Get a couple of beers in me and I can manage to say some pretty stupid things. Things that get me in a heap of trouble. In this case it took only one beer and as soon as I opened my flap and issued my challenge I knew I should never have opened my mouth. You can’t stuff a challenge back into your mouth once it’s out in the open.
This whole story started a number of years ago when I was on my first visit to Japan. One of the very best parts of my job is the worldwide travel. Setting up audio systems, meeting with customers, dealers and the press. It’s really something I treasure. Not only do I get to meet some of the brightest and most passionate people on the planet, but I get to experience their cultures. In particular, their food and eating rituals.
I love Japanese food. If I had to choose one food to eat for the rest of my life it would be Japanese. And thus it was with a great deal of anticipation that I looked forward to my very first visit to an authentic Japanese sushi bar. At that time I still ate fish and loved sushi, sashimi and everything they made, save for any land animal products. I suspected that the sushi I loved here in the States would be bested by a real Japanese sushi chef. I mean, after all, this was where it was invented, cherished and revered. This would be a meal to remember.
Downing a beer with my distributor in the hotel bar, before we were to be picked up to go to the restaurant, he mentioned that the sushi bar we were going to was one he felt comfortable taking a westerner to. It was a safe sushi bar, one he had taken many Americans before and I should not be nervous about the food or eating anything too weird. He was very happy to have made sure my first visit to Japan would be a safe and pleasant one. I was horrified. I like jumping into the culture with both feet. I don’t seek out American food when I am in another country. I want the real deal. I want to eat what the locals eat. I want to go to a sushi bar that any self respecting Japanese would be excited to go to.
“I appreciate you taking me to dinner but I was kind of hoping for a real Japanese eating experience.”
“This is a real Japanese restaurant, it is just not so …. challenging.” He paused to think of the right word before he said “challenging”. He thinks I am a wus. A typical American sissy. The beer started kicking in.
“I like challenging. I like sushi.”
“But I don’t want to offend you. I don’t want to have your first visit a bad one. We go to the safe restaurant.”
“Look, I don’t want safe food. I want real food. I can eat anything you can eat.” There it was. It just escaped out of my mouth and I don’t know where it came from. It just popped out and now there was no taking it back.
He just stared at me for a couple of seconds. “But I am Japanese.”
“I eat like a Japanese. As long as it is not meat, I will eat anything put in front of me. In fact, I will eat more than you will. I will have the last bite.” No sooner had I uttered that challenge than I wanted to retract it. It was bad enough I said “I can eat anything you can eat” but this? The most challenging thing I had ever eaten was sea urchin.
The challenge had been made. The gauntlet had been thrown. One male to another. Mano a mano.
The biggest grin I had ever seen on his normally stoic face went ear to ear. “Ok, I will make the change. We will go to a very special Japanese restaurant. I will invite a few of our dealers to join us. You wait here.” I didn’t like the way he was grinning at me. It was as if he knew something I didn’t. Of course he knows something I don’t, he knows everything I don’t and he’s grinning like a man who had just won a bet.
The car picked us up about a half an hour later and we were whisked off to parts unknown, arriving at a small (read tiny) sushi bar. We waited outside for the dealers to arrive. In all we were 6 people and we entered the restaurant. Inside were 6 seats at the sushi bar. A few tables were behind the bar but they were empty. There was not one other customer in the room. A sushi chef, a lady that seemed to help him out and someone back in what looked to be a kitchen behind the bar were the only other people.
“This is one of the best sushi restaurant in all of Japan. They have agreed to close the restaurant tonight and serve only us. I told the chef he may serve us anything he wishes as long as it is not meat. You will have a real japanese meal tonight.” There was that grin again. The dealers were grinning at me as well. I felt alone.
I sat down at the bar and beers were placed in front us. My first Japanese sushi experience was about to begin.
Tomorrow the meal.