"Green tea? Water?" asks the server.
"Green tea, please.And sushi." I hesitate, stammer, and then, in a barely audible tone, mutter: "California roll, that is."
My diehard sushi-loving friends would openly disapprove.California roll, a mixture of cooked crabmeat and avocado rolled in rice - although served with traditional ginger slices and wasabi (a green horseradish-type paste) - is not, by their standards, "real" sushi. The server, however, does not seem to mind.
Beautifully clad in a powder-blue kimono tied with a deep-red sash, she bows ever so slightly before crossing the room to place my order. Eric Chin, master sushi chef, studies my request and then, spying me, waves me over to the sushi bar.
In the years I've been eating California rolls, I have always steered clear of the sushi bar. The immaculately polished case of fish; the deft, knowing hands of the chef; and the habitual presence of veteran sushi eaters always seemed too intimidating.
But on this day, only one patron - a gentle-faced, bearded man, buried deep in his newspaper - sits at the sushi bar of Sakura House in Princeton, N.J.
"I've been a sushi chef for 19 years," Chef Chin assures me."You want California roll?"
His hands expertly carve an avocado. Crab is added, and in seconds, a perfectly shaped roll is placed before me.
"Don't let them fool you," Chin smiles, motioning to the 20 or so people gathered around tables behind me."Only about 50 percent of all Americans eat sushi the true Japanese way."
Sushi was created centuries ago in Japan. Clean, raw fish were pressed between layers of salt to preserve them.After several months, the cured fish were ready to eat.In the 18th century, a chef named Yohei opted to forgo the curing process and serve sushi in something resembling its present form.
According to Chin, the taste of true Japanese sushi is often too strong for Americans' palates.
"Many Americans prefer combination sushi," says Chin. "Fish mixed with vegetables. Fish mixed with other fish. In Japan - with the exception of Tokyo - you will never find that. In Japan, a tuna roll is a tuna roll, a cucumber roll is a cucumber roll.You don't mix.But in America, customers like to mix, try something new. As a chef, I like that.I can be creative, make new dishes for my customers to enjoy."
He eyes me mischievously.
"Would you like me to make you some American sushi?"
I reach for the menu.
"No menu," Chin says with a smile. "This is one of the great secrets of sushi bar. I create for you." His hands move swiftly, expertly chopping, carving, creating an on-the-spot specialty.Like most professional sushi chefs, Chin worked years to assume the title of master.
"During my 10 [apprenticeship] years, I learned about the fish - how to select, inspect for freshness. I learned about knives - how to sharpen, clean, cut. And I learned how to artistically arrange the food on the plate," says Chin."Sushi is not just about eating with your mouth, but with your eyes, too. It is an art form.Even American sushi."
Chin places four colorful "American" sushi pieces before me. Bright orange spills onto deep greens and whites. "It's beautiful," I say.
"I think you will like. There is crab, asparagus, eel." He pauses, smiles. "Don't worry, the eel is cooked, the striped bass, too. And there's flying fish roe, sesame, and special sauce."
The concoction is delicious, and far superior to my usual California roll.
"Try first without any wasabi," Chin instructs. "Then take your next bite with the wasabi and soy sauce. And when you dip, dip only the edge. If you dip the whole thing, you can't taste the fish."
In its raw form, wasabi resembles a tiny baby carrot. Green in color, it is extremely spicy - similar to horseradish - and grows only in the mountains of Japan. When used fresh, it is extremely expensive (as much as $100 US per inch). Most US restaurants and many in Japan mix wasabi from powder.
I dip gingerly, my confidence soaring. I feel like a pro.
Perhaps sensing my newfound sushi awareness, the bearded gentlemen to my right looks up from his newspaper. "It's great stuff, sushi. I've been eating sushi for 15 years. I love it, the texture, the taste. I eat everything. With the exception of sea urchin."
Chin peeks from behind the bar. "Ah, but you haven't tried my sea urchin. Want to try?"
I search the menu, but sea urchin isn't listed. The man at the bar laughs, an obvious good sport. "Sure, I'll try it. It's been a long time."
Chin quickly constructs an elongated piece of sushi. The bottom is filled amply with rice, the top with a globbly, gooey, yellowish substance. He hands it to the man, who raises the sushi to me in toast.
I gulp inwardly, unable to fathom the actual consumption of raw sea urchin.
But it gets a rave review.
"It's good, really good," the man tells Chin. "Sweet, creamy. I like it." As he saunters toward the door, I reach for my own coat, but am quickly halted.
"Not so quickly," Chin calls. "I have one more sushi-bar surprise." He pauses, laughs once more. "Don't worry, don't worry. It's cooked."
A small blue bowl is placed before me. Again the arrangement is exquisite. Tiny pieces of deep purple are topped with pinkish-red sauce.
"Monkfish liver," Chin says proudly.
I gulp again. I can't bear the thought of disappointing this kind sushi chef, who is so eager to please. And yet it is inevitable that I will. I abhor liver - any type, size, texture.
Chin beams. "Come. Try. I know you'll like it."
Warily, I take my chopsticks, reach for the tiniest piece, and pop the liver into my mouth.
"People say all the time, 'No, no, no,' to monkfish liver," says Chin. "But I say 'Yes, yes, yes.' And you know what? Ninety percent of people who try monkfish liver like it."
The texture is similar to foie gras, but sweeter in taste, fruitier, and surprisingly enjoyable.
Chin smiles boldly, knowingly.
"Tomorrow," he says optimistically. "We try sea urchin."
Sushi tips and etiquette
Expect to spend $2 to $3 per piece for an order of sushi, but note that prices vary and can be twice that. In Japan, you may pay $100 (US) per person for a meal of top-of-the-line fish and fresh wasabi.
Do not ask for knives. This would imply that the food is so tough it can't be properly eaten with chopsticks.
Do not pass food to another person with chopsticks. This is considered extremely rude in Japan.
Do not wave your chopsticks around aimlessly over the food, deciding what to take next.
Don't make "wasabi soup" with your soy sauce.Sushi chefs cringe at this spectacle Americans often make. Wasabi paralyzes your palate and will hide the subtle flavor that fish has when eaten raw.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society