Imagine this: you’re five years old, visiting a new country and meeting distant relatives who speak little to no English. One evening, they invite you to their modest house outside Copenhagen for dinner. On the table are several small bowls of a mysterious, glistening substance in jewel tones of jet black, blood red, and rusty orange. Each bowl is accompanied by a tiny spoon, which you cautiously use to scoop up a sample of this mysterious substance. Suddenly, a shower of tiny bubbles explodes across your tongue in unison, and rush of sharp salinity overwhelms your palate. It is a peculiarly pleasurable experience – not necessarily delicious, but so novel that you reach for another tiny spoonful. And another. And yet another.
Prior to moving to Japan, my knowledge of sushi was mainly limited to the elaborate makizushi (rolled sushi) available at most American Japanese restaurants. Unsurprisingly, these baroque concoctions of mayonnaise, avocado, and processed crab always left me feeling curiously unsatisfied and perplexed. In high school, a friend had introduced me to nigirizushi, but even then my palate was unable to find much pleasure in the unusual combination of sweet, salty, raw, and cooked.
During my first week of work at a large university hospital near Tokyo, my employer – the head of the orthopedics department – took me out to lunch at a family-owned sushi restaurant by the train station. After removing our shoes at the door, we seated ourselves on zabuton cushions at the counter, tucking our legs into the hidden compartment beneath the floor. I sat entranced as the owners’ son patted out fingers of warm, seasoned rice for nigirizushi. He worked in smooth, rhythmic motions, quickly dipping his hands in water before shaping the shari (vinegared rice). An assistant stood nearby, deftly slicing fish into perfect, tapered pieces. Soon we were presented with two ceramic platters, each of which held no fewer than ten pieces of sushi. Out of some mix of deference and ignorance, I followed my dining companion’s lead, beginning with the mild, white fish, moving on to more oily, flavorful varieties like mackerel, and finishing with the tamagoyaki (a sweet, layered omelet) and a nori-wrapped round of rice topped with translucent beads of ikura (salmon roe).