Sunday, May 16, 2010

Howaito on'nanoko Harajuku shibō

Rough translation: white girl harajuku wannabe. 

In high school, I wanted to be Japanese with all my heart.  I'm not sure what to blame it on: Memoirs of a Geisha, Pokemon and Sailor Moon, delicious teriyaki chicken.  It was this culture that was so vastly, wholly, completely different from anything else.  I loved the sing-song, lyrical sounds of the language.  The clash of ancient civilization and modern marvels.  The acceptance, promotion and fanaticism over everything CUTE!  (kawaii, desu ne?)  It seemed almost made-up, nearly unreachable, an ocean and a fortune and a gnarly passport process away.  As a 15 year old in Buckley, Washington, I might as well have been dreaming of enrolling at Hogwarts. 

I tried, though.  I took private Japanese language lessons (my high school only offered French and Spanish, with French cut after my sophomore year).  I swam in a sea of Hello Kitty paraphenalea.  I even ordered a kimono and flip-flop shoes and socks from that newfangled intranet so I could walk around underneath the sakura trees in our backyard looking like a complete psychopath.    If I watched enough anime, could say enough inconsquential conversation phrases and hack my name in katakana, I'd get accepted.  Because, you know.  That's how a classically xenophobic nation works.

Although I did finally come back down to reality, changed my major from International Business with a focus in Japanese languages to English and Marketing and restricted my kimono-wearing to bathrobe purposes, that wide-eyed little gaijin didn't die.  She lives on, her heart racing whenever we pass Uwajimaya. 

One of my favorite facets of Japanese culture that I can partake in without looking too ridiculous is their food.  They take it so seriously, an entire art form honed and studied and meticulously perfected over a lifetime.  The presentation in any fine Japanese restaurant is enough to bring tears to my eyes.  You can see the love they have for simple, impeccably prepped and seasoned ingredients on the simple, minimalist plates.  Just a few natural, mulled and crafted garnishes to tie and transform their dishes into whimsical, visually seductive sculptures you hate to destroy, but just can't seem to resist.

I haven't had much luck recreating these delicacies at home.  Lacking a Hattori Hanso at home, I've had to rely on a few spotty Asian cookbooks and magazine articles ("Takeout Made EASY!!") to try and pick up the skills.  And pick up I have not.  Just about as well as I picked up the whole damn language thing.  My fried rice gets sticky and salty.  My yakisoba, Matt tells me, is basically terrible.  I can't argue.  Every wok I've tried to season tastes funny for a while, then rusts away, as if trying to commit mollecular suicide. 

Which should have all discouraged me from attempting the most coveted, delicate dish of them all: sushi. 

I don't know what I was thinking, about a year ago when I bought my bamboo roll and paddle combo kit.  Maybe one last stand, samurai chopstick in hand, staring down the evil flavor ninjas of sesame oil and hoisin sauce that were poised to mutilate my work. 

Wanting to prevent a disaster, I followed Judy Chen's booklet instructions word-for-word.  The most important part is the rice.  One mistake, and the entire dish is ruined.  Rinse, soak.  Dry.  Soak.  Boil.  Simmer.  Sit.  Carefully remove, fold, season.  All at specific time intervals, with the requirement of a special helper with a hand fan there to bring the stuff to room temp old-school style.  It takes at least an hour from start to finish, extra time if you have a helper that bitches the whole time (the first time around, I didn't.  Heather was very helpful). 

After that, it just gets fun.  Like filling up burritos.  I'd assembled all of the things that I really liked at sushi restaurants: little spears of cucumber, green onions, salmon sashimi, mangoes.  Even spicy sauce made with cream cheese mixed with tons of sriracha. 

The strangest part?  They tasted good.  Really good.  They looked a little wonky, not sliced and formed into the most perfect of spheres.  Masaharu Morimoto would have to re-plate while Alton Brown made some dickish comment about my knife skills.  But not a failure.  Not by a long shot.

This was a dinner party with a girlfriend, though.  My seafood-hating husband wouldn't come near the stuff, and my little bamboo sushi kit was packed, moved, and stored with little fanfare.

That was until a couple weeks ago, when Matt came home from work with some odd news.  "Have you ever had spicy crab rolls?"  He asked.

"They're so good!"

..."Huh?  You hate sushi."

"Yeah, well they opened this little sushi counter at Rice Time," he explained, referring to his favorite worktime teriyaki lunch spot.  "You can get, like, 8 crab rolls for $2.50."

"What made you eat sushi?"

"Me and a few guys were having lunch, and they said I'd like it, so I tried it.  It's not raw!"

God damn it!!!  I had been saying the same thing for years... "try the crunchy tempura shrimp roll!  You'd love it!  It's not raw!" to absolutely no avail.  And a little male peer pressure, and suddenly you see the light?

Ugh.  Men.

Anyway, so my sushi kit got broken out tonight to feed a full crowd of me, Matt and our neighborhood friends Jay and Amber.  Actually coworkers of Matt's, they were one of the perks of moving to Hubbard.  I'd promised to re-create his beloved spicy crab rolls by mixing krab... yes, with a "k", with my spicy sriracha cream cheese.  He was my unwitting sushi-maker's apprentice, fanning the rice bowl with a folded-up beer case whining, "really?  TEN MINUTES!?  You can't hold it under the ceiling fan?!!" 

My shaping and cutting skills haven't vastly improved, but sneaking a few lumpy ends as I cut, the product seemed to be just as good as I'd remembered.  The rice was fresh, toothsome and well-seasoned, and the spicy sauce against cool cucumber was a delight I'm still shocked to be having at home.  To my sincere delight, Matt was thrilled about my copycat version.  "These are so good!"  choruses echoed all around, disbelief at the crazy white girl feat I'd somehow pulled.

Somewhere not-so-deep inside, Tabitha in a Hello Kitty backpack squees with delight.  I'll have to take her to Uwajimaya soon.  She'd like that.


  1. I am ashamed to admit I have never tried sushi. I am sure I would like it. Not sure why I haven't ever partaken.

  2. SUSHI! And the next time you go to Uwajimaya, tell me, because I live right there and could meet you (unless it's from now until June 9, because I'm housesitting in Vancouver until then). But for reals. Anytime after that - I've been meaning to buy a sushi set.

  3. Well after last night I'm all out of nori sheets, so I need to go! :) Maybe in a few weeks. I will definitely let you know.