Tales From a Writers' Circle
WHY COOK? FOR A DATE, EAT IT RAW
Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch. – Orson Welles ____________________________________________________________
Some of the best chefs and restaurants in New York feature cuisines from all around the world. Without leaving my home city, I was able to enjoy specialty cuisines of Greece, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Caribbean, China, Spain, Mexico, and Korea. Waiters spoke the language of the country the restaurant represented and some wore traditional costumes. I could not afford to travel the world, therefore the next best option to experience another country and satisfy my lust for sensation and taste was to dine at a restaurant featuring authentic cuisine. It was not quite like being in another country, but just having a taste of the various cultures, foods and music left me satisfied.
In my early 20s, I had little money to spend on travel and fancy restaurants. Fortunately, friends and co-workers were willing hosts or sponsors, and I was always eager to try new restaurants, especially those with a cosmopolitan or international flare.
A friend asked if I would like to lunch at an authentic Japanese restaurant in mid-Manhattan, his treat. Of course I was game to try. I knew nothing about Japanese food and hid my naiveté, "Yes, shall I meet you at the restaurant at noon?"
I had expected the decor to be similar to many other Asian restaurants that I had frequented; however, the storefront immediately revealed otherwise. Unlike other Asian restaurants that entice potential patrons with photos of over-filled plates of food, there were no pictures nor rubberized dinner replicas in the windows to advertise the cuisine. I had expected, at the very least, a menu to be posted at the entry. There was none. Not a hint of the offerings nor the price. While some Chinese restaurants string a wire of pig’s knuckles or roasted fowl hanging by their necks as a curtain and visual menu, here, a simple plain red curtain hid the interior of the restaurant. The restaurant was sparsely decorated. In traditional zashiki style, there were a few semi-private dining areas separated by a couple of steps and shoji screens.
To my young eyes, this all presented as an elegant establishment. Cooking odors were barely detectable. Soft background instrumental music played in the background. Conversations from other patrons were in a whisper. I was immediately impressed.
We were seated at a low table with individual cushions on a woven straw tatami mat. A waitress dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono brought out menus written entirely in one of the styles of Japanese calligraphy. I was willing to try something different or unusual, so I did not ask for a translation. I prefer to be surprised as that increases the flow of dopamine and thus the pleasure in dining. The main flavor that I cannot tolerate is very spicy food.
“Is this item spicy?” I asked while pointing to one of the selections.
“No,” the waitress responded with an ever so slight sly grin, while bowing her head and stepping back.
“I’ll have that,” I ordered. Fooling myself, as if I knew what to expect.
My friend knew the menu. He did not translate for me, and he ordered his meal.
A medium-sized tray was brought out with what appeared to be bite-sized appetizers. As the tray was brought down to my level….
I saw raw fish. Sashimi, roe, and a side of rice. I took a deep breath.
Now, I must tell you that I have fished, baited my own hooks, cleaned the catch, and definitely cooked all fish prior to eating it. Although I love fish, I never had an interest in eating it raw and certainly would never eat roe nor anything that was served as bait on a fishhook.
At least the rice was cooked. I would not leave too hungry. Maintaining decorum, I picked up the chopsticks and I took the first bite of raw, white fish. Hmm, not too bad, no odor. Not objectionable, not slimy. Mild flavor. Very clean. Firm, yet tender, and not chewy. With the exception of the roe, I ate everything. The meal was a sampling of about six pieces of sashimi. Having eaten what to me were appetizers for lunch, I left hungry.
It was not until sixteen years later that Jack, my new boyfriend, would persuade me to try raw oysters.
Jack invited me to a barbecue party on Hood Canal. Other than hearing about the collapse of the Hood Canal Bridge two years prior in 1979, I was not familiar with this body of water. I learned that the canal is a natural fjord between the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas and there were several commercial oyster farms along the shore. A friend of Jack's family owned waterfront property, near the southern legs of the canal with a small oyster bed at the shore. It would be a special treat to see this private shoreline.
The party had already started when we arrived, so we immediately strolled to the backyard on a slightly sloped lawn that led to the shore. A couple of rowboats were floating in very still water. It was a rare sunny day, and I hoped that we could take one out.
A few men, with beers in hand, were standing around the barbecue comparing notes on their favorite rubs to put on meat, and the different qualities of grills on the market. Another fellow raved about the taste a smoke ring gives. One fellow cajoled, “My preference is for steak tartare. Why go through the trouble, time, and cost that it takes to cook when the juiciest meats are rare?”
He then picked up a raw steak, took a big bite, threw his head back, sucked the red dripping blood, and smacked his lips. That was not for my taste. I grabbed a beer and had my plate ready for a well-cooked burger. But other partiers could not wait to try the oysters. Freshly taken from the waters’ edge, I watched as shells were pried open, revealing large oysters lying in a shimmering liquid of slim. Down their throats slid many raw oysters.
“You’ll never taste oysters as fresh as these! You have got to try at least one.” I was told. Several people attempted to persuade. "These are not as salty as oysters from the northern shores." Yuck! My mouth still turns down and my nose up, just thinking about that time.
Yes, I did have to try one. Preferring to think of this slide as a challenge rather than thinking about the oyster as food, I acquiesced, “Alright. I will do it.” I could not say “eat it.” I selected the smallest one I could find and swallowed quickly. It was not too bad. I survived and found oysters to be a superlative aphrodisiac. Jack and I concluded the day with a ride in a rowboat and made some waves.
Over the years since that first oyster slide, I have consumed many oysters of all sizes. Until one day, I saw live worms in a small oyster. That was the end of that.
About ten years later, my blue-eyed main man brought me back to eating sushi and sashimi. But, this time, prepared at home. He is quite adept and quick in cutting, assembling the layers, rolling, again cutting, and then presenting sushi. It is so lightweight; we can eat two platefuls each. Yum. Raw fish has become the entre.
Here are some tips from Joseph on making sushi:
Our favorites are tuna and cucumber rolls. Tuna tends to be parasite-free.
Always use sushi rice as it has a special texture and flavor
A Maki sushi Ki box will form the sushi into a nice square shape
Dampen seaweed (Nori) with vinegar
Press rice into all of the channels, put tuna on top, press lego box tight
Seal edge with sushi seasoning or rice wine vinegar
Use your sharpest knife, clean and dry to slightly damp. An overly wet knife will stick to the Nori
Cut in half and then in half again for bite-size pieces
Wasabi powder-we use it on the dry side-a few drops of water to a tablespoon of wasabi