Saturday, February 11, 2006

Sushi - it's healthy crack

I love sushi. In fact that's an understatement I utterly adore sushi. It is the only food that I think in all honesty I could eat every day. And I want to eat it every day, but I fear my bank manager would call me in for a "serious chat" if I were to try it. Sushi, here in the UK, is expensive. Even cheap sushi isn't and the good stuff costs plenty. You can see therefore that sushi is completely addictive and expensive and if you were to make a serious habit out of it you could ruin yourself. In other words, it's just like crack.

I remember the first time I tried it. It was my friend, the small, blonde, dangerous Canadian from Canadia who began my slide into a sushi haze. She'd found a cool Japanese supermarket in Soho that did boxes of good sushi for only moderately unaffordable cost. And she already knew her sushi. Innocently I asked if I might try some the next time she went out and sure enough I soon had a small box of my own. I didn't immediately love it. I thought it tasted interesting and very fresh but I was apathetic. But the next time she went out and asked if I wanted some I found myself accepting at once. Strange. And as more time (and sushi) went past the worse my habit got. And so here I am 5 years later unable to turn down the offer of sushi whenever or whoever it comes from.

So what is so great about it? Tricky, as it's not really a feat of culinary wizardry; a block of rice (if we're talking nigiri here) a scraping of wasabi and a piece of fish. There is fearsome skill in its preparation, just not in the concept behind it. Actually, that's one of the great things about sushi is watching it being prepared. Chefs with knives so sharp that they split air molecules as they bring the blade down to the board cut and slice microscopically precise amounts of each ingredient and then assemble them with the skill and attention to detail of a Swiss watch-maker. So there is spectacle first of all.

Also there is mystery. I am a total Japanophile; I have never been but I love the food, the cinema, the architecture and the culture. J-pop you can keep, but nowhere's perfect, right? In my favourite sushi restaurant, which is slap-bang in the middle of soho it's as if you've stepped out of place and time. If you can't spend an hour and a half over lunch don't go, because that is how long it will take. Don't know why, it just does. I think it has something to do with different laws of physics operating in sushi restaurants but I haven't been able to quantify that yet. Then there is the menu. Most of it is written in Japanese and English but there are exciting pages at the back and boards of specials on the wall written only in Japanese. If you can't understand the language, you can't have it. I don't mind that, it just encourages me to learn Japanese, which my utter lack of talent with languages (I have been trying and failing to learn ancient Greek for a year) is going to be a pretty tall order. So the place has magic, tranquility and mystery to it, even though it is 50 yards from Carnaby Street.

And then there's the food. Perhaps the beauty is the simplicity and elegance of the food. Raw fish is so clean you can almost taste yourself getting healthier as you shove it into your face. How can food that is so good for you taste so delicious? To my normal way of thinking that's a contradiction in terms. And the other miracle of it is that if you eat sushi for lunch you feel energised for the afternoon, in direct opposition to most other lunch-time staples where you need a nap at about 2.30. How can this be? Oh, and I mustn't forget the texture. Oh God the texture. Did I realise that every fish has a unique texture to its flesh before sushi? I did not. The soft butteriness of salmon, the melt-in-the mouth fattiness of toro tuna, the exciting fibrousness of mackerel. Cooked fish hides all the distinct properties and homogenises the fish experience into just that. Not a uniquely salmony experience or tuna or sea-bream, just generic fish. That's something else sushi gives to us, a direct almost unmediated connection to that which we eat. It brings to mind the hero of Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" as he eats chunks of freshly caught raw tuna out in the ocean. There is yet more magic there.

Finally there is presentation. The way the sushi is laid out on a plate (or plates if you're a greedy bastard like me who orders a lot). There is ceremony to it. Not fussy archaic ceremony but a reverence for the food that makes the experience of receiving your plate a little more enlightened than the usual nose-bag exercise that is serving up food in most other eateries. And once you have finished you are ready to go back to the regular world, pleasantly full, bursting with renewed vitality and spiritually cleansed after a short stay on Planet Sushi.

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