Another night of throwing myself into the dining scene of Okayama. I found a place packed to the gills – there are indeed actual gills in the aquariums up front – and figured this was my best bet for maybe some sushi. The many tables are full of groups, and staff wave me to a seat at the counter tucked in among the rest, elbow to elbow. Everyone at the counter is hypnotized by a game show on a large TV at the end of the bar, including the chefs. Careful with those sushi knives, fellas.
Thankfully there’s an English menu and I just start pointing. OK, tuna sashimi, scallop, octopus in vinegar, this grilled eggplant dish, and… what’s this? Under “Sashimi” it reads Chicken. Long pause. I had heard about eating raw chicken in Japan, and I had started to imagine it was just a rumor. Even the few Japanese friends and contacts I had asked about it on previous trips weren’t aware of chicken sashimi.
I pointed at it and the waitress hesitated. She pointed as well at the heading and said “sashimi,” making sure I understood. She turned the page and pointed out Fried Chicken. “Er, no. I think I may try the sashimi.”
Delicious? I ask, because I know that word (oishi), but what I really want to ask is Safe? Deadly? Salmonella??? She hesitates. Whoa, the waitress hesitates? And she won’t confirm that it is oishi. I order it anyway.
It comes and sure as hell that’s raw chicken. Torisashi. (tori for chicken, plus sashimi = torisashi)
Looks nice and fresh and… ready for a wok or something, no? A bit of ground ginger, a lemon slice, some soy/vinegar. My resolve is weakening. I look to the old man at my right elbow. He is already looking at my plate and sort of chuckling. Oishi? He cocks his head, can’t say. Then I use something I recently learned for a partly comic, partly serious interrogative. I put my hands up in the air just above each side of my head and start twisting the palms rapidly at the ceiling: “Kyūkyū-sha?” (ambulance in word and gesture) He laughs again, but still isn’t sure what to say. Then when he sees my face fall, he throws up his thumbs. “Eh, very GOOD! Very GOOOOD!”
Deep breath. They wouldn’t serve it if people got sick on it all the time. Not all food is as lethal as the industrialized antibiotic-laden mess we’ve created back in the US. No one’s dying from eating salad or cantaloupe, for crying out loud. The Japanese consume tons (literally) of raw eggs each year with various dishes. They serve clean raw seafood every day. I can do this. I wondered what the incubation period for salmonella was. [2 to 48 hours]
It was almost anti-climactic. It is tender and has the texture of tuna without the hint of fish. Very mild and the sauce and ginger make it tastier. And all the while my brain is going: You’re going to miss all your appointments! The old man offers me a taste of his noodle dish, so I offer him some chicken sashimi to see if he balks. He does not. Well, I won’t be sick alone then.
He also breaks out a huge bottle of shucho (like sake but distilled a bit, could be rice, buckwheat, barley, or sweet-potato based). I realize then that he is a regular and that these large bottles are kept behind the counter for the next visit. He pours a glass of hot water for me and tops it off with shochu. He turns up his nose (it does smell a bit) but then we raise our glasses. “Kanpai!”
Behind us a couple sits at a table in the middle of the room, the only other foreigners in the place. My new friend, Yuji, points: “Dutch.” I’m wondering how he knows that and if the murmur of “Dutch” has just passed through the counter crowd via a waitress. Yuji wants to know if I speak Dutch. I don’t, beyond thank you (Dank je wel!), but I can bet the farm they speak English well. But we stay at the counter.
Yuji insists I try the house specialty. It is a bowl of glass noodles with sliced onion and bits of cold cooked chicken. Like leftovers when I was a kid. I hated cold chicken. After torisashi I find it silly that I am now feeling mildly nauseous with my first bite of cold chicken. “Special menu! With shochu!”
He points to the Dutch again, sitting alone. “Table. Not friendly. Not talk.” He turns to the counter and the small audience around us that has been watching, commenting, and chatting with us and the staff. The waitresses, I find out, are Chinese. Students, they seem like. He waves his arm to indicate everyone seated with us: “Counter? Counter is friendly!” We toast with more shochu.
He orders a round of “vegetable” sushi, which is still fish but with some veggies tucked in there. He calls it “economic sushi.” We barely eat half of it and then he insists I pack it to go and take it back to my hotel. There is much photo taking. A phone call from his wife which he has me answer. “Helllooooooo?” He keeps sending me shochu while discussing when (or how) he is coming home. He shows me her photo with his kids.
I am uncomfortably stuffed and my head is buzzing with drink. I have a packet of sushi there is no way I’m going to eat in the morning. Like the night before, at the counter of the gyoza joint, I leave with demands that I come back next time to see them. “Counter is friendly.” I couldn’t agree more.
Another house specialty, a sort of vinegar marinade with some fried anchovies.
A big bowl of it was on the counter right in front of me.
The eggplant was roasted whole on a grill then served with bonito flakes. These flakes are very light, a bit salty and of a texture a bit like cured prosciutto, and the heat of the food makes them dance and write in a way that can be disturbing when you first eat it as they look live somehow.