One day back in Cambridge, I was really craving some good raw fish. I decided to walk to Market and pick up some sushi before meeting my roommate Shawn on the steps of Widener Library. It was one of the approximately four days out of the semester where it was warm enough to eat outside and Shawn and I were certainly not going to let it go to waste. Now, I’ve been stung by American sushi before, so I picked out the simplest looking roll, salmon maki, and sauntered over to Widener.
However, to my HORROR, as I took my first bite, I was greeted with the distinct taste of a… bagel?
“Oh my god! There’s cream cheese in this!?” I said in disgust.
“Yeah, that’s a Philadelphia roll,” said Shawn with a shrug. A Philadelphia roll? Excuse me?
Now, I hate to come across as a food purist. I completely acknowledge that some of the world’s best food is fusion – a result of cross cultural exchange throughout the centuries. Give me a Poke bowl and I’ll happily eat it. But let me be clear about one thing: there is absolutely no room for cream cheese in any self-respecting sushi.
Now this is real sushi:
I was lucky enough to have practically grown up in Japan due to my parent’s obsession with onsen hot springs, shabu shabu, Wagyu beef, and of course, sushi. We were (and are still) so obsessed that I was actually sent to Japanese Saturday school for a couple years in the hope that I would be fluent enough to facilitate our 20+ trips to Japan (honestly, they could do a My Strange Addiction episode about my family’s love affair with this country).
However, of all the meals l to choose from, one of my favourite Japanese food memories is eating sushi at a stall in Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Market. Other contenders include that one time I thought I would die after eating pufferfish and that one time I accidentally ate horse, but, I digress. Yes, I know Tsukiji is kinda touristy but there’s a reason that locals and tourists alike keep going back.
The market itself is a giant maze of stalls and shops selling everything from fish, to tofu, to tamago, to dessert. The narrow alleyways are lined with street food stalls and tiny restaurants with around seven seats each all serving up the freshest catch of the day. The three of us had already downed a couple of uni-toro dons (sea urchin and fatty tuna bowls) between us and we were pushing our way through the rest of the market soaking in the atmosphere while trying not to get trampled by other tourists. Perhaps the bigger challenge though was finding the self-control to walk past all the other stalls without further indulging. The smell of grilled scallops, freshly opened oysters, and the sound of crab shells cracking and sellers yelling about their wares was incredibly hard to resist.
And so, as we reached the very outskirts of the market, we caved. We saw a nondescript little stall tucked in a corner on the perimeter of the market. The only thing that was visible was a set of legs peeking out from under a curtain that had the words sushi written on it. We ventured behind the curtain to see two old men dressed in their chefs whites crafting beautiful sushi for one customer who stood at the bar with her chopsticks at the ready.
With deft hands, the men shaped the rice, lovingly sliced the fish, and then painted on a thin layer of soy sauce on each piece before placing it directly on a leaf on the counter. The little sushi sat on the counter like a small piece of art for just a second before being picked up and consumed immediately. I love little holes in the wall like this – bare bones places with neither a chair to sit on nor a plate to eat off of. Nothing to separate the chef from the eater except a small wooden bar and nothing to separate the sushi from the eater except for a pair of chopsticks. No frills. Simply sushi.
The lady next to us obviously knew what she was doing. She kept ordering all the greatest hits: luxurious ikura (salmon roll), sweet succulent amaebi (sweet shrimp), perfectly charred unagi (eel), and o-so-fatty o-toro (fatty tuna). They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. And so, Mom would just gesture towards whatever the lady was eating and hold three fingers in the air: the universal sign for “damn! I want three of those!”. The chefs would get to work creating the beautiful parcels of rice and fish while we waited we baited breath. Each piece was immaculate. How could something so simple taste so good? As I popped the precious little ikura pearls in my mouth and wondered greedily about what we were going to get next, I remember thinking “ah, yes. This is real sushi”.