Sushi and Ceviche: Both Raw Fish, But God, Aren’t They So Different

Jakarta, 20 September 2005

Written under Miss Sassy (10)

Sushi and ceviche are both made of raw fish, and each is a culinary pride of their country of origin. Both of them had their fair share of troubling me.

I first encountered sushi in late ‘80s at the swanky Ginza area in Tokyo. Mom and I came to join Dad for a holiday after his long business trip. His very polite and proper Japanese counterparts decided to throw us a dinner party.

 

I’d had tempura and the yaki fares before, and I’d learned about sushi and sashimi– but I’d never actually been in the position to eat them. So there I was, being a gawky 15-year-old, as the honorary guest in this fine establishment, among my father’s respected foreign associates, and I had to eat…. raw fish. I’d even never wanted before to touch the Sundanese raw veggies karedok

Oooh, but I gave it a fair fight. I eyed the rows of sushi and sashimi on the platters, picked the smallest fish on the biggest rice I could see, and swallowed it fast. One gulp of ocha immediately. The sweet wife of Dad’s associate said something, and before I knew it, she put down two pieces of sushi on my plate. Understanding my plight, Dad took one off, while I struggled to swallow the other one. Another gulp of ocha fast. I started contemplating to flee the place.

And the final straw came. The elderly gentleman, who I assumed was the boss of the Japanese team, personally passed me a plate of sashimi. Three slices of raw, red fish. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought, there’s not even a trace of rice there!

I glanced to Dad, panicking. Maybe he wouldn’t care, but I didn’t want to disappoint him. So I slowly picked one slice, and under the full view of Dad’s smiling associates, put it in my mouth.

I’ll spare you the unimportant details of what happened next. Let’s just say that Dad’s associates finally pleaded to the restaurant management to let us order teriyaki from the restaurant next door, as the one we’re in apparently was highly specialized in sushi and sashimi, I thought I’d die from embarrassment.

As they say, it takes love to overcome fears. Many years later, in a small town on the foot of the Rockies, so far away from Japan, or any sea for that matter, I finally overcame mine. I met this interesting Japanese during the pre grad-school program, I told him my Ginza story, but agreed to accompany him eating sushi as long as I could order tempura.

First he didn’t say anything. But after three sushi outings, he told me that he couldn’t help me denying myself the pleasure of sushi and sashimi anymore. He just had to teach me how to enjoy them.

He’d observed that I had sweet tooth and loved eggs. So he initiated with inari, the sweet rice-filled egg pouch. I liked it. The next weekend he ordered tamago, the sweet egg strapped on a dollop of rice. I loved it.

I was still wary about the raw seafood issue, but my boyfriend was really a genius his GRE score suggested he was. He started through ika and tako of the squid family, taking cue from my all-time favorite calamari. He continued until one day, I finally ate my first salmon sushi. He jumped off his chair and bought sake for the entire restaurant.

We’ve long since broken up. But whenever I eat sushi and sashimi I silently thank him for making me acquainted and eventually enamored with his country’s culinary masterpiece.

I first met ceviche in Chile’s capital Santiago during grad school’s Latin America immersion program. Having conquered sushi just 9 months before, I was certain that ceviche would be a walk in the park. When it’s finally served, it ended up feeling more like a walk in a greasily flooded park, full of swimming pale fish and trees with raw onion branches.

As always, I braved the first few bites. But soon it became apparent that I was risking losing my dignity again at a fine restaurant in a foreign country among respectable associates. I quietly called the waiter, lied about being homesick, and ordered rice. The waiter didn’t bat his eye, quickly retrieved seafood paella, and took the ceviche off the bill. God bless that man.

I recently heard there’s a Chilean festival in town. Perhaps I should give ceviche another try. Or perhaps…. I should wait until un chileno interesante steps in and help me with that. Ay, ay, ay.

Published in The Sunday Jakarta Post, Lifebites column (pg.6), 22/1/06.

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