Dinner Dates with Death

I love Japanese food. Jellyfish, sea urchin, and raw horse. Woody roots and zesty leaves. You name it, I’ve tried it, drawing the line only at blowfish and whale. I even savor natto now and then. Denny’s has the best.

Alas, we live in a fallen world. Beauty has its price, and the beauty of Japanese cuisine is no exception. In the past month I had two of the most dreadful meals of my life. Both of them were life-and-death struggles. Until next month, the weak of stomach should return to the other areas of Kota-sensei’s website. As for the rest of you….

Part One: HOW I TRIED TO KILL MY DINNER

The fish tank at Shoya is easy to overlook. It’s near the door, but doesn’t directly face it. It might draw more attention if it held something really large like a bream, or really unusual like a cat-eyed octopus. Some places have those. But not Shoya. It has only a school of a dozen or so nondescript fish about 20cm long. They’re silver with dark eyes and pointy noses. Their fins sometimes flutter as if they’re getting ready to bolt, but for the most part they just hang in mid-water, going nowhere.

The tank is strictly utilitarian. The front panel is kept clean enough for customers to have a good look at the fish, but the algae on the back has been wiped away only haphazardly, leaving clean streaks on a green background. Bits of fish dung drift and tumble slowly along the glass floor with no colored gravel or plastic shipwrecks to conceal them. The nearest thing to a decoration is a long-handled net which hangs on the back of the tank, in the kitchen. I hope that the fish don’t understand this. If you’re not at the top of the food chain, a chef with a net is always bad news.

I sometimes go to Shoya with friends, and we sit at a table far from the fish. One night, though, I arrived considerably earlier than anyone else found myself seated at a counter facing into the kitchen. I sipped a cold mug of beer and let myself be entertained by the hubbub of six cooks working in a room full of pots and pans and knives and flames. I was right next to the fish tank, and got to see one of the cooks use the net. He was an old man who reminded me of my grandfather. He had to reach up to get his hand over the tank’s rim, but it only took him about three seconds to catch a fish. He held it down on a counter with one hand and reached for a knife with the other. What happened next was out of my line of sight, but I assumed that I knew what was going on. I also assumed that the fish would be very expensive, but I decided that I’d like to try some of that very fresh sashimi for myself some day.

A few nights later, dining with my friends George and Gina, I asked the waiter the price of a fish. It was only 400 yen ($3.30 or 3.18 euros). Cool! I had to try it. After the waiter walked away, George crushed out his cigarette and nonchalantly remarked, “I just hope they kill it first.”

Uh-oh.

A few minutes later, the waiter reappeared carrying a small wooden bucket filled with crushed ice. On the ice, near the front of the bucket, was a small pyramid of neatly stacked bite-sized morsels of fish meat. White and gleaming, they were set off from the ice by a serrated green shiso leaf that was propped up behind it on a nest of shredded daikon. To one side of the meat was a dollop of wasabi and a dollop of ginger. I could use either one to flavor the soy sauce in which I would dip the meat. To the other side of the meat was another option for sauce flavoring — a small stem covered with buds. These buds could be stripped off and dropped into the sauce just by pulling the stem between two fingers. Their flavor is somewhere between pepper and clove.

Behind all of this, and presumably for decorative purposes, was what was left of the fish itself. It had been gutted and filleted, but the head and tail were still attached by the spine, a little meat, and the dorsal fin. It had been laid out neatly on a long, green, waxy leaf and then curled into the shape of a bass clef, with its tail in the air. A thin wooden skewer held it in place. While I was taking in the elaborate tableau, Gina had zoomed in on the one crucial detail.

“Oh, no!” she gasped. “It’s still alive!”

How could I have missed it? The gill cover was rising and falling, and the fish’s mouth was telescoping out and pulling back, telescoping out and pulling back, desperately reaching for something that wasn’t there. George’s nonchalance disappeared as he and Gina began to shriek, “Kill it! Kill it!”

“How?” I was asking the fish as much as I was asking them. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. “Have you got a knife?” We were eating with wooden chopsticks, and those obviously weren’t going to suffice. No one at the table had a knife.

I had a flashback to a time several years ago when I went fishing in a trout-stocked pond in the American countryside. The owner of the land was with me, and the first fish I caught was a “trash fish” that he didn’t want competing with his trout. He took the fish and tossed it into the middle of a nearby dirt road. As I watched it flop around, he casually said that one of his cats would come along and finish it off sooner or later. I didn’t like his attitude at all, but it was his pond and his fish and I was his guest, so I wimped out and said nothing.

