It was day two of a four-day weekend, and I felt depression creeping up on me.
That happens sometimes during long weekends, and I hate it. Sometimes it’s boredom, sometimes it’s inactivity, sometimes it’s some stupid little imagined slight that knocks my emotions off course. But long weekends make me panic if I’m not embracing every minute of every day, enjoying the hell out of my time away from the office.
So during a free hour on Saturday afternoon, I slipped into Yuki Hana, one of my favorite sushi places in Chicago. Having snaked a hot towel through my fingers, I sat at my secluded table by the window, nursing a Sapporo and watching girls parade up and down Clark Street. Soon, I was elbow-deep in rice, tuna, eel, and salmon skin.
It did the trick. Life became wonderful.
The rarity with which I eat sushi adds to its pleasures for me. It’s an expensive meal out, and I’ve barely eaten it since I bought a place. Spaghetti? Pizza? Stir fry? I can make all of it at home, easily. But sushi?
Actually, why couldn’t I?
• • •
My brother gave me a sushi-making kit several Christmases ago. Utensils, a cookbook, special sushi rice vinegar, even a bottle of sake. The whole collection is very intimidating, and my brother has given up asking me if I’ve tried it yet.
But the Lawrence Fish Market is mere blocks from my apartment. It supplies fish to many sushi restaurants in Chicago. The day after my sushi binge, it occurred to me that they might just sell me some slabs of raw fish and send me off to experiment on my digestive system.
I stepped into the tiny storefront. The people in the small seating area looked me over while the people behind the counter ignored me. I carried my self-consciousness like a sack of edamame in my stomach and pretended to be intrigued by the contents of the refrigerator. After a while, I realized I was no longer pretending. They had unagi here! Smoked, cooked freshwater eel that’s a great introduction for people who might be freaked out by the prospect of eating raw fish (provided they’re not freaked out by the prospect of eating eel).
And jars of pink slices of ginger, tubes of wasabi, and crates of what may have been daikon, a radish used as a sushi garnish. If my experiment went well and I didn’t poison myself, I could see myself getting more adventurous in subsequent visits.
I finally mustered up the courage to order. I asked for a quarter pound of sushi-grade tuna. “A quarter pound?” the woman asked. I said yes. “For sushi?” she asked. I couldn’t tell if she was incredulous or insulted or what. But I soon realized it was because she wanted to give me a dollop of wasabi and a mound of sliced ginger.
The lot of it sat in a bowl under a bag of ice in my refrigerator. The clock was now ticking. The tuna wouldn’t stay edible forever. Further, I had begun to suspect that I should buy some replacement nori.
My two-and-a-half-year-old package of seaweed sheets contained a small packet of moisture-absorbing powder. Over the last several months, it had bloated like a drowned corpse, groaning forth from within. I opened the package and tested a sheet. It smelled and tasted like TetraMin fish food, and it was tough enough to require some vigorous, doglike headshaking to tear it. I headed to Whole Foods for another package.
In the train on the way, I skimmed the sushi cookbook. Under “Tuna rolls (Tekkamaki),” it read:
In the old days, tekka were gambling dens where gangsters played traditional card games. When they got take-out sushi, the rice stuck to their fingers and the cards and made it easy to mark cards and cheat! So they suggested wrapping nori seaweed around the sushi rice so they could eat it without sticky fingers.
Wait a second. Does that sound familiar?
The word sandwich that we use today was born in London during the very late hours one night in 1762 when … the Fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), was too busy gambling to stop for a meal even though he was hungry for some food. The legend goes that he ordered a waiter to bring him roast-beef between two slices of bread … so he wouldn’t get his fingers greasy while he was playing cards. –WordSources.com
It turns out that card games are the engine of food innovation. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Twinkies were invented because kids didn’t like getting crème filling on their Old Maid cards.
The new sheets of nori (a food which, by the way, contains zero percent of your recommended daily allowance of anything) had the exact same taste and texture as the ones I’d discarded. It was just as well – fresh nori would make the real toxin easier to trace in my autopsy.
I boiled the rice, poured myself some sake, and set to work. Once I mixed the rice with the sushi vinegar, the kitchen was filled with a warm, briny sweetness, the subtle scent of sushi. Half a sheet of nori lay before me on the bamboo rolling mat, and strips of tuna and stalks of sliced cucumber waited within reach.
But no matter how often I re-read “step 4,” it didn’t quite make sense to me:
“Lift rolling mat over slowly until it covers rice and near side and far sides of rice join at ridge, but you still have a 3/4-inch (2-cm) strip of nori rice-free.”
Reading it now, it finally makes sense. But the sake, reminiscent of plum-flavored rubbing alcohol, may have sabotaged me. Words sitting side-by-side didn’t seem to recognize each other, so they took off swimming in search of someone they knew.
I didn’t remember ever drinking sake before. It was oddly refreshing, and it rushed to my head like a geyser.
I decided to go by the pictures in the book instead of the words, so I spread a dollop of rice on the nori, followed by the tuna and cucumber, and just rolled. I don’t think I used more filling than the guy in the photos (who, disturbingly, seemed to have a Band-Aid on his hand), but it spilled out of the nori onto the mat. I brought in reinforcements in the form of a second half-sheet and rolled as tightly as I could.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was sushi. I sliced the roll into six pieces and set it on the wooden serving tray. I filled the little dipping ramekins with soy sauce and blended in some wasabi. I gazed at the little cylinders of fish and rice for a second and dug in.
It was good. A little loosely packed, and a little bland, but fresh and tender. Once I get better at rolling, and once I add some sesame seeds and maybe a bit of that bright orange spicy mayo, I’ll be in business.
I had plenty of leftover ingredients, but no patience to create another roll. So I dropped the tuna, the cucumber, and a few splashes of wasabi-infused soy sauce into the rice and just ate it directly from the mixing bowl. I ate the leftover nori sheets like Seaweed Roll-Ups. This may be the Japanese equivalent of eating unbaked cookie dough.
Centuries of tradition and artistry? Screw it.
The Banquet of Life is a bi-weekly look at one man's life through the food he eats.