But it's not an easy thing to write about.
Most of its wonder comes from its simplicity; the closer you get to the living, breathing source, the better it is.
And the parts that aren't simple, the years and years of training, the ratio of fish to rice, the stickiness, warmth, and shape of the rice, the way the flesh is cut from the fish and carefully sliced, all take inside training to spot. Either that or the budget to sample enough high-end sushi over enough years to be able to become a discerning gourmand.
I'm not an insider or a discerning gourmand, but I have been eating sushi since I was two years old. Until I went to college, I hadn't so much as heard of spider rolls, caterpillar rolls, or the concept of putting mayo or sriracha on sushi. My family went regularly to one sushi bar, where the owner, Kuni, plied us with extremely fresh versions of the familiar choices: maguro (tuna), toro (fatty tuna), shake (salmon), hamachi (yellowtail), tako (octopus), anago (sea eel), and the like, occasionally surprising us with fresh daily specials like white toro, hokkigai (surf clam), or aji (horse mackerel).
His fish was always excellent and he treated us like family. He always cut my sashimi into little pieces because I was a little kid - and never stopped, even when I reached well into my twenties. His restaurant had training chopsticks, held together with a rubber band. I went there every year on my birthday.
Kuni's sushi was my whole world until I went to college, and it could have been my whole life. I wouldn't have complained.
But the U.S.' palate was changing, and the same kids who cringed when I told them what I had for my 3rd grade birthday dinner were now hanging out at fusion sushi restaurants to spear themselves some dragon rolls or tempura bananas and drink sake out of wooden boxes while watching the chefs do karaoke behind the bar. People who had already been enjoying simple sushi started to demand more variety and authenticity (whether those goals were compatible or not is an exploration for another entry). Restaurants started springing up that served barracuda, Spanish mackerel, halibut, and sea bream. Chefs started getting certified to prepare the deadly blowfish, fugu, without killing their patrons.
I was 1000 miles away from Kuni in college, and 2000 miles away afterwards, and so I started branching out. I learned to respect the good fusion rolls (white tuna, avocado, and apples; mandarin oranges, salmon, and chives; and the good old Philly roll were the best flavor combinations I found) and disdain the bad ones (overuse of mayo and reliance on imitation crab meat were the most common offenders). I tasted the aforementioned barracuda and sea bream at a place where novelty seemed to be the only consideration, and tasted them again at a few places which knew best how to season them to bring out their flavors. They used ponzu and sea salt and tiny curled shisito peppers and green onions and blowtorches and strictly prohibited me from touching the soy and wasabi. There was a world of difference.
An izakaya taught me to love the deep magenta skin at the edge of hamachi flesh, while a sushi maker in the back of a grocery store introduced me to battera, a pungent pickled blast of saba and kelp molded onto a square of rice.
Last month, I went to Japan.
When a sushi lover goes to Japan, a sushi lover goes to Tsukiji Fish Market. A sushi lover finds the restaurant with the longest line and joins it unhesitatingly, ready to sacrifice a half day standing in the rain.
In my case that restaurant was Sushi Dai. Its line wound in a coiled snake shape in front of the restaurant, allowing the soaking wet queuers to press their noses against the glass and stare hungrily at the people inside. The overflow from the snake coil was shifted across the street and around a corner, so it looked like there were just a bunch of people with umbrellas forming a queue to nowhere.
We waited. One of us ran off to get some tamago. We waited. A guy ahead of us bailed in disgust after two hours (and he was so close!). We waited. No-nonsense workers barreled by with trucks full of crates full of boxes full of fish.
We waited. We finally got in. It was 1PM.
One of the chefs greeted the grinning crowd piling in with the loudest "IRASSHAIMASE!!!" and widest, toothiest grin I'd ever heard or seen before, which shocked everyone out of their queuing reverie and into the mood for sushi.
The pieces came out straight onto the bare, pristine, wooden counter. I ate them with my hands, even though most used chopsticks. It's strange to say, but I wanted to feel the fish as well.
I present the photos in the order that they came. (All photo credit goes to the wonderful Eugene, who brought a fancy camera and consented to do the photo gruntwork as I flitted around excitedly from fish to fish like a sushi hummingbird.)
What Tsukiji is known for is its frenetic tuna auctions that take place at daybreak. This tasted like the result of some seriously aggressive bartering. I mean that in a good way. I don't how else to adequately say that this was far and away the creamiest, fattiest, butteriest toro of my life, and I expect that it will never be topped. This sounds depressing. It isn't. I'm just grateful to have gotten the chance to taste it once.
Hirame, or fluke, is a fish I was taught to ignore my my whitefish-disdaining parents. They did me a disservice if all of it tastes like this. I doubt it does, since everywhere else isn't Tsukiji. Snappy and sweet, it broke into thin squares in my mouth.
I had never tasted this before. The generous portion, trailing endlessly over the pat of rice, even over the edge of the counter, had a flavor like both hamachi and toro but also wholly unlike either.
I have eaten live uni from the shell in Redondo Beach, CA. I've eaten it marinated in salad. I've eaten it mixed into pasta as a buttery sauce. I've eaten it countless times plain, straight from the sushi section at various Asian markets. This, like the toro, was the best of its kind. Pinker and browner than the bright orange I'm used to, I was wary at first. It turned out to be the marinade. How can marinade make something taste more unadulterated than it would have had it actually been unadulterated?
This clam was still waving its 'limbs' as it was set in front of me. Convincing myself it was just nerve twitchings and not death throes of agony, I placed it in my mouth and let it wiggle between my teeth. While wriggly and new, I still prefer my clams wok-fried and served with peanuts and onions, Vietnamese style. They don't have enough flavor, even alive, to make their chewing gum texture worth it.
Normally a hit-or-miss fish, this undeniable hit of a split slice poured citrus and ocean notes under my tongue like a waterfall as I chewed it.
Akami, the lean back of a tuna, looks like maguro, and I normally don't like maguro. I don't know why this was so different. Lean tuna's usually such a mealy, vaguely fish-counter flavored bland experience that I wonder how this silky, scentless wonder managed to overcome it.
A rare find at sushi bars in the U.S., this seared, flaky, tender and strong tidbit made my top three along with the uni and toro. Mackerel is unabashedly bold, and this piece combined it with a smoky aftertaste.
I wish I could tell Kuni that even sitting at the epicenter of fresh fish, at a restaurant that had access and choices he could only dream of, and after a meal that easily ranked in the top three of my life, the memory of his handrolls in Chicago still had the power to make me wistful.
Next up, the other side of sushi: sushi from a Japanese supermarket!