As I returned to the pursuit of trout, I remembered a National Geographic article that I had read way back in elementary school. It was about piranhas. There was a tribe somewhere in the Amazon that actually fished for them, wading in and casting nets. A close-up photo of the leg of one tribesman showed two scars the size and color of silver dollars, each one the result of a single piranha bite. A more incredible photo showed a group of them standing in the water, dressed mainly in feathers and mud and carrying nets over their arms. One guy held a piranha in his hands, with his head inclined over it. The caption explained that he was biting the back of its neck to sever its spinal cord, killing it instantly and rendering it safe to handle. This was standard practice among the tribe. It looked like courage to me.

That day at the trout pond, I slowly began to wish that I had done the same thing to the trash fish that was writhing about in the dust. It would have put the little creature out of its misery, and it would have shown the pond owner a thing or two. It might also have made up, somewhat, for a significant failure of nerve I had experienced in my life at that time. But I did nothing.

Now, years later in an izakaya, I was face to face with another gasping fish, and this one was mine. No knife. I had to do something. I picked it up and put my mouth on what would have been the back of its neck if only it had not been filleted. My teeth sank into nothing but soft flesh. No spine. I was suddenly aware that I would feel very embarrassed if this didn’t work. I felt my face growing red from mere anticipation. “My God,” I thought. “What if they think this is some kind of stupid macho posturing?”

I worked my mouth further onto the fish, searching for its spine with my teeth. It was squirming in my hands. “My God,” I thought. “What if this really IS some kind of stupid macho posturing?” Finally I found it, and crushed the bones between my teeth.

I looked up at George and Gina with a sense of relief, holding the fish’s head in one hand and its body in the other. “I had to do that,” I said as calmly as I could.

They didn’t seem to hear me. “It’s still alive!” they wailed in unison. They were right. The head was still gasping horribly. I certainly wasn’t going to eat this thing, and now I was afraid I might lose the food I had already eaten. There was a greasy black string running from the head to the body. I had crushed its vertebrae without severing the nerves. I tried to pull the spinal cord out of the head, but it was too thin and slippery to grip. Finally, I just pinched it in two with my fingernails and placed the head in a bowl.

Where it continued to move. I draped a hand towel over it and George called the waiter to take it away. A few minutes later, the tail — just the tail — began to vibrate. By that time, the three of us had seen too much to be shocked any more. It didn’t look like it was going to stop, so I put a napkin over it. Still later, mellowed by more beer, I decided that if the meat were left uneaten the fish would have died in vain. I prefer my food to be humanely killed, but you can’t undo the past.

The fish was slightly bitter. I guess it had a right to be.

Part Two: HOW MY DINNER TRIED TO KILL ME

Takadanobaba is a neighborhood in Tokyo where three different rail lines intersect. Waseda University is several blocks away in one direction, and a large Asian immigrant neighborhood is several blocks away in the other. In the place itself, there is nothing of note except for dozens of bars. The name literally means “Takada’s Horse Field,” but this is an old name. Any horse living there now would need an appetite for asphalt. The small river that must have watered the pastures so long ago now runs between two vertical cement walls.

In my travels around Tokyo, I often stop at Takadanobaba to transfer from the underground Tozai line to the elevated Yamanote line. There are dozens of different stairways leading up from underground, and in the middle of May I made a discovery on one of them. On a subterranean landing there was an alcove about the size of a one-bedroom American apartment. This space contained five restaurants. There was one in each corner and one in the center of the room. They were basically lunch counters with limited menus of fast food like noodles, gyoza, or curry. The floor and walls were made of dingy white tile with something dark going on in the cracks. The ceiling was a mess of exposed pipes and wires. The stools along each counter were bolted to the floor, and although most of them were occupied the place was deathly quiet. All of the customers were men eating alone. There were a few university students with backpacks and shocking hair, but most of them seemed to be worn-out commuters, round-shouldered, baggy-eyed, and gray at the temples, eating in grim silence before consigning their tired bodies to the packed trains. The sullen cooks didn’t even bother to say “Irasshaimase” as customers walked in. It’s a greeting that is shouted reflexively by the staff of every other eatery I’ve ever been to.

“Wow,” I thought. “This place has atmosphere.” If you dimmed the lights and threw a little more water on the floor, most of Blade Runner could have been filmed in this room.

The counter in the center of the room was an oval, and the only available stool faced the back of the refrigerator in the cooking area. I had to lean around the refrigerator’s furry coils to get the cook’s attention. I ordered katsu-curry, a standard dish in which a breaded and fried pork cutlet is served on a bed of rice with Japanese curry poured over it. It’s one of my favorites.

The katsu-curry at this place was a disappointment. The cutlet was ridiculously thin. I’m accustomed to being served a substantial piece of meat. My disappointment grew as I began to eat. The meat had a bizarre, spongy texture. The curry itself was thin and had no personality. There was a jar of red pickles available as a condiment, so I used the tongs to pile lots of them on. My stomach felt a bit flippety as I left.

I lost three kilograms in the next three days.

Somewhere in heaven’s ocean a fish is laughing.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


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