Thursday, 13 May 2010

Sushi for Beginners

On Fridays Scrumptious only goes to school for a half day. That’s rather inconvenient, mostly because it means that she finishes school before eating her lunch or her afternoon snack. So it’s become our custom to stop at Waitrose and pick up a sandwich which she eats on the fly or on a park bench if we’re lucky enough to have sunshine. Last Friday we went to Waitrose and they didn’t have her usual ham and cheddar baguette. Scrumptious browsed the aisle and came back with a plastic container of edamame and a California roll which came with soy sauce in a plastic fish-shaped squeezy bottle. We sat on a bench and she ate her Japanese bento and I told her that I’d never even tried sushi until I was 21 years old.

‘Wow, Mummy, that is sooo old.’

Yeah, I thought, you don’t know the half of it. I won’t even tell you how many Prime Ministers have been carried over the threshold of 10 Downing Street since then.

I was 21 years old and working in a corporate office in Midtown Manhattan. Fresh off the boat from small-town America , I was so green the hayseeds hadn’t fallen out of my hair yet. There was a guy in the office, Charlie (Chaw-ley), a New Yorker born and raised. Charlie took me under his wing and taught me the ropes. He was a Vietnam vet, a Marine, and everything about him was square and wide and bigger than life---his jaw, his head, his shoulders and his personality. When he spoke it sounded like a foghorn. Charlie was a little bit crazy, an eccentric character, but in the very best way. The great thing about Charlie is that he never made you feel stupid for not knowing something. For someone who had learned about life through hard knocks and unspeakable horrors, he was a surprisingly gentle teacher. He was, as they say in New York, a real mensch.

Anyway, back to the sushi. One day Charlie told me he had a special surprise planned for me. We met at the elevators at noon and I followed him through the streets to a little restaurant. When we entered through the sliding door, it smelled of the sea and I could almost feel the brine tickle my nostrils. The restaurant was all blonde wood and clean and spare. Charlie said I didn’t need to see the menu because he would order for both of us. He didn’t start me out on California rolls either. Oh no, he was far too hard core for that. The sushi and sashimi came out on a wooden board with legs and they placed it in the middle of our table. I took the chopstick and gingerly nudged a piece of bright pink fish, so raw it quivered, and Charlie laughed. He showed me how to hold the chopsticks and in his big, square hands they looked so delicate and precarious. Then he showed me how to dip the sushi into wasabi and soy sauce. I dipped and ate and dipped and ate. I couldn’t get enough.

‘Do you want more?’ he asked.

‘Bring it on,’ I said.

I felt like Anthony Bourdain in ‘Kitchen Confidential.’ I couldn’t get enough. Who knew that raw fish with rice and seaweed and green horseradish could taste this good? There we were in this tiny little Japanese restaurant, the big burly New Yorker who had been around the block and had the scars to prove it and the fresh-faced kid in a navy blue Brooks Brothers suit and a white button down shirt. And we shared this common love. Sushi. I don’t know if that was the best sushi I ever ate but it was the first sushi I ever had. And even though I’ve had a lot of sushi since then, you never really forget your first time. When you’re trying something new or daring, I think it’s important to do it with someone who makes you feel comfortable. Can you remember your first time?


  1. It' very early in the morning and I am catching up on lots of work I am behind with. I will probably bump into you this Friday in Waitrose or Pret buying lunch mine have half days too and love thier sushi.

    I don't recall my first sushi experience - yours sounds YUM I do however vividly recall my first cheese fondue - gotta love the 70's.

    We were skiing in France, I have had a passion for cheese since I can remember. When my parents said ( my Mother did her best but was no NIgella ) that we could dip stuff in a giant vat of runny cheese and just hoover away - FABULOUS ! I loved it then and love it to this day. My three love it too. Great post, off to get some sushi xx

  2. I love cheese of every kind. So do my kids. I love fondue too. What's not to love about a pot of runny cheese. It's best when you're skiing but would be good in May too! I wonder if Waitrose sells it?

  3. I really don't think I could eat it! Amy keeps going on about wanting to try it. Charlie sounds great though.

    CJ xx

  4. I've been trying to dredge from my brain the first time I tried it, it's not there. Funny, we were just saying at the weekend how our littlest looked sweet eating her edamame and noodles at Wagamama's. The elder one's quite good with the chopsticks. I took him to Yo Sushi and spent a fortune on not much because he just liked the conveyor belt and the coloured bowls but didn't really like much of what was in there. All the more for me then.

    Great story. I would have LOVED to work in New York. Sigh.

  5. Crystal - Try it! Start out at one of the conveyor belt places that deer baby mentioned. That way you can pick and choose without too much commitment. It's kind of like a Japanese tapas.

    deer baby - I know, those little dishes can really add up but they're so much fun.

    Working and living in New York was such an incredible experience. Since I figured out from one of your posts that we are exactly the same age, you can imagine that I was there during a truly decadent age. Good times, good times.

  6. Oh I miss Yo Sushi! I am still reading along and enjoying your wonderful writing.

  7. Suester--so happy to see that you're still following along! I thought I lost you. Next time you're in town we'll hit Yo!