Food as artistic expression is such a wonderful experience. Diner or cook, it is a journey with every meal. Some of us get that. Some of us don’t. I remember when I became aware of the beauty in food came to light. It took an enormous cultural shift for me to open my opinion. Three regional dishes would be the building blocks of my new enlightenment.
I was a designer of seasonally themed entertainment for a company in Japan. As a key designer, I was expected to go on tour through Japan with my company to set things up. Japan had always been a top destination for me. Getting to go on tour, and get paid for it was a dream come true. Being thrown into a culture, and living in total immersion.
Within the first few things you always learn to say in any language, other than the naughty words, is where and what to eat, and where the toilet is. The crew I went with learned how to say “I would like the chicken.” because they did not like sushi. I laughed at them then, I laughed harder at them when we got to Japan and found out sushi is expensive there too, so not every restaurant is a sushi bar.
We ate everything that was popular in each of the restaurants we chose. Shabu shabu was my first experience. We had to cook it at our table in a big pot. The experience was like a character at the table. Our translator asked if we had anything like this in the states, and it dawned on me, “I don’t know.”
Sitting there making shabu shabu that first night, I was in a surreal state of being from jet lag and being overwhelmed by the size of Tokyo. Our translator, Takahashi (Take’) explained that as we cook all the meats and veg in the big pot of water, they flavor the water and at the end we all drink the broth. It was brilliant. So simple.
Every aspect of this meal was suddenly being scrutinized. I would look at it with fresh eyes, and smell it before tasting it. How everything was being displayed, and presented and ultimately tasted. I would look at everyone else’s food too, contrast and compare you see. I slowed down as I ate as well. I was not wolfing down junk food here, I kept that in mind with every bite. This whole thing, this meal had to be savored from location to digestion. I was so curious about everything I was living on in that moment.
Then there was sushi, it set me on a new path.
But before take you into that temple, I feel it necessary to mention that the beer in Japan is different. It is stronger, and cheaper than American beer. We drank litre after litre of beer with every meal.
We did not eat sushi with every meal. It was far too pricey for a tour group of 25 to go. Instead, on our days off we would split up and explore. Being part of the management team, I would get taken out by corporate men to really cool places.
One night after a long fun day of exploring and drinking, Take’, my friend Tim and I were at some tiny tiny sushi bar in some remote part of Chiba, it only seated 9. The entire place looked like it was carved out of one log. Behind the bar was a wall of fish tanks with various breeds of live fish in them. There were a few other people on the other end of the bar. Tim and I were the only westerners for miles and miles and miles.
The exploring, drinking and eating had made us all brave that day. Take’ looks at us and in a drunken slur says “I want to order you shomshing, however!” Pointing up with his left index finger “You mussst Promise to eat it! It is very expensive and musst not be wasssssted.”
Tim and I looked at eachother and said “Hell yeah we promise!” in unison. Oh the beer.
Take’ told the chef what he wanted to surprise us with this amazing dish. The chef turned and grabbed a fish from a tank behind him and went to work cleaning it and slicing it up. Within minutes he place in front of us a beautifully displayed plat of fish, with the fish carcass skewered and used as part of the serving platter. The meat was displayed as scales down the fish. It was so beautiful and delicate, and the fish was a whole new experience for my taste buds.
Tim and I toasted the chef, and Take’ for thinking of it, then took a nice big drink of beer. I then looked at the plate of half eaten fish when I saw the tail twitch and the mouth open. I know at this point many people would have turned their head, unable to continue.
Tim and I looked at each other with big eyes of wonder and giant question marks coming from our heads. We toasted the chef then the fish and finished the dish while it twitched in front of us. The most amazing sashimi ever. It was a dish of culinary mastery.
The third food experience came from a place of comfort. Not like the communal aspect of shabu shabu, nor the artistic approach of sushi. Japanese curry, Kari raisu is simple, beautiful, warming. Not like Indian curries or Thai curries. Much more mild. It has this flavor and texture that I would instantly start craving. The the thing that started me wanting to cook. I knew it was going to be hard to find where I lived at that point in my life, and I was going to be able to eat it, I would have to make it myself.
That was another lifetime for me now. And I want kari raisu.