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How to stop worrying about not speaking Japanese and just enjoy your sushi

How to stop worrying about not speaking Japanese and just enjoy your sushi

A trio of appetisers to begin your meal. – Pictures by CK Lim
A trio of appetisers to begin your meal. – Pictures by CK Lim

BANGKOK, Sept 2 — Barely any words pass between us.

Our chef, a serious Japanese man, wipes his cutting board once, twice. Everything has to be clean and pristine before he starts.

This is no conveyor belt sushi chain where language is no concern, where you choose your sushi by the colour of its plate. Here the artisan who prepares your meal does it in front of you.

At the entrance of the one Michelin star Ginza Sushi-Ichi in Bangkok (left). Shaping the vinegared rice into the base of the sushi (right)
At the entrance of the one Michelin star Ginza Sushi-Ichi in Bangkok (left). Shaping the vinegared rice into the base of the sushi (right)
Counter seating means everything happens before your eyes
Counter seating means everything happens before your eyes

Surely, then, there must be some expectation of appreciation, of knowledge? Sushi can be intimidating, or at least great sushi can. When the sushi chef doesn’t speak your tongue and you don’t his, there is a barrier. A wall between us.

Or, is there?

We are at the one Michelin star Ginza Sushi-Ichi in Bangkok, a sibling restaurant to the original in Tokyo. Servers in kimonos welcome us into the intimate space, the walls panelled with hinoki wood. We are seated along the counter, the better to witness our omakase style menu fashioned before us, course by course.

Omakase or “chef’s choice” means you have no idea what you’re going to get — you have to trust in your chef’s selection, even if you don’t speak the same language. Every chef here has been personally trained by Masakazu Ishibashi, the head chef at Ginza.

The years our chef has invested in his vocation are evident from the sheer focus and practice of his every movement; no action is wasted. From shaping the vinegared rice to adding just the right smidgen of wasabi or yuzu zest to the appropriate sushi, there is beauty in form (and a fanatical fervour for perfection).

Sashimi served with some wasabi and pickled ginger
Sashimi served with some wasabi and pickled ginger
Tai (sea bream) sushi has a mild, subtle flavour
Tai (sea bream) sushi has a mild, subtle flavour

Before sushi, we begin with some sashimi, such as katsuo (skipjack tuna) and kanpachi (greater yellowtail). Wasabi and pickled ginger are served on the side. The fish is incredibly fresh, with fewer than 24 hours between delivery from Tsukiji Market in Tokyo to service here in Bangkok.

And then the sushi: each piece is shaped, inspected and served on the platter before us with precision and ceremony. Mild, subtle tai (sea bream); deep-red akami, the firm and meaty cut of maguro (tuna); its more buttery counterpart toro, the fattier belly portion, pink with wagyu-like marbling; hirame (flounder), its umami flavours deepened with ageing; simmered anago (saltwater eel) offering a sweeter, lighter mouthfeel than its cousin, the more well-known freshwater unagi.

Grilled eggplant with an ebi (shrimp) flavoured sauc (left). Giving a final brush of shoyu (soy sauce) to the sushi before serving it (right)
Grilled eggplant with an ebi (shrimp) flavoured sauc (left). Giving a final brush of shoyu (soy sauce) to the sushi before serving it (right)
Hamo (conger eel) served in the classic shimofuri style (left). Donburi (rice bowl) topped with uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe) (right)
Hamo (conger eel) served in the classic shimofuri style (left). Donburi (rice bowl) topped with uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe) (right)

The courses of sushi don’t appear in rapid succession but are interspersed with dishes from the kitchen that are artful in their own way. A trio of appetisers prepare our palates before the first piece of sushi even appears: stewed octopus, savoury and chewy; silken yuba (tofu skin) with a dab of wasabi; and a “garden” of wonders.

That last appetiser is a microcosm of washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine): a solitary pod of edamame accompanied by a parasol of grilled sweet potato; capsicum laced with bonito flakes; a pair of “cherries” made from egg yolk blended with mentaiko; an entire baby crab, crunchy and briny, almost too pretty to be eaten.

Not every dish has to be a spectacle, of course. There is nothing simpler than a bowl of grilled eggplant doused with shoyu (soy sauce) flavoured with dozens of tiny ebi (shrimp).

Making a maki entails a series of specific steps
Making a maki entails a series of specific steps
A simple maki of cucumber, pickles, white sesame seeds and shisho leaves (left). Cake-like atsuyaki tamago (“thick fried egg”), an uncommon style of egg sushi (right)
A simple maki of cucumber, pickles, white sesame seeds and shisho leaves (left). Cake-like atsuyaki tamago (“thick fried egg”), an uncommon style of egg sushi (right)

Hamo (conger eel) is served in the classic shimofuri style — a brisk dip in boiling water before an immediate plunge in iced water to create the trademark curling of the meat — and served with two dressings. The brown sauce a miso vinegar blend; the yellow a more traditional bainiku, a mix of umeboshi (pickled plums), dashi and mirin.

Our final sushi is almost not a sushi at all, not one we readily recognise. A formidable bar of omelette — atsuyaki tamago or “thick fried egg” — is an uncommon style of egg sushi only served at fine restaurants.

This is no conveyor belt tamago sushi, not a pitiful sliver of egg tied in place with a strip of dry nori. This is almost like a cake — dessert sushi, if you will — albeit cooked with a specific instrument (a square frying pan called kera-nabe) and sometimes even blended with shrimp and white fish.

As our chef presents us with a donburi (rice bowl) topped with generous amounts of sea urchin and salmon roe, he hears me exclaim, “Your favourite uni, and ikura!” and is visibly surprised and delighted we know their Japanese names. He beams at both of us.

Hirame (flounder) is aged so that its umami flavours may deepen
Hirame (flounder) is aged so that its umami flavours may deepen
Simmered anago (saltwater eel) sushi is lighter than the freshwater unagi (left). Dessert, a delicate strawberry daifukumochi (right)
Simmered anago (saltwater eel) sushi is lighter than the freshwater unagi (left). Dessert, a delicate strawberry daifukumochi (right)

Barely any words pass between us during the meal, but the few that do, count.

It doesn’t take much, as both our chef and I discover together, to make a connection, to show and receive appreciation. Perhaps that’s why we sit at the counter, why we watch every step this master makes, carefully calibrated, to ensure our every bite is immaculate.

I cannot lie: I find all those YouTube videos of diners at sushi bars rolling back their eyes in exaggerated ecstasy frightful to say to least. Yet at this moment, I understand.

Our chef finishes with a maki, carefully assembling it part by part: the bar of nori, a bed of sushi rice atop it, then finely julienned cucumber and diced pickles, a dusting of white sesame seeds, a few pieces of shisho leaves torn and scattered over the flat surface of the maki before it’s rolled and sliced. As with everything we’ve been served before, this is a performance and to be savoured as much as the end product.

Deep-red akami, the firm and meaty cut of maguro (tuna)
Deep-red akami, the firm and meaty cut of maguro (tuna)

It occurs to me, that if you had to have a conversation with every chef or speak their language or have them explain every detail to you, you’d miss out on a lot of great meals. Here’s how to stop worrying about not speaking Japanese and enjoy great sushi: Let go. Simply be available and present to whatever happens.

By the time the real dessert — a delicate strawberry daifukumochi — arrives, our chef is already done cleaning and reorganising his mise en place. Everything in its place. Everything as it should be. Which, we decide, isn’t a bad description of the art of sushi, for those who spend decades mastering it and for those who are privileged to spend an hour or two experiencing it.

Ginza Sushi Ichi

LG floor, 494 Erawan Bangkok, Ploenchit Road, Lumpini, Bangkok, Thailand

Open Tue-Sat 12pm-2:30pm & 6pm-11pm; Sun 12pm-2:30pm & 6pm-10pm; Mon closed

Tel: +66 2 250 0014

www.ginza-sushiichi.jp

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