• The World Digested

Omakase: The Tyranny of Sushi


Choice – it is the prerogative of the modern citizens. Choices are abundant, and we take them for granted. The ability to choose – Isn’t it a significant part of the joy of eating? Sadly, our freedom of choice is too often encroached, internally and externally.

While choosing is, of course, a voluntary act, it also cannot be denied that our act of choosing is involuntary to the extent that the modern-day gourmands must sacrifice pleasure over restrictions – religious or allergic – and reasons – dietary or psychological. Therefore, for a gourmand of the 21st century to pursue its calling in the face of this constant internal tug-of-war, it is essential to seek, paradoxically the maximum choices within each constrained situation – hence, the halal, the vegetarian, the vegan, and the raw food restaurants all have their purposes and niches in the world of dining.

But what complexity! It is almost enough to cause indigestion by itself. Internally, restricted, very well. We are what we are. However, the choices are, after all, not real choices: not those pure and guileless whims, the illogical likes and dislikes and decadent self-indulgences, all in the name of “because I feel like it.” Choices, for the sake of choosing: the sense of delicious freedom. Despite the fact that people willingly and diligently spend time in finding a restaurant, they are content once reservations – particularly those hard to get – are made, as if the act of dining is already half fulfilled. However, the final, albeit neglected, question of choices is: How do you want to eat?

To illustrate, in French haute cuisine, normally an à la carte menu and a dégustation menu are on offer; occasionally, there is also the prix-fixe. On the one hand, the dégustation is a showcase of the chef’s skill, employing the best ingredients of the season, and thus is an elaborate and prolonged affair, sometimes as grand as the Ring series, sans intervals. On the other hand, the à la carte, if one is decisive and determined, allows the diner to eat exactly what one desires, however potentially at a worse bargain. Then, there is the prix-fixe, for the value-conscious, semi-choosy eaters, which seems to embody the best of the two worlds. Having said that, there is a reason why so many restaurants have eagerly picked up the concept of prix-fixe – a.k.a. targeted marketing. There is always something for everyone.

The French haute cuisine was not dragged out as a quick appetizer for the topic at hand: sushi. The two most star-studded branches of the world cuisine are the renowned French and the revered Japanese; and they share not only the limelight of the Michelin stars but also charge similar prices. Thus, if one is to splurge, one can do it equally by eating foie gras in Paris or fatty tuna in Ginza.

How about sushi-ya (sushi restaurants) then? How do we choose the menu? If this question has caused a pause, then you have dined in Ginza: we don’t. Our freedom of choices is under the tyranny of the sushi chefs, cloaked in the guise of culture and tradition. Once we cross over into the realm of sushi-ya, we are subjugated to the sushi chefs’ dictatorship for the sake of his[1] expertise and artistry.

Increasingly forgotten by Japanese and mostly unknown to the foreigners, sushi-ya in fact offers three ways of dining: 1) the okimari, 2) the omakase and 3) the okonomi. Okimari – set menu – is more commonly offered during lunch or, at less exulted (cheaper) establishments, and it is comprised of approximately eight typical pieces of nigiri (fish on rice) plus a makimono (roll). Omakasa is the dégustation: most chefs start with some sashimi and tsumami (small plates as accompaniment to sake), then progress to nigiri from the light white fish to heavy fatty tuna, closing in with the cooked items – shrimp, sea eel, clam – and bang! the grand finale – sea urchin or the salmon roes.[2] Lately, however, more and more chefs ambush with a nigiri of fatty tuna first, as a preemptive strike, because the sophisticated diners are so very impatient.[3]

The modern customers are subject to the tyranny of omakase because of their ignorance and reticence: Fish-illiterate and shy of faux-pas, today’s sushi-eaters put on a polite face and utter the magic word, “omakase.” True, that most of the highly regarded sushi-ya’s will give the clients the best available in the omakase. True also, that most self-respecting chefs will give as many as they have got – i.e., 26 pieces of nigiri after several rounds of tsumami and sashimi at Sawada is nothing but a bargain, especially since I also incidentally cleaned up his supply of ikura for that day.

So, what exactly is the problem of omakase then? If one wants the best of the season at the best value obtainable, then the answer is: absolutely none. If – a big “if” – this particular dinner was your once-in-a-life-time experience in the capital of sushi. If you had to travel twelve hours on a plane to come to Ginza, then, sit back and be prepared to be swept away in the tidal wave of of gorgeous feast of seafood. However, after several over-stuffed sushi dinners, don’t you begin to wonder if this is how people have always eaten sushi? Being fed and stuffed without a choice on a regular basis, as to what to start and what to finish, what fish to eat and not to eat,[4] so that in the end, one nigiri starts look like another, and is just one too many? And maybe, just maybe, your wondering mind hears a subconscious yearning – Why Can’t I Eat What I Want?

After all, sushi is a fast food. It is not a romantic bar where one indulges in intimate conversation (unless you are willing to air out all your secrets); nor is it a “restaurant” in the sense that one does not go to a sushi-ya for the imperial décor or the impeccable service. Rather, should I say, sushi is the fastest form of slow food. The careful examination of ingredients – sans additives or preservatives – and the traditional execution and mastery of nigiri are precisely what constitute the concept of slow food. The sublime taste – the divine moment where the palate touches the silky, cool flesh and the tongue, the skin-warm rice, and when the fish melts and the rice melds – is a work of art, and not just any art. Sushi is simultaneously artisanal and artistic: it is perpetually suspended between heritage and innovation. The very tension born out of this consonant incongruity is felt, most certainly, as one sits at the counter with the weight of history heavy on the shoulders, and this is how we are bullied into eating omakase.

Indeed, sushi-ya is a despotism, even if it is ruled by an enlightened and, arguably, benevolent despot. Omakase was born out of the noble desire to bring as much edible happiness as possible for the greatest number of people, but we cannot forget that despots are also self-interested with a keen eye on their profit margin, necessitated by the higher costs.[5] Yet, as a spoiled modern citizen, too habituated to freedom, I cannot subject myself wholeheartedly to omakase. I, respectfully, object.

For I want more: I want my freedom of choice. I want to start with what I feel like – be it the giant clam or salmon roe – and have the luxury to continue with the same fish until the stock is exhausted. I want what I want, and I don’t want what I don’t want. The solution is, evidently, ordering okonomi, because then, I can order as I eat, and I can order whatever I want to eat, and in the order I want to eat it. Sadly, however, it is not easy to find a sushi-ya willing to cater to the whims and wishes of customers anymore, especially in Ginza – the silver city in the land of Sushi. But, it is not impossible. I found Totoya.

“We can do okonomi, too. It is not like we want to force-feed you,” said the okami-san (the maître’d sushi-ya) of Totoya. No, of course not: that is not the style of Totoya. Totoya is traditional beyond the newfound shackle of tradition – a piece of authenticity persevered in Tokyo. As I ducked my head to enter the sushi-ya, hidden in a back alley in the metropolis, I wondered if I had also gone back in time – enveloped in a perpetual twilight, a patina of old-fashioned-ness clung to the beams and walls. A warm glow of relief washed over me: Yes, I have found the Eden of sushi.

Not only does Totoya not force-feed, the chef does not dangle a big slab of dead tuna, either – notwithstanding the fact that he is known to get one of the best cuts – in front of the clients as in some barbaric ritual. Nor does he burden the ears with a lecture on the fish but lets you enjoy his work in peace. Despite the doesn’t-do’s, what he does, however, is exactly what should have been done all along: he gives me what I want, whenever I want it, and however I want it. And, what do I want? I want the traditional sushi, which has been “worked” on. Edomae does not just mean whatever is caught in the Tokyo Bay, but it also signifies the style of work – shigoto – which must be done to treat each fish: the aging, the salting, the marinade, the braising, the grilling, the stewing, the steaming and the boiling. Now, you see, sushi is not just freshly dead fish over rice: it is cooking. Like all things in life, good things need to be worked for.

Here are some nigiri from the Totoya’s shigoto portfolio:

Kohada (shad): This is the ultimate piece to test the skill of the chef. Salted and soaked in vinegar to the color of antique silver, it is a piece of edible heritage.

Kasugo (the young sea bream): Totoya’s lightly acidic kasugo is nestled on oboro – the sweet, baby pink, snapper crumb. A true Edomae recipe but forgotten elsewhere – perhaps due to the fact that many sushi-ya’s no longer make their own oboro – remains firmly on the menu at Totoya.

Karatori (cockles): Commonly called tori-gai, the cockles arrive live at Totoya and are freshly shackled right before serving; thus he calls them kara-tori, which means tori-clams out of kara – shells. Lo and behold, and close your mouth, because the aptly named karatori are so indescribably fresh that its juice will overflow into every crevice of the mouth.

Furthermore, his sawara (Spanish mackerel) has a delicate smokiness clung to the the lightly charred flaky flesh; his aji (the horse mackerel) is paired with grated ginger and scallion underneath the fish, so it is unobtrusive[6] to the palate; his anago (the sea eel) is brushed with a deeply caramelized tsume, through which, one can taste the sweetness, the brine and the bitterness from time immemorial.

The culmination of his shigoto, however, is the three-day marinated zuke of tuna, the simple and yet rich rustiness of the zuke embodies wabi in itself.

However, just as I was swept away in nostalgia for the halcyon sushi days, the chef asked, “would you like tamago to finish?” Gently placed in front of me was a golden egg, reincarnated into an impossibly airy mousse, which dissolved instantly, leaving behind a sweet memory – the taste of wonderment of my childhood. I knew how much shigoto the egg had required, but it was so light and gentle that it gracefully transcended all the effort. “It is best that you eat what you want,” the chef said instead of good-bye.

While Totoya is not the only sushi-ya, which still serves okonomi, there are not many and not at the “best” sushi-ya’s. Today, in order to go to a decent sushi-ya, months of advance planning are required, which is not only a strain to the already over-burdened schedule, mind and body. However, more hazardously, the current trend of omakase – stuffing sushi into a mold of formality – takes the capricious joy of eating the traditionally informal finger food.

Besides, the stools at sushi-ya are not comfortable enough to stay for more than forty minutes at most, which also seems to be the length of time before my concentration wanders off.

I say I got a real solution. I say I want a revolution.[7]

In the face of devolution and dissolution, I demand my freedom.

Totoya

Address: 3-11-7 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0061 Japan

Phone: +81-3-3543-3324

Hours: (Wed/Fri) 12:00-13:30 (Tue-Fri) 17:30-23:00 (Sat/Sun/holidays) 17:30-21:30

[1] Masculine for the sake of convenience, and also because there is only one female sushi chef that I know of.

[2] Or the chef may choose to finish with the cooked items.

[3] Therefore, while the pseudo-gourmets can wax lyrical about the measured progression in omakase – the cultivated anticipation, the delicate crescendo and the forceful climax, but what it comes down to is, that it is all a load of nonsense.

[4] Of course, the restaurants will make allowances if you tell them of your allergy or preferences.

[5] Higher than usual perishable rates of their ingredients (proof: just observe the way the chefs cut and trim away a slice of fish into half before they are satisfied enough to serve); high rental cost, although sushi-ya’s are easily one of the smallest restaurants anywhere in the world.

[6] Other chefs place ginger and scallion on top, which ungracefully fall off the back of the fish at the most inopportune moment.

[7] Of course, I am referring to the Beatles’ Revolution.

#Sushi #Tokyo #Japanese