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chirashi

There is no defined way to eat a bowl of chirashi. I guess there is no correct way, no one way to go about it. After all, it’s usually a shitshow of stuff on a bed of rice.

There is, however, a logical way to enjoy all that stuff. And it is not too dissimilar to how one would expect to partake in an omakase lineup.

Start with the cleaner cuts. I usually begin with the maguro tuna, moving on to the red snapper or halibut, depending on what’s provided. Now, the critical balance lies in one’s ability to balance fish consumption with that of the vinegared sushi rice and pickled/seasoned add-ons besides the fish.

The key to sushi is rice, and chirashi is no exception. Good sushi rice should be well-vinegared, never steaming, and the individual grains must still retain their distinctness, yet sticky and cohesive simultaneously. Seasoned mushrooms, tartare, and pickled radishes are a refreshing combination with the rice and the sashimi.

You move on to the richer cuts – salmon, yellowtail. The fragrant saba should follow; allow the sea to swim around a bit. Then anything else marinated, like unagi. Finally, end with the omelet.

Each bite is reminiscent of everything in the bowl. The rice, the sashimi, the raw, the cooked, the clean, the marinated. In the midst of seemingly random chaos, chirashi, in the end, comes out in total order, a culmination of attentive flavors that live alone and together.

For some, the temptation to mix up the contents is irresistible, as if the bowl in front hails from Chipotle. Just a couple swift moves with the chopsticks, left and right, swirling motions, up and down. Damned are those who kneel at such irresponsible thoughts. Respect the order within the chaos. A bite at a time. Layers.

There is no perfect day. In the final hours of this year, one could ask what it means to live the perfect day, or perfect year. There is no such thing. Some hours are good, others are better, some are forgettable. Chaotic. Dismantled, and unorganized.

What matters more, however, is how one comes out in the end. Time, and the experiences it bears, is hard to discern at the moment, but it’s the culmination of the wee hours that define chirashi, not the other way around.

There is no perfect day, and there is no one way to eat chirashi. But you chew enough to realize what it’s supposed to taste like.

Live, a bite at a time.

Things have a source, the originating mother ship that seems to always be there. Whatever the source, one’s proximity to it is often valuable, if not enviable, and no doubt preferable.

Food is no different.

Sushi connoisseurs often tell tall tales of their ability to taste the difference of nigiri sushi by “distance” alone. In other words, nigiri made at the bar (the source) and consumed at the bar (the source) tastes better than nigiri made at the bar (the source) and consumed elsewhere, say a table thirty feet away. From the first seconds when the sushi chef molds the rice, smears the wasabi, and places the fish, each bite becomes less perfect as the nigiri ventures further away. After all, Edo-style sushi originated as a commuter’s meal, made in roadside stands, meant to be eaten on the go. Nigiri is only nigiri when the transfer time between sushi chef and patron comprises of a few heartbeats. Proximity is not an option.

Ramen – or any type of hot noodle soup for that matter – is a ticking time bomb. Timing is everything for an immaculate noodle dish. The second the steaming, semi-boiling broth hits the noodles, it begins “decomposing,” rapidly giving in to the spiking temperature and sodium. Noodles, broth, scallions, bean sprouts, nori, and off you go. Sitting right there at the bar is a complete immersion into the ramen experience. Not only does it taste better, but the action – the clanking, shouting, steaming, stirring, flipping – is part of the taste, feeding the eyes before vapors hit the nose or broth envelopes the tongue. Feeds the eyes, feeds the nose, the source does. Proximity is not an option.

According to this recent article in Time, mozzarella cheese has been scientifically proven to be the “best” cheese for pizza. But no matter the quality or type of cheese, it’s no secret that the further the fresh margherita pizza travels from the oven, the less relevant it becomes, falling to an obsolete afterthought that no one remembers. There’s something unique about seeing your pizza go into a Neapolitan oven, to sit at a table with a clear view to said oven, and to gulf down a still-squirming slice while a steady flow of pies go in and out of that oven. The mozzarella and tomato sauce cool to Goldilocks-right as the server takes just the right number of steps from the oven to the table. Proximity is not an option.

Living in this concrete jungle we call city, one often feels distant from a source, known or unknown. Perhaps that explains why one feels liberated – or at home – stepping on grass or running on soil. Concrete layers and cement blocks under the feet may elevate off the ground, both literally and figuratively, but they also strip you from your source, to the point where concrete whispers in your ear that it is your new source, your new home.

The recent “farm-to-table” phenomenon is a meager attempt to restore this sense of proximity to one’s food source. But even at its best, what you’re getting is fresh meat and produce cooked in a restaurant kitchen in the heart of some downtown, miles and miles away from the rancher or farmer that last had contact with what’s on the plate. In essence, farm-to-table is our dear outcry to take a step back to the source, to the soil. It’s our leap towards proximity.

Not all of us can live on a farm and cook our meals right next door. But in the meantime, we can all appreciate the sense of proximity one gets from “fire-to-mouth” dining, whether it’s ramen or pizza. Closer to the fire, closer to the heat, closer to the source. Closer to what makes food, food.

Photos: Daikaya (http://daikaya.com/), Pupatella (http://www.pupatella.com/)

The art of sushi, and undoubtedly and specifically of nigiri, rests in the rice.

Accustomed to all-you-can-stash-or-cram buffets and second-rate sushi joints and chefs, we have come to define a restaurant’s quality in the freshness of the fish itself. No doubt this is a crucial factor in determining the success or failure of a particular sushi experience.

The sadness lies in the undeniable truth that the freshness of the fish and seafood used in the panorama of sushi dishes is, or ought to be, an inherent truth, a given factor not susceptible to any level of half-ass culinary gimmick. Fish is fresh? Good, that’s a start. But do not shortchange your pallet solely on that premise.

It is no coincidence that a choice cut of otoro, saba, sake or hamachi rests upon a carefully crafted mound of sushi rice. But do not be mistaken; the rice is no vehicle, no “plate” to present the fish. It serves as its foundation, its root, an unwavering force whose texture and subtle acidity is accentuated by the blooming highlights of the fish, not the other way around.

If tradition is to be given any degree of reverence, sushi rice is to be made from the finest crop, spread out and fanned to relieve the exuberant moisture, and seasoned ever so delicately with vinegar. One imagines a sushi chef’s care in handling the day’s fresh catch; one seldom illustrates the patient soul required in breathing life into the rice.

The most revered sushi chefs are said to know the number of grains between their fingertips, as they ready their senses before wedding rice to fish.

Sushi is a gentle art; it is respectful in all aspects, of all circumstances and opinions. Grains are not forced into others’ company. How unfortunate it is to witness the disruptive reality of “rice cake nigiri”, in which chef’s heed no attention to the exact caliber of force channeled through the rice. Their fingertips are mundane to harmony, asleep to the breathing nature of nigiri.

Delicacy ought not to be overlooked when handling sushi. One, two touches with the fingers and the palm, one touch for the grated wasabi, one or two more touches for the joining. Cold hands are said to be a must-have gift of sushi chefs, as repeated touches with warmer ones disrespects the innate coolness of the fish and fanned rice. Rhythmic movements, swift and calculated, light yet determined. One, two, another one, two.

Texture is the foreground of all sushi creations. Balance. Contrast. The push and pull, ebb and flow. Sashimi presents two opposites. Each fish sings a different melody.

First, in terms of the initial bite and the amount of “chewiness” the fish has. Resistance persists in varying amounts in the countless species. Second the fat content presents a counter melody. Some are so subtle that its sweetness only blushes in the absence of any serious dosage of Kikoman soy sauce. Some are so rich – like the always worshiped otoro or chutoro – that the tip of a giddy tongue is all it takes to burst the buttery bubble in which the fish contains itself.

The inherent dichotomy present in sashimi enters a new plateau with the entrance of sushi rice. Not subdued, not shadowed, but enhanced, uplifted.

An added dimension means added perception. The way we perceive things is limited – or propelled – by our ability to control our internal dimensions.

Skillfully crafted sushi rice adds a third, fourth dimension to fresh raw fish. The contrast in texture is readily apparent at initiation; a contrasting firmness, a contrasting density, a contrasting silkiness. The aroma blossoms after impact. The earthy grains, cloaked in a perfectly proportioned element of acidity, draws out the inherent sweetness in fish.

“Warmth” is not a simple matter of temperature. It is a characteristic, found mainly in the heirs of the earth, which pushed its way into our atmosphere through pounds of soil and dirt. Such heirs spent their afternoons basking in the low-hanging sun, bowing slowly as its head becomes heavy with the season’s fruit.

As contradictory as this may seem, the fine cut of raw fish accentuates this “warmth” in the sushi rice. Describing it as “earthy” will not do justice, but a lack of human words (or simply a lack of a writer’s expressions) does not hold back what is eminent, profoundly thundering across a diner’s pallet: warmth.

Raving reviews of sushi restaurants in town (in particular, Sushi Yoshi in Vienna, Virginia) perplex me. I become inquisitive of the definition or guideline of great sushi. Some standard, I must say, to judge an edible art form that is so much more than raw fish and rice (with mayo, teriyaki, and multiple dunkings in soy sauce).

An institution that heeds so little attention to the greatest of details will stand nowhere near the podium of great sushi, at least in my mind. All it takes is one order of saba nigiri – that first bite, where all dimensions of sushi rest on my tongue – to judge the fate of that eatery.

Ancestry cannot be undervalued in any cuisine. The forefathers of contemporary sushi, such as funozushi, had one purpose: preservation. Fish of all kinds was stacked in between layers of rice and salt, and kept there for weeks, months. In other words, sushi was conceived as a slow calculated art form. In Edo times, sushi became a deceiving “fast” food, as passers grabbed vinegar-ed rice balls with a slab of fish on top. This I say is deceiving speed, in that the preparation of the harvest, the rice, and the blade work skinning and slicing the fish was still inevitably “slow” food.

In the whirlwind, concrete forest known as Gangnam-gu, Seoul, there exists an anomaly of a restaurant. Sushi Sunsoo.

Upon entrance into this cove, the spinning stops. The jabbering stops. Balance predominates. Dimensional food takes on new meaning. Fresh is not fast, only meticulous. Accuracy is pulled out as a noun to describe a bite of nigiri. Accurate.

It breathes as it should.

This gallery contains 37 photos.

A fourteen-hour trans-Pacific flight, into a country coming fresh off a presidential election that elected its first female dictator’s daughter as president. Record low temperatures throughout the trip, snow showers (gift of a white Christmas and New Year’s Day). All of this, our footsteps, our itinerary, our schedule, can be summed up in thirty-seven dishes. …

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