Friday, November 11, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Tokyo

Today’s Off the Beaten Path contributor is Robb Grindstaff, a fiction writer and book editor whose first career was in journalism and the business world of news media.  Robb has had several short stories published in various anthologies and magazines, and his articles on the craft of writing have appeared in writer magazines and websites. He writes the ‘Ask The Editor’ blog, and has edited book manuscripts (fiction and non-fiction) for published and agent-represented authors from the U.S., Australia, and Europe. He is currently marketing his second novel to agents, writing his third, and hiding the first one deep in his laptop. During his journalism career, he served in various editorial and management positions, including executive editor and general manager of an international English-language newspaper, which landed him a five-year assignment in Asia, where he ate his way through one country after another.

Before we get to Tokyo, a bit about my food bio and how I got my reluctant taste buds to travel with me. I grew up in mostly small, rural towns in the southern and Midwest U.S.  Our family dinners consisted of meals like pot roast, meatloaf, fried chicken, and pork chops. Potatoes might be mashed or baked or fried. Corn or green beans or peas as a side, which I would never eat. I was the picky eater.

Good, sturdy food, not spicy or heavily seasoned. And Mom usually cooked the meat somewhere between medium well and well done, a habit from the days on the farm when undercooked meat could kill you and the nearest doctor might be a half-day’s travel away.

Osezaki, it's breathtaking underwater or above.
When I was in high school, we moved to Arizona, the Great American Southwest, and my culinary experience broadened tremendously with the introduction of Mexican food. I learned you could season meat more generously and wrap it in a tortilla rather than put it on a bun. My universe of food expanded exponentially.

Then, I met my wife. She’s half-Italian, half-Cajun, which largely explains why I married her. She introduced me to the joys of Tabasco sauce and cayenne pepper. She serves rice more often than potatoes. I’d only known rice as the stuff charities sent to starving people in famine-stricken, third-world countries. I didn’t know people ate it by choice.

She also introduced me to seafood. Growing up, fish wasn’t big on our family menu. As a kid, it meant frozen fish sticks heated up in the oven. Occasionally, it meant someone went fishing and brought back some catfish or perch, which would be filleted, coated in cornmeal, and deep fried until it was thoroughly cooked, then cooked another minute or two just to be safe.

But with my wife’s pot of gumbo came shrimp and crab and oysters and who knows what else. And crawfish etouffee.  I proposed after the etouffee.

Even with all these expanded horizons, there was one food I did not understand and knew I would never touch.

Sushi. Sashimi. I didn’t care what you called it. I knew what it was. Raw fish. In Texas, we called it ‘bait.’

You might find Nemo on your plate at dinner.
Why anyone would eat uncooked fish was beyond my comprehension. How anyone could eat uncooked fish and not wind up in a hospital with food poisoning, e coli, salmonella, or botulism escaped me. The mere thought of putting a piece of raw fish in my mouth churned my stomach.

So what did I do a few years ago? I accepted a job in Japan.

We soon made some wonderful Japanese friends who took us out to dinner for the ‘real Japanese experience.’ A sushi restaurant. In a private room – with karaoke of course. Not only do I not eat raw fish, I don’t sing in public. Ever.

Who gets to do all those dishes?
I was quite prepared for a very lousy evening. The lousy evening was confirmed when the waitresses hauled in large platters of seafood. Beautifully prepared and plated works of art. Raw fish, cut and arranged into intricate designs, an explosion of colors, and a few hundred tiny bowls of different color sauces. Remarkably, no fishy smell. But still. This stuff was uncooked and therefore unfit for human consumption.

My friend Hayashi-san asked if I’d like to try the tako.

“Yes, tacos!” Definitely. I didn’t know they served tacos too. Beef preferably, although chicken would do.”

He served up a slice from a giant octopus tentacle onto a tiny little plate and handed it to me. It still had the suction cup on the outer edge. He pointed to one of the sauces in the middle of the table – his recommendation for the tako.

Or go catch it yourself, like this early riser.
If there’s one thing I try to avoid even more than raw cephalopods, it’s being rude to someone who takes me out to dinner. With my hashi, I picked up the slice of white meat with the reddish-orange outer ring (and suction cup) and dipped it into a sauce. I hoped I could get it down without pulling a President Bush 41 and vomiting on my Japanese hosts.

Absolutely exquisite. Tasted more like lobster than whatever I had expected. Delicate, not at all chewy or rubbery as I’d anticipated, and the sauce exploded with flavor.

That’s all it took. From then on, there was no stopping me. I ate raw octopus, shrimp, squid, crab, several kinds of tuna, salmon, anything that used to swim, float, or squirt ink. I tried all the sauces. The smooth ones, the soy-based sauces that were a little salty, the spicy sauces, and my favorite, the wasabi that would clear your sinuses and set your hair on fire.

Soon afterward, I discovered the cheap lunch counters where pieces of sashimi lazily drift by you on a conveyor belt and you grab the ones you want and eat until you’re full, then total up the damages, and walk out wondering how in the world you could eat so much for so little money.

If you’re in Tokyo, you can’t go wrong with sushi, whether you’re at an elegant restaurant, a truck stop, or an airport kiosk. The seafood on your plate may have been pulled out of a tank moments before it landed on your plate, or it might have been hand-selected earlier that morning at the Tsukiji Fish Market.

The fish market – especially the tuna auction – is a mandatory stop if visiting Tokyo.  Get there early (say around 4 a.m.), and wear old shoes as you might be sliding around in a little fish muck on the floor.

Then head across the street from the market to one of the many small restaurants for lunch. The only way to get fresher seafood is to dive into the ocean and catch it in your teeth.

As for karaoke, however, I still won’t do that.

The only way to find fresher seafood in Japan is to go get it yourself.


  1. Robb, thanks for this wonderful, vivid piece. Love your sense of humor.

    Sushi is everywhere these days, it seems. I once discovered a tiny sushi bar in Bandar Anzali on the Iranian side of the Caspian Sea (though we opted for fish restaurant that featured local specialties - and the fish was cooked).

    How do sushi restaurants in the U.S. stack up against the ones in Japan?

  2. Robb, your food adventures sound lots of fun, if not daunting at time. Great to see you gave it a go and you were rewarded handsomely. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Robb, you must be fun to travel with. :) Love this story about expanding your horizons in more than just one way. And I adore sushi as well. I have the same question as Heidi: how different it is it in Japan than what we get in the States?

  4. Lovely post, Robb. My parents were great travellers and I remember attending a Fijian feast with them long ago before Fiji was packaged up for mass tourism. I was only little and cried when I was expected to eat raw fish at this feast. My mother spent the evening smearing vegemite on crackers and passing them under the table to me.

  5. I'd been out of the touch past couple of days and missed the day this post went live. Thanks everyone for the comments. As far as sushi in the US, I've found some good places for it. Even the grocery store now has a fresh sushi counter where you can buy it and take it home. It's all tasty. But nothing I've found anywhere else compares to how fresh it is in Japan.

  6. I have to admire a man who proposes after the etouffee. :-) Loved this.

  7. Mmm, salivating now. Sashimi is my absolute favourite foodstuff in the world. I've seen the tuna auction on TV and it looks like one of the wonders of the world - the colour when they cut the carcasses open is like nothing else imaginable. I would love to see it in the flesh

  8. Great blog, Robb.

    Being musician,I've spent a bit of time in Japan. Loved it! From the river of odd-smelling something flowing under the sidewalk, to the comfy red velor metro seats, and the way workouts ceased for a nano second when somebody new arrived at the gym, which sent up a collective "Os."

    Food wise: I'm a New Yorker and New York has it all. In Tokyo, I used to favor a little Italian joint not far from the the Capitol Hotel – our usual digs.

    Keep the great stuff coming!