Essay: A Life Seen Through Sushi

Sonoko Sakai wrote . . . . .

I was brought up Japanese, but I spent my formative preteen years in Mexico City during the early sixties, when my father was transferred there for work. My sister and I were the only Japanese students in our entire school, and got treated like a rare set of kokeshi dolls, though I acclimated quickly, as our family was used to moving around. There was a Japanese restaurant in Mexico City that my parents would take us to, but we were too young to be treated to much sushi—we kids ate mostly noodles and rice bowls. At home, my mother made chirashi zushi, “scattered” sushi with shrimp.

My life changed dramatically when my father was transferred back to Japan. Our house in Tokyo had been rented out, so we went to live with my grandmother for a while. She lived by the sea in Kamakura, forty miles southwest of Tokyo. The abrupt change in culture and language meant it was a hard period in my life. Some classmates would ask me where Mexico was, or if I was Mexican. Hardly anyone traveled overseas back then, so my sister and were grouped with a girl who moved back with her family from India as the “aliens.” I wanted to go back to where I could be with my friends, eat tamales, play guitar, and sing love songs in Spanish.

Two major differences in my new life were the proximity to the sea and the presence of my grandmother. She was a great cook and had a special eye for fish, especially aji—mackerel—which was the most abundant local catch. One morning, she invited me to take a walk to the beach at dawn, just as the fishermen were pulling their nets and sorting their haul. The sea breeze messed up my grandmother’s bun, but she didn’t care. She went on about her business, walking around the boats, peeking inside the buckets full of fish, saying good morning to the fishermen and their wives, and sliding her glasses down the bridge of her nose to take a close look at the fish. The sea was calm. I knew that if you kept going east, you would end in Mexico. I started wondering about my Mexican girl friends: Lupe, Monica, Alejandra. But before my mind could travel that far, my grandmother grabbed my arm and told me to look at the fish—at their eyes, gills, scales, and tails. She taught me a lesson about freshness. I learned to tell what made good sashimi by looking and observing the whole fish. The scales were glistening. The fish were flipping with life. Their eyes were clear as crystal. I watched my grandmother negotiate the price, which seemed to depend mostly on the fisherman’s mood. My grandmother pointed toward the medium-sized mackerel and said, “I want two.”

The fisherman pointed at me and said, “Your granddaughter?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling.

“I will give the fish to you for two hundred yen,” he replied. “Take some sardines, too. It’s free.”

Grandmother smiled and thanked the fisherman. On our way back, Grandmother and I discussed how we were going to cook the fish. Grandmother said, “We will make aji zushi,” mackerel sushi.

When we got home, she rinsed some rice and put it in a small cast-iron pot. She started a fire in the wood-burning stove in the living room, using wood and kindling and old newspaper. After placing the cast-iron pot on the stove, we returned to the kitchen to clean the fish: scrape off the scales; cut the heads, fins, and tails off (to feed to the stray cats later); fillet the body; then salt and marinate the pieces in rice vinegar, sujime style. We then went out into the garden to pick some wild Japanese ginger and dig up some negi—scallions—from the vegetable garden. When we returned to the house, the rice had finished cooking to perfection. My grandmother transferred the rice into a wooden sushi bucket, then poured the seasoned vinegar onto the rice, using a wooden paddle to cut, rather than mix, the rice. As I fanned the rice to blow off the sharp vinegar smell, it cooled slightly and the surface of the grains gelatinized, making them look shiny like pearls. I could have made a whole meal out of the warm sushi rice. But there was also aji waiting for us. Grandmother took the fillets out of the marinade and sliced them into bite-sized fillets. We made small rice balls by hand. Grandmother simply placed the fillets of mackerel on top of the rice balls, and we ate the sushi with soy sauce while it was still warm. The sushi tasted so good we laughed and my homesickness for Mexico melted away; my life got better from that point on.

Sushi also became a source of comfort for my mother, late in her life. She suffered from a serious case of bipolar disorder that went undiagnosed for years. During her manic stage, she would develop a singular fixation on one type of food. It was fine at first when it was a food she could simply cook at home. An early obsession was brown rice, but soon that wasn’t enough. She would stay up all night making phone calls to her kids and bad-mouthing my father or anyone who annoyed her. When my father sent her off to stay with me in Los Angeles for a while so he could have a break, she developed an obsession with Pink’s hot dogs, which meant I had to drive her from our house in Santa Monica to West Hollywood almost every day for two weeks.

Her manic behavior only escalated. After cutting my blanket in half to make matching souvenir blankets for my father, feeding onigiri to the homeless at Douglas Park, and stealing shoes from Macy’s, it was time for her to go back to Japan and get back on medication. That day, after she landed at Narita, she went missing and my father had to call the police. It was around ten p.m. when my father got a call from an unagi restaurant, where she was found eating grilled eel without any money to pay the bill. The unagi binge lasted for a while.

But my mother’s final and most memorable singular food obsession also turned out to be the best choice: sushi from Beniike—a ten-seat sushi bar near my parents’ house in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. Chef Kuniharu Sato has loyal customers like my parents who have been dining there for more than thirty years. During my mother’s manic episode, which lasted for nearly a month, she would go to Beniike almost every evening around five-thirty before the salarymen got off work. She expected chef Sato to treat her like a queen. She didn’t bring her purse but always dressed up for the outing, wearing layers and layers of the accordion-like Issey Miyake pleated dresses. Since she had gained more than fifty pounds from her medication, the fabric stretched and kept her dignity in place. Despite my mother’s pathetic presence, chef Sato treated her like he always had—with a warm welcome. He had also called my father and gotten a preapproved budget of three thousand yen (around thirty dollars) for each meal. Chef Sato would get ready for the evening while listening to my mother ramble on about her life. My mother would have a glass of beer and ten or so pieces of sushi, and sometimes even treat another early bird who happened to sit next to her. Her favorite sushi was the aburi style, when the fish was slightly toasted to give it an irresistible smoky flavor. Combined with the rice, the sushi was like biting into the past for my mother; the fish tasted the way it did when we had lived by the sea in Kamakura many years ago. I remember my frazzled mother had tried to get in a taxi and ask the driver to take her to Kamakura a number of times. But without any money, she couldn’t get very far. Instead, she went to Beniike and felt like she was back home.

My grandmother passed away at the age of 102 ten years ago. My father passed away this spring at the age of ninety-three. My mother, now eighty-seven, is in a nursing home just up the street from Beniike. She is in a vegetative state. I like to think that she is dreaming of sushi.

Source: Lucky Peach