impress the locals, eating food with bare hands is the way to go. (Phil Younghusband comes to mind.) Woe to you if you end up in countries where you’re expected to dine with only your right hand. Table manners in other countries, utensil or not, is another matter.

The same goes with Japanese cuisine. Now that I remember, the Japanese follow lots of dining rules, such as the consumption of noodles and soup, the proper use chopsticks, pouring alcoholic drinks, paying (or not paying) tips, etc. This from a culture that shows high regard for tradition.

In the case of sushi, eating it the way the Japanese traditionally do adds to the enjoyment of the experience. Plus, the sushi looks really pretty sitting in that plate, and you can’t help but admire it first before eating it. After all, the Japanese dine not only with their palate, but with all five senses.

Knowing cuisine etiquette is a way to show respect to the country whose cuisine you’re eating. Whether it’s to have a deep understanding of a foreign culture, to impress your hosts, to act properly in formal situations, or simply to be able to do as the locals do, following the norms at their dinner table is an interesting and enlightening dining experience.

However, keep in mind that some people from different cultures can’t eat the way we do. Some would even prefer to eat something the way they want it. Let this go. We have to respect the way we eat, though we must remind them to respect ours as well. Respect and tolerance, along with proper education, is the key.

By the way, I learned recently that one is supposed to eat sushi moderately, and set a pace at it. It’s said that eating more than ten kinds of fish and other seafood is too much because your palate numbs. And yet I ate 21 kinds of sush, and quickly at thati. I ended up very full, heavy, and sleepy for the rest of the day. Thank goodness for the gari.


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