Dissolve back to Sushi Ota, Shima Sensei speaking:
"...But here in America, anybody can call himself a sushi chef and open a restaurant. To eat raw fish from somebody who wasn't properly trained..." Shima shudders dramatically.
Masako and Shima confer again in Japanese. Voiceover, Naomi: "For Jim, this is the equivalent of my mom talking Yiddish -- code language that only grownups speak." Shima communicates with the waitress. Some minutes later, an amazing platter appears, covered with all manner of raw seafood in various shapes and colors. At its center is the front half of a local spiny lobster, waving its feelers, and behind that is the chopped raw lobster meat, to be dipped in soy sauce and enjoyed. The meat is firm and faintly sweet and tastes only like itself. Jim blows lightly on the carapace, and it wriggles and jiggles all over. "It responds to sake breath," he says.
Voiceover, Naomi: "It's not that I'm callous about the feelings of the lobster, but I know it's already totally dead. It's just that its autonomic nervous system doesn't recognize that fact yet. I remember dissecting a formaldehyde-soaked specimen in Zoology 101. I had so little food money, the waste of a lobster infuriated me. It's an elegantly constructed critter but neurologically primitive -- it shimmies even after it's thoroughly dead. In my travels, I've seen freshly beheaded chickens and rattlesnakes do that, too." Naomi contemplates the animated lobster and mutters, "I wish I could sa-shimmy like my lobster Kate."
I don't know whether or not gaijin patrons routinely get the head when they order lobster sashimi or if they get just the meat -- or perhaps the meat decorated with a head that's already completed its dance routine and gone to its final rest. Looking over the rest of the selections, I later realized that what we actually had was an expanded version of the omakase sashimi dinner. Four seashells on the platter cradled pretty arrangements of exquisite golden uni (sea urchin roe), amazingly sweet, along with toothsome baby white abalone with that sexy, buttery-flavored undertone that's brought it to the endangered list. "In Japan, we have no more of these," said Shima Sensei ruefully. "All eaten." "In California, too," I said. "These were probably farm raised in Baja. I hope so, anyway."
The plate also held hamachi, sliced thicker than usual, with a velvety texture, and chopped Mirugai, giant clam, chewy-soft bursts of sunlight-on-the-sea. And there were slices of toro, precious fatty-belly tuna, the Kobe beef of the ocean. I closed my eyes in bliss, savoring this satin-textured delicacy. The sensei and the nisei's mom noticed. Masako translated Shima's Japanese: "'She really does love our food.'" Apparently, I'd won the Issei Seal of Approval -- my pink belt in Japanese food appreciation, awarded by the master.
Now that I'd proved myself somewhat civilized, the gentle lessons in Japanese cuisine began in earnest. "Shima's from Osaka. That's where all the Japanese gourmets come from," Masako said. "I'm from Tokyo. In Tokyo, we spend our money on clothes. Osakans spend it in restaurants."
I noticed that Masako had added a little wasabi to her shallow saucer of soy sauce and mixed it into a slurry, while Shima had left his soy pure. "When we eat sashimi," Shima said, "we put a little wasabi on the fish, not into the soy sauce, and then we dip the fish into the soy. Osakans don't mix them together. And when we eat sushi from a great chef like Ota-san, we don't dip it into anything. It's already seasoned the way the chef wants it to taste, so adding anything only makes it less perfect."
After that, we were still hungry, and I was still curious to taste delicacies I might not know to order. Masako took another brief look at the menu. "When I go to Japanese restaurants," she said, "I always ask for the Japanese menu, but I don't even look at it. I just get it so they understand that I know Japanese food. Then I order whatever I want." She and Shima Sensei conferred again, glancing at the specials board posted above our table. (Jim and I saw it and begged for the Kumamoto oysters.) Our second course started with a round of those oysters (precious little guys from way up the coast) in a mixture of lemon juice and hot sauce. Next came squid rings dusted with sesame seeds.
Then -- ta-da! -- aji -- a whole, small Spanish mackerel. The head-and-skeleton piece of the small fish was bent around a chopstick into a curve resembling a sailboat's sails swelling from the mast in a stiff breeze. On the plate was a heaplet of chopped green herbs and ginger, to mix into the soy sauce, and slices of the raw fish. This mixture was very much to my taste, a clean foil to the rich fattiness of the mackerel. I noticed that the soy sauce seemed thinner and less salty than at many Japanese restaurants -- more like the imported Cantonese "light soy" I use at home.
They say there are no second acts in American lives, but there are second and third acts in sashimi, using the other parts of the same species. "We Nihonjin use up everything," said Masako. "We don't let anything edible go to waste." First came the lobster back shell, concealing two versions of cooked diced lobster -- one plain, the other thinly robed with a subtle "dynamite" gratin sauce that was a bit spicy and not too gooey.
Then came the skeleton and head of the mackerel, flash-baked crunchy like an ama ebi head, resembling potato chips made of fish bones. The rib cage was great, but I especially had eyes for the head. I offered it to the Sensei, the honored guest. "Nah, I eat it at home all the time," he said. Masako declined on the same grounds. Jim didn't want it, so I took it happily. It's the honored guest's portion because the head has lush soft bits in the cheeks that resemble the best aquatic KFC you ever tasted.