For the Love of Sushi
By SYAKIR RYLI
On our first date, you wore a light blue shirt, a pair of pants and brown shoes. You had a sling bag that was loaded with textbooks and papers strewn all over. I offered to carry them for you or organised it, at least, but you told me you had it all under control. Then, you asked if I love sushi.
My self-introduction to Sushi was at an international buffet restaurant where they served Nigiri and Norimaki on a line with other food from all over the world. Nondescript, the platters stood there, almost finished. I’ve heard of them, of course, but my dear mother had warned me once not to eat raw food, peppered with the cautionary horror story of tapeworm and indigestion. She herself, avoided them with the rigour of a Malay woman and her preference for cooked food. But, since it was a buffet, I decided to give it a try.
Choosing my first sushi was easy enough. I was familiar with the taste of crab meat and took Kani Maki. Tuna was safe too, so Tekka Maki was next. Finally, for possibly the first time in my life, I took to salmon in the form of Salmon Nigiri.
At this juncture, I would like to helpfully add that I was never taught how to eat sushi and was not formally introduced to it by anyone, which explains why the next few sentences might sound like an odd first date horror story.
Back then in my days of ignorance and youth, I did not know what sushi was to be enjoyed with. So, I settled for the nearest condiment available: thousand island dressing. On hindsight, the dressing was possibly meant for the salad bar that was beside the Japanese rolls. But, I really didn’t know.
Still, I remembered liking how the Kani Maki and Tekka Maki felt in my mouth; the topping of crab meat and tuna swirled in creamy thousand island dressing. It felt new and surreal almost, to taste a foreign combination of flavours and address it as a new experience.
Then, I tried the Salmon Nigiri.
It was, unfortunately, lacklustre. There was a clunkiness in the way the salmon laid atop the nori rice. The fish was smooth, pink with tales of the river. The rice was harsh white lands, ploughed with a conviction as staple food. The dichotomy was not lost to me. But I knew there was potential here. So, I decided to try the salmon on its own.
It was perfect. By itself, the sweetness of the meat sang beautifully. Coupled with the smoothness, it stood out in its own strength and told its own stories without being deterred by anything else. It was beautiful.
As I presented the story of my virgin sushi experience to you as a fait accompli of my second favourite food (my first will always be my mother’s cooking), you interrupted me and asked with an incredulous look:
It was only then that I learnt that my norm was not a society’s convention. When I said yes, you declared that it was your sole responsibility as a sushi lover yourself, to reintroduce to me the Japanese delicacy and the proper way to eat it, Shoyu and Wasabi in tow. You probably didn’t know it yet, but it was then that I realised you meant for us to meet again. Sushi, or rather the proper way to eat sushi, became a proposal for a second date.
It was a sushi belt this time. A conveyor transporting colourful plates of Sushi and Sashimi from the kitchen, making a turn around the restaurant for our picking. I could see the chefs making them, carefully wrapping the seaweed around the rolls, or carefully slicing tuna sashimi into even portions.
You warned me about the spiciness of Wasabi and how it was an altogether different kind of heat. The allyl isothiocyanate inside Wasabi will trigger a reaction as my body struggles to get used to it. “It will reach your nose,” you summarised.
And it did.
At first, the Wasabi rang in my mouth. It then called my nose, tongue, and throat to battle with the ferocity of a foreign invader. Instinctively, my body reacted, as I stifle a cough and tried to keep my food in.
The soy sauce came next; a wave of brine, soybeans, and saltiness. For some reason, it diluted the efforts of the wasabi, calming it down immensely. But the greatest help was the fish meat itself. The sashimi swam in a sea of wasabi and soy sauce and tasted bolder than I could ever imagine..
The aftertaste of salmon and soy sauce lingered briefly only to be washed down by green tea, hot against the air-conditioned restaurant. I looked at you and realised that, between salt, spice, hot and cold, I fell in love.
Unfortunately, the relationship did not stand the test of time or our love for Sushi. Today, I am with someone who does not share the same love for raw Japanese food but has shown that love can exist without consuming every difference we shared. Instead, I have learned that I am more than capable of spending time alone by the sushi belt, waiting patiently for sashimi. I was taught that being alone does not have to signify loneliness and that I would not come back to us, the way a salmon would return home.
The best I can do is admit to the memory of a lingering taste of salt and spice, a post about you and sushi, and how you have taught me how to love.