Saturday, July 7, 2012

And if the household is too little for the lamb...

After the tatami incident we were shown to a dining hall that had the feel of a spacious open courtyard: along its perimeter, in smaller rooms facing the central area, groups of revelers sat cross-legged at low dining tables loaded with dishes; in the center of the hall there was a big pond where fish of all kinds swam freely; a busy sushi bar at which customers sat and dined, enclosed the pond; sous-chefs with nets in their hands were trying to catch the fish in the pond, while the sushi chefs were slicing and rolling. The customers, all men, wore white shirts and black or gray pants, the uniform of the salary men, and the only color in the room (and the only women) were the waitresses.
“The sushi is really fresh here!” the senior among my companions finally broke the ice. “They catch the fish you choose from the pond.” The tatami incident was now a thing of the past, clean slate. Earlier, on our way to the restaurant they had asked me “Do you like Japanese-style fish?” Imagining myself devouring my way through mounds of sushi and sashimi, I had answered “Yes” without hesitations. One of them then had remarked that the sashimi in the restaurant where we were heading is excellent and now, seeing the fish writhe in the nets, I was wondering what the flavor of fish just pulled out of the water would be.
My hosts had reserved a private dining room on the third floor. There another mama-san was waiting for us in front of the elevator and walking in front of us with tiny quick steps, constrained in her pink flowery kimono, she took us to the shoji of our private dining room. A young and pretty attendant, waiting for us on her knees slid the shoji open as we approached, moved quickly but gracefully and then, again on her knees in a vestibule, opened for us the fusuma of our dining room. In the vestibule there was a wooden step that doubled as shelf where the attendants would place the trays during the elaborated choreography these poor girls had to perform every time they had to come in and out of the room, a procedure I thought one could see only in movies depicting the luxurious life of the days of yore.
They had me enter the room first, then my three hosts followed in hierarchical order. Our six-tatami room had an extremely simple décor: a piece of calligraphy hung from one of the walls, a low sideboard that contained a small fridge, and four zaisu around a low dining table that hid a hollow space underneath it where we could let our legs hang rather than sit cross-legged. As we sat down the junior of my hosts, who was with us in his capacity of interpreter, asked me in English if I can do seiza. With the clear intention of showing off I answered in Japanese that I can hold seiza for up to 40 minutes, which is the truth. Now that it felt like I was back in their good books I was not going to volunteer the information that at the end of those 40 minutes my legs are of no use…
One of my hosts pulled out the sheet with the Japanese-English list of forbidden and permitted fish posted on the JCJ website and asked me if I liked hirame, halibut. When I answered “yes”, he said he was happy we were 4 because 4 is the perfect number for eating a whole halibut of the size they have here. He added that every time he is here he is very careful to order halibut only when there are 4 people, because 4 is the perfect number for ordering halibut of the size they have here without wasting any of it. 3 people cannot finish it, but 4 is just right. They ordered several vegetarian appetizers and several treyf delicacies, two boat-shaped trays loaded with sashimi: one with some untouchable foods and one with kosher fish (mainly salmon because our office manager makes sure people who take me out for meals know I’m addicted to salmon), and finally this mysterious dish for which we were the perfect number: ikizukuri. We had to have it since we were 4 because 4 is the perfect number for eating a whole halibut of the size they have here.
Again that question: “Do you like Japanese style fish?” Looking at him at loss for words I thought “Haven’t you just ordered a boat of sashimi all for me?” and then the sudden realization that maybe - or certainly - “Japanese-style fish” must have meant something different than sushi or sashimi.
Hesitatingly I gave a Jewish-style answer: “Do you mean sushi or sashimi?”
“Have you ever eaten ikizukuri?”
“How do you write it?”
Our junior wrote the Chinese characters of the mysterious word ikizukuri on the table with his finger for me to read.
“Preparing… alive…?!”
“Yes! The fish is still alive when they slice it. And sometimes it still moves on the plate.”
“I’m sorry... but… I cannot eat it,” I said gagging at the image evoked by that description.
“You do not like hirame?”
“I cannot eat it for religious reasons. I’m sorry. But you please go ahead and enjoy it.”
“But hirame is in the list of your website…”
“But I’m not allowed to eat it while it is alive.”
“But it is in the list of your website…”
“But it’s alive!”
My other two hosts understood the English exchange and out of politeness and respect for their guest called immediately the waitress and asked her to have the chef make the hirame as regular sashimi, because “the foreigner” wouldn’t eat it otherwise. I begged them to have the ikizukuri anyway, I didn’t want to spoil their long awaited treat. Instead they ordered for themselves octopus ikizukuri, and for all of us the hirame was made into old fashioned, boring sashimi.
The 4 of us finished indeed the halibut, the strangest dish I’ve ever had: chewy, tasteless, a little sour, and with this unshakable awareness that it was alive a few minutes before. I steered my eyes away from the moving tentacles of the octopuses ikizukuri in the other dish at the center of the table, and tried to ignore the almost imperceptible squishing sound made by the octopuses’ tentacles and the thought that my fish a few minutes before were happily swimming in the pond downstairs.
It took many cups of sake to force down those slices of halibut, but oddly enough the amount of sake I drank had no effect on my lucidity. Waiting for that instant when the alcohol would take away the shoes on the tatami mat and the squirming fish I was wondering if there are studies that show that the mind and its processes have the power to hinder the effect of intoxicating substances: what could otherwise explain the fact that I, usually a cheap date, was still lucid and alert, despite the almost three sake bottles I had gulped.
My hosts spent part of the evening discussing how ikizukuri is not something for foreigners, how it is something that only the Japanese can appreciate. They wondered at the fact that ikizukuri is outlawed in some countries of the world, and at the special nature of the Japanese who alone can appreciate the exquisite, decadent pleasure of this dish. The inebriated conversation touched also upon other modern myths the Japanese sometimes tell themselves about themselves: a brain that functions differently, a body that functions differently, a unique language (well, this is true…), a unique culture. Serious scholarship has proved that these stories, that have a tinge of racism, are nonsense. I, however, had no desire to disturb the harmony any further so, I kept chewing my quarter of halibut politely listening and emitting sounds of approval and surprise.
At some point the young attendant brought in the bones of the same halibut that had been covered in flour and deep-fried.
“Japanese style chips!” chirped one of my hosts, gaily dividing the carcass into smaller manageable pieces. “Rabbi, have the head. It’s the juiciest part!”
Luckily I had a fresh bottle of warm sake next to me.