When asked by my Japanese hosts what I liked to eat, being an ignorant and over-confident twenty-year-old, I replied: Everything. At home in Australia, perhaps the most avant-garde dish I would face after answering as such, would be tripe, trotters or tongue, but I was seated in a small eatery in Tokyo, and I was the only gaigin among its local customers.
The three of us travelled on foot through a maze of laneways, weaving between the swarming suits of Akasaka. We quickly reached our destination: a nondescript bar, with only eight seats in front of a counter. Standing behind it was the chef, Tommy-san, who graciously greeted his new guests while simultaneously working his magic with a sushi knife. Sheets of poster paper adorned the wall and I imagined this was the menu calligraphed by Tommy’s delicate hand. A small fish tank housed a motionless turtle sitting astride its brick island, a lone fish swam back and forth oblivious to a net perched above, and a few conch shells were scattered about the tank’s floor.
‘This is Masa’s special secret, you are very lucky, he never brings guests here. Tommy-san’s is like home.’ said Shigemi, who was Masa’s wife, business partner and the evenings translator. She told me that they rarely ate at home, and Tommy-san, the owner and chef, was like family to them. They dined here almost every evening. ‘You eat everything, then you are in luck.’ she said. There were no printed menus, and the formalities about what I could and couldn’t (everything and nothing) were dispensed with in moments as Tommy-san pushed the first dish across the counter.
‘Domo Arigato,’ I mumbled, as I feasted my eyes on the first course. It was a tasty morsel of tuna belly, its beetroot-red flesh was unfamiliar, unlike the bubble pink hue of the tuna at Sushi-a-Go back home. Masa and Shigemi giggled when I dipped the sashimi into my overflowing soy sauce bowl.
‘So much soy, Masa says you are very, very funny…’ Shigemi said, covering her mouth.
I smiled at Masa, ‘That was amazing, the best I’ve ever had, no wonder you love it here.’
‘Many more dishes, all good, but best come at end.’ Shigemi said.
Masa raised his glass to meet mine, ‘Kampai.’
My bravado peaked as I sculled a Sapporo and sipped the sake. Small dishes of seafood arrived and I imagined that I had impressed my hosts with my culinary capability. ‘This one is Masa’s favourite, best eat all in one go.’ Shigemi pointed to the conch shell on the counter. My bravado waned; it was huge.
I pulled at the muscle, which was clinging to its shell, firmly rooted like the bonsai by the bathroom. The salty aroma reminded me of my childhood bedroom, where I would store my treasures. On the school holidays I would collect shells from the nearby beach, displaying them on a shelf above my bed. I can still recall the slow and steady smell of decay, several days later when I had brought a live one home.
With a yank and a stab with my chopstick, the muscle gave way and victorious I displayed my prize. ‘Kampai.’ We charged our glasses, and I sought courage from the sake. I closed my eyes and popped the sea slug into my mouth. It was the size of a golf ball with texture of an old rubber mattress. As I began to gag, my hosts fell about laughing.
‘You have battle with slug and slug win.’ Masa was doubled over, pointing to the regurgitated remnants on my plate.
‘I’m so sorry. Yes, I’m defeated. Is there any more sake?’ I begged, needing to wash the pungent saltiness from my mouth.
‘Tommy-san makes the best turtle blood soup, next course, you must try.’ Shigemi said, as Masa filled my sake cup.
‘Maybe next time Masa, I think I’ve had enough.’ I raised my freshly filled cup, ‘Kampai, Domo Arigato. I surrender.’
Have you had any culinary catastrophes?