Raw Fish and Me

Raw Fish and Me


It’s our second date. I’ve never been to a sushi restaurant but I’m not really thinking about what it’ll be like, or what I should order. A lifetime of eating at the same rotation of Cuban and Chinese restaurants makes me feel empowered to order rice and some variation of conservatively saucy chicken anywhere I go. Instead, I’m making sure my boobs look great in this shirt and cursing myself for missing a strip of hair on the back of my leg.

I.

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After we arrive at Shibui, the hostess leads us up a short flight of stairs. She motions toward the floor and asks us to sit on a set of brightly colored throw pillows. I’m impressed with the distinct uniqueness of his restaurant choice and even more surprised that a place like this exists in the depths of West Miami’s suburbs where fritas and Colombian hot dogs are as exotic as it gets.

My date rattles off about the different types of sashimi he’s had and boasts about his ability to freely nosh on wasabi without batting an eye. I’m fumbling with my menu and turning the pages to an appendix that doesn’t exist for definitions of these new words I’ve never heard before. I’m immediately aware of the fancy footwork I’ll have to perform to pretend I know what the hell I’m doing at a sushi restaurant.

“If you’ve never had sushi before, you should start with a California roll,” he says, noticing my flustered reaction. In an act of defiant embarrassment, I order the tuna roll.

I curiously poke the red glistening fish bits with a chopstick, killing time so I could observe how he handles these large and awkwardly-sized sushi pieces. Following suit, I pop a single tuna roll into my mouth and chew.

My eyes well up with tears as every square foot of my mouth fills with vinegared rice and raw fish. I secretly hope that my look of disgust is a result of my brain working double-time to process, categorize, and store this new texture into my puny-sized encyclopedia of things I’ve experienced. Fight or Flight turns into Spit or Swallow. Heroically, I take a large painful gulp, swallowing the entire thing whole to set myself free from the grossness.

“I’m sorry, I can’t,” I say in between desperate swigs of water. “I’ll just order the chicken teriyaki.”

II.

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I’m sitting at the sushi bar. Despite the fact that it’s a full house tonight, it’s quiet. There’s space for twelve people here and everyone is coupled off. You can feel the excitement and anticipation through the silence.

It took months to get a reservation at NAOE for our three-year wedding anniversary. We spent that time making box lunches for work and cutting back on eating out in preparation for tonight’s meal. I’d like to think that’s what everyone else at this restaurant did too. We’re all in this together, excited to blow $500 tonight on a few small pieces of fish.

The chef serves us the first round. I look upon a perfect piece of salmon belly sitting atop a bed of warm, white rice like a cartoon drooling wolf. Once it’s inside my mouth, I close my eyes. I don’t want this feeling to ever end. A rapid series of images fill my mind. I’m screaming into a pillow. I’m kicking a puppy. I’m slapping a baby. My taste buds are short-circuiting with how soul-crushingly good this piece of salmon belly feels on my tongue.

The next couple of courses are met with the same reaction. After a few glasses of sake, my husband and I stare at each other with dopey smiles amidst chews and rubbing our bellies — the international symbol for “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”

III.

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The Kansai Airport in Osaka, Japan is bustling with travelers, but quiet. I’d gotten used to the creepy silence that blankets all of Japan, despite the amount of people and cars that fill the streets. No one honks their car horn, and everyone seemingly whispers at each other in what seems to be some post-apocalyptic reality where we all learned to be extra polite.

We sit across from each other at a booth in a self-service sushi restaurant in Terminal 1. We’re not really hungry, but we desperately want a last food hurrah before we fly home.

The conveyor belt next to us boasts several variations of nigiri and sashimi. We start grabbing the different colored plates, each color representing a different price. At this point, we’re mostly grabbing the gold plates — the most expensive color at 400 yen a piece (about $4 bucks).

“Hey, this airport sushi is as good as NAOE, right?” My husband barely reacts to my comment as he orders a specific dish from the screen installed in our booth. Minutes later, his order comes flying at us on a toy train next to the conveyor belt, coming to a quick stop when it reaches our booth.

Our bellies became small pouches full of fish, but we keep grabbing more dishes from the conveyor belt. “One more,” he says after each plate, in a futile gesture to beat the impending nostalgia.

IV.

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My Christmas wish list is pathetic. Aside from the lazy things I don’t want think about picking out for myself, like dangly things for my ears and new bedsheets, I have a $170 Japanese rice cooker at the top of my list.

Somewhere in the timeline of the universe, the ten-year-old version of me is reading my list and shaking her head. When did I become a person who coveted rice cookers? When did my imagination devolve into daydreaming about mushy white rice in my mouth?

I spend an hour reading the manual after I unpackage my new rice cooker, which strangely resembles some sort of modern-age Pokemon. Like most Japanese things, this appliance has a quadrillion buttons and settings, from “Kind of Hard Rice, But Like, On Purpose” to “Porridge Status”.

My first batch of rice was magical, just like I had dreamed. When it finishes cooking, it alerts me by playing a MIDI version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. I pop it open as a cloud of fragrant rice steam hits my face, the fog clearing to reveal a soft mountain of perfectly cooked rice. Life is good.

V.

An electro remix of Little Drummer Boy plays over the television speakers as friends begin to arrive at my door. It’s the day after Christmas and everyone seems to be on a drug-induced holiday high. Bottles of beer fill my fridge instantly to the point where I’m dragging my beach cooler out into the living room to keep the rest of them cold.

The table is set with varying mismatched bowls of ingredients. There’s spicy mayo in one, a stack of imitation crab sticks in the other. The frozen salmon is thawing out on the table, and I’m trying to keep my mind off whether I’m following safe food handling procedures.

Standing at the head of the dining table, I explain how to make a California roll. “Sushi Rolling Party” I’d written on the Facebook invite for tonight. “Bring your appetites.” My friends grab nori sheets and hesitantly take handfuls of white rice, their faces full of surprise and wonder from the new feeling of sticky grains stuck to their fingertips.

I’m eagerly spouting off the next set of sushi rolling instructions to curious eyes, like a DJ playing their next song and anxiously reading the crowd’s reaction. I was sick of being alone in appreciating the subtle sting of the tiny dot of wasabi hiding inside a piece of nigiri, or in geeking out about how sushi rice strikes the perfect balance between salty and sweet. I wanted to take my friends’ hands and transport them into my food journey, pointing at smells and tastes like art on a wall.

An hour later and several beers in, there’s rice on the floor and stuck to the bottom of my shoe. My friend Danny is eating individual pieces of imitation crab, Brian is making his own version of spicy mayo, and Elvin is in the corner, over zealously making his own sushi creations with ingredients that don’t traditionally go together, but still taste great. We laugh and compare everyone’s activities as a reflection of their own personalities. David isn’t a big fan of sushi, and politely declines the feast. I find satisfaction in the idea that he’s on his own journey.

  • JustSarah

    Love your writing. japanese rice cooker is on top of my list too. Too bad that not only the quality but the prices are also high.