In this month’s Vanity Fair, Nick Tosches serves up a tour d’horizon of the world of sushi from Tokyo’s Tuskiji fish-market where fish merchants use out-sized samurai swords to slice 300 lb. (136.36 kg.) tuna into quarters, to the locally famous Daiwa hidden in nondescript Tokyo streets in search of sea pineapple, to super high end restaurants like Sugiyama and Masa in New York where dinner for one can cost $480.
My companion, the Japanese translator Eva Yagino, speaks to the chef, Hiroyoshi Gota, who tells her that, among the many sakes sold here, there’s a special sake, made by the Miyagi brewer Uragasumi, that’s rarely available. The waitress pours us some, letting the cold sake overflow to the ceramic saucer beneath the masu, the sake box, made of the same pale wood, hinokiâ€”a cypress that grows only in Japanâ€”from which the best sushi-bar counters are crafted. A ceramic dish of sea salt is placed on the table, and Eva-san sets me straight: I’m to put a pinch of the salt on a corner of the masu, drink from that corner, raising the masu and ceramic saucer together, replenish the salt in the corner whenever I want, and in the end drink all the spillage in the saucer; then order more sake and do it again. As we sip our salted spillage, Eva-san translates the menu for me.
“Nodo-kuro,” she says. “A white fish with a black throat from the Sea of Japan. It is rarely caught.”
As she continues, I recall the way Tom Asakawa smiled when he said, ” â€¦ and other things.”
“Anglerfish liver. Ayu-fish guts. Sea-cucumber guts. Oh, and look at all these whale dishes: whale sushi; hari-hari nabeâ€”that’s whale meat with mizuna, a sort of Japanese mustard green that looks like a dandelion green; whale bacon; whale skin; whale tongue; whale brain; shinzo (that’s whale heart); whale ovaryâ€”and, oh, here’s your hoya sashi, your raw sea pineapple. Sashi is what the restaurant people call sashimi.”
As I ponder my choices, Eva-san tells me about mamushi-zake. It’s a sake to which, during fermentation, a mamushi is added. The mamushi, a type of pit viper, is one of the two species of poisonous snakes indigenous to Japan. Introduced live into the fermenting sake, it releases its poison into the brew as it leaves this vale of tears. Unlike the Chinese, the Japanese are not big on snake eating, but there is this sake.
“I need to drink that,” I say.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.