The Sushi Predicament
The plates circulated like a runway at fashion week, except instead of haute couture, the models were dressed in shades of raw fish, and instead of leggy models, they were small balls of rice. I imagine I felt the same way at this Shinjuku sushi restaurant as I would have at a high-end fashion show, which is, to say, completely out of my depth.
After deciding to start with something relatively safe, I eyed off what looked like salmon nigiri and snatched it off the belt. I cracked the chopsticks, doused the salmon in soy sauce, popped the little sucker in my mouth – ichi, ni, san. The salmon sashimi was not as thinly sliced as I expected. My teeth sank slowly through the jelly-like texture of the raw meat and at the same time, my heart sank as well. My mind flashed back to before I boarded the plane, to the countless conversations I’d had with friends, family and colleagues, which usually went along the lines of:
“Oh, Japan, hey? Where are you staying?” they’d ask.
“I’ll be in Tokyo most of the time.”
“What are you looking forward to the most?” they would often counter.
“The food!” I would reply enthusiastically.
Now, as I gingerly chewed my nigiri, I realised that maybe I’d overestimated my status as a foodie. When it came time to swallow, I had to fight my gag reflex to get the mouthful of slimy salmon and rice down my esophagus. My problem, then, was the second piece of fish on the small plate in front of me.
I looked around at the rest of my friends, who seemed to be enjoying their meal much more than I was. Not wanting to be the wimpy one, I steeled myself, picked up my chopsticks and unceremoniously shoved the second piece of nigiri into my mouth, chomping and swallowing as quickly as possible, fighting the urge to gag on the taste and texture of the meat.
I watched the plates revolve. In Australia, a sushi train-style restaurant catered to a Western palette, with crispy chicken and avocado, tuna and mayo, and teriyaki beef. Meanwhile, here in an actual Japanese sushi restaurant in Tokyo, toppings consisted simply of raw seafood and for me, regret.
No-one else seemed to be experiencing the same distress as I was. To my right, a friend grabbed a plate topped with whole tiny squid. My stomach turned as she dipped one into her little dish of soy sauce and ate it, tentacles and all. To my left, another friend was consuming roe with an indifference that I simply could not comprehend. Meanwhile, I’d snatched a plate with two cubes of something yellow that I really hoped was omelette. To my relief, it was. I sank further into my self-hatred, realising with conviction that the only thing I would genuinely like the taste of in this whole damn restaurant was a piece of fucking egg.
Because I am stubborn and refuse to leave a restaurant hungry, I stalked the one other plate of omelette on the belt and, once it reached me, I devoured it furtively, hoping no one else was noticing what a stupid gaijin (foreigner) I was being.
I felt like one of those people who go on an overseas trip and eat at McDonald’s the whole time, or go to an exotic bar and order a rum and coke. I felt like a giant hypocrite. I felt like I was simply staying in my safe little comfort zone and instead of trying something new and interesting and properly taking advantage of the incredible travel opportunity life had sent my way, I was sitting here eating omelette dipped in soy sauce.
The entire ordeal guaranteed that it was a miserable train ride back to the hotel.
Later, a group of us went to karaoke – an activity some would consider as quintessentially Japanese as dining at a sushi restaurant. Here, I was in my element. Years spent in high school drama and music productions ensured I was more than comfortable in queuing an 80s pop hit on the tablet, grabbing a microphone and singing my heart out in front of a group of people I had known for less than a week.
As the song ended, I surveyed the room, panting and sweaty.
“Who’s next?” I held out the mic, offering it to whoever was my karaoke successor.
It was then, looking around the dark booth, I realised that not everyone appeared as comfortable as I was. For them, this was as far out of their comfort zone as eating raw fish was for me in that sushi restaurant. I felt some of the shame and self-loathing lift off my shoulders. When one of the group tentatively raised their hand for the next song, I offered to sing it with them, and saw the relief briefly wash across their face.
One day, I’ll go back to a sushi restaurant. I’ll ask the chef to make me a special plate and please, can he slice the sashimi extra thin?
Cover by Thomas Marban