• The World Digested

An Art Called Sushi


Palate can be trained. Scientifically, this is true. What this means is that the more you eat, the more your taste buds develop; and conversely, food in general tastes less and less good. Allow me to explain: Have you ever been disappointed by your old favorites? You do not go back for a couple of years, and one day, you pass by and you walk in; then you come out shaking your head and lament that the times have changed. That may be so. Maybe the good old days are gone with the butterflies and childhood dreams. Maybe the chef has hired an MBA graduate and spends more time on the plane than in the kitchen. But, maybe it is you: You have changed. And, you cannot change back. It is like the inflation: If you just hide your bills in a candy jar, then eventually the inflation will eat it up and you cannot even use them as paper napkins.

In short, a good chef is one who walks in the same direction as you, and who walks just a little ahead of you. Such a chef is Sawada-san.

His nigiri are slender and streamlined. His sushi rice is salty and acidic, and even hard. Yes, the rice is finished with a tiny hard core - al dente - so you can feel each grain unfolding and falling in your mouth.

The first two are just palate-teasers - flounder and cuttlefish - to test the water. Not bad, but nothing to raise your eyebrows yet. Just trying the temperature with your toes - testing the rice with your tongue: a little too hard? A little too salty? Halfbeak was marinated too strongly and thus too salty, but the giant clam was so sweet and it wiped the palate clean. Then comes the clean finish of horse mackerel. To encircle the small scallops, Sawada-san carefully selects a sheet of seaweed and cuts it into three; he used two for the couple next to me and discarded the third. He takes out another sheet and, again, carefully cuts it into three strips. This time, the seaweed strip has met his approval, and he piled the rice with the small, orange jewels. Lovely - it is the seaweed that brings out the flavor, not the other way around.

Around this time, your body has got into the rhythm and got used to the rice. The lingering saltiness is even less pungent, but now more complementary. The milky fluke fin was decadent, and so was the rice straw smoked Spanish mackerel. The marinated lean tuna - he apologized for the short duration of the marinade - tasted more than good enough to me. The wild five-day aged ark shell did not seem worth the trouble, but the strings around the ark shell crunched nicely in the mouth.

However, the stewed clam was too stewed, and I could only taste the soy sauce. As if reading my mind, he brought out aka uni from Karatsu, which became cream in the mouth. After a vinegar-aged shad - the best in my life time - comes another uni: This time the bafun uni from Ezo. Sweet, but less creamy than aka uni, therefore, he wrapped savory seaweed around it as accent. Smart. If bafun uni is happy with seaweed - sea urchins eat seaweed - why not I? The seaweed strip was cut even higher this time: he kept piling bafun uni over it as if there is no tomorrow.

Cooked squid was stuffed with vinegared rice, sesame seeds, shredded seaweed, dried gourd and dusted with citrus peel. “I just like this,” Sawada-san says almost shyly. Fear not, so did I. Now, it is my time to confess: “I did not like bonito until I came here the first time.” “Neither did I,” he said, “not until I was taught how to smoke the bonito.” Sawada-san uses the straw of the rice, with which he makes the sushi rice, to smoke the bonito as the etiquette of sushi restaurant. No, it is not just in the brain; it is just that good.

Only the skin of the snapper was washed under boiling water, so the meat remained fresh but you can play with the added chewiness of the skin. Then he takes real whole coal logs, live in your face, to melt the fat of tuna kama - the double chin of tuna fish. If Sawada-san keeps feeding me, I would have a double chin, too. “Can you handle the whole prawn?” his wife asked me. The large prawn is split into two at Sawada. No problem - I would have handled a dozen, if he would let me. Then comes the glorious finale: The tasting of sea eel. One is simply done with salt and wasabi, the other with sauce. I prefer the salt as the sea eel is just so complete by itself.

The last is the custard egg, which takes two hours to make. Yes, indeed, and I tasted every second of it in the egg.

Sushi Sawada Address: 5-9-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan Phone: +81-3-3571-4711

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