Sushi bar is no place for an unwary eater

November 29, 1998|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder/Tribune

TODAY'S CULINARY topic is: How to make sushi.

I happen to be an expert on this topic, because I recently put in a stint as a chef at an actual sushi restaurant. (One of the first things you learn, as a sushi chef, is how to put in a stint.)

Before I give you the details, I should explain, for the benefit of those of you who live in remote wilderness regions such as Iowa, what sushi is. Basically, it is a type of cuisine developed by the Japanese as part of an ancient tradition of seeing what is the scariest thing they can get you to eat raw.

The way they do this is, they start out by serving you a nice, nonthreatening piece of fish, from which all the identifying fish parts have been removed. This fish is safe to eat, and tasty. But the trick is that it's served with a green condiment called "wasabi," which is the Japanese word for "nuclear horseradish." This is an extremely spicy substance, the formula for which must never be allowed to fall into the hands of Saddam Hussein. If you put more than two wasabi molecules on your sushi and eat it, your hair will burst into flames.

So after consuming some wasabi, you naturally order a cool, refreshing, Japanese beer to pour on your head and, perhaps, since you have the bottle in your hand anyway, wet your whistle with. The result is that your judgment becomes impaired, which is when they start trying to get you to eat prank food, such as sea-urchin eggs. Sea urchins are vicious, golf-ball shaped, poison-spined sea creatures whose sole ecological purpose is to ruin your tropical vacation by deliberately not getting out of your way when you are wading barefoot. If you eat the eggs of this animal and fail to chew them thoroughly, you could develop an alarming medical condition that doctors call "baby sea urchins walking around inside your body poking holes in your spleen."

Other prank foods that they will try to get you to eat at sushi bars include eels, clam parts, jellyfish, tentacles with flagrant suckers, and shrimps with their eyeballs still waving around on stalks. If you eat those, the waiter will become brazen and start bringing out chunks of coral and live electric eels. My point is that, in a sushi restaurant, you must watch carefully what you eat. (This is exactly what "The Star-Spangled Banner" is referring to when it says "o'er the clam parts we watched.")

Despite this, I happen to be a big fan of nonprank sushi. And so when Bok An, the proprietor of Sakura, my local sushi restaurant in Coral Gables, Fla., invited me to be a guest sushi chef, I enthusiastically answered: "No!" I was afraid that I'd have to touch an eel. I am 51 years old, and I did not get this far by touching eels.

But Bok assured me that we would stick to basic fish species such as tuna, salmon and cucumber. And thus I found myself one Tuesday night, wearing a samurai-style headband and standing behind the sushi bar, blending in perfectly with the other sushi chefs, except that my headband was actually the belt of my bathrobe.

Bok stood next to me and prepared various sushi items, and I attempted to imitate him. Here's the recipe: You start with a little rectangle made of dried seaweed (I asked Bok where the seaweed comes from, thinking he would name some ancient Japanese seaside village, and he said, "a distributor"). Then you pick up a glob of special sticky rice and spread it evenly on the seaweed. At least Bok did. The majority of my rice remained firmly stuck to my hands and started migrating to other parts of my body. I may have to have it removed surgically.

Next, you cut up your ingredients, using a lethal-looking, extremely sharp sushi knife that causes professional sushi chefs to become very nervous when it is being wielded by a professional humor columnist. Then you put these ingredients on the rice and execute the secret sushi-rolling technique, which is difficult to describe in English words, as we can see by this actual transcript of Bok explaining it to me: "OK, you go like this, Boom! Then you go, Boom! Boom! Boom!"

The thing was, when Bok went boom, he produced this attractive, appetizing cylinder of sushi. Whereas when I went boom, I produced this mutant food unit leaking random seafood parts. I also had a problem with my sizing: Sushi rolls are supposed to be small, bite-size morsels; mine were more along the lines of seaweed-covered hams.

But I kept trying. Remember the movie "Karate Kid," where the mean bully beats up Ralph Macchio, but then Ralph studies karate under Mr. Miyagi, and then finally, in the big tournament, with everybody watching, Ralph stuns the bully by rolling a reasonably tight cucumber roll? Well, that's what I did. In fact, I may have a knack for it.

So if one day you walk into a Japanese restaurant, and you see, standing behind the sushi bar, what appears to be a man-size blob of rice wearing a blue bathrobe belt on its head, feel free to say hi. But keep your distance if I'm holding a knife.

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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