Jiro is increasingly on my mind these days. Jiro Dreams of Sushi, remember? It’s a Japanese-language American documentary on Netflix featuring 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, who owns Michelin three-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant located in a Ginza, Tokyo subway station. It is reputed to be the best sushi restaurant in the world. But yes, best is always personal so take it as a recommendation rather than an absolute.
Jiro is now 94 and still runs the restaurant. It’s been on my bucket list for years but trying to get a seat is something short of a miracle that will require a very lucky twist of fate. Despite its hefty price tag and the fact that it won’t be listed in the Michelin Guide Tokyo in 2020, the line to get in is uber long. Reality bites though, so I abandon thoughts of experiencing his restaurant in the near future or even at all. Travel isn’t in anyone’s realm of possibilities for months to come, so forget that. Instead, I focus on sushi alone and the utter lack of it in Manila these days.
Tamago and kani, and an unexciting California maki made with kani, mango, and cucumber don’t count as sushi worth hankering for. We want fresh, buttery fish and seafood; briny so it conjures images of the sea, firm to the bite so you see yourself eyeballing with fish eyes as clear as crystal. Alas, our sushi dreams are not to be for now. Chef J Gamboa of Tsukiji in Makati offers a simple explanation. “There are no flights from Tokyo so we have no seafood for sushi. Until flights resume, the restaurant will remain closed.”
We are on the last leg (or what we hope to be the last) of the Enhanced Community Quarantine, a polite phrase that by all intents and purposes is equal to a lockdown. Over the past few weeks, people have been eating at home, cooking their meals, baking their bread and cookies, exchanging recipes and cooking tips, recommending blogs and vlogs. Social media is filled with people whipping up stuff at home, many of whom are first time cooks. This past week has seen the reopening of many restaurants, all offering a limited menu, exclusively for takeout, whether frozen or ready to eat, for pick up or delivery. But none, not one, offers high quality sushi or sashimi.
Food memories take me to Kuromon Market in Osaka, where I order uni (sea urchin) and the vendor plucks one of those prickly creatures from a tray, then proceeds to cut it open with a pair of scissors, washing it gently under cold running water, finally handing it to me to scoop the meat (gonads actually) from its crevices, plump and creamy.
Remnants of Tsukiji Market in Tokyo still yield exceptional seafood, starting with nigiri sushi of premium fatty tuna particularly otoro, a bite of which makes your eyes close spontaneously, plus a bowl of chirashi, that holds cold slices of hamachi (yellow tail), salmon, ama ebi (sweet shrimp), and globules of ikura (salmon roe) over sushi rice. It makes the perfect meal especially when it’s washed down with cold sake from Hokkaido.
The basement of large department stores, whether Takashimaya or Sogo or Isetan, in any city, is dedicated to food. Counters and chillers, are laid out elbow to elbow, offering every imaginable Japanese delicacy, from confections to raw seafood. It is my go-to place whenever I’m too lazy to eat out. I found out the hard way that before anyone will sell you something fresh, they ask you when you will get home. If it’s over an hour, then they won’t let you buy anything. Seriously. On my first attempt, I went back empty-handed. I subsequently wisened up. Henceforth, my standard answer became, “I just stay across the street. Fifteen minutes more or less.”
If they are satisfied with your answer, they pack your purchase properly, sealed and insulated, stuffed with packets of gel ice, and a reminder that it must be consumed immediately. Never mind that it’s winter and the wind blowing outside is colder than your package or maybe even that chiller filled with raw seafood, you still need to get home to your hotel or apartment in under an hour. Food safety is primary to the Japanese and they never make you forget it. They have mastered the art of takeout and there is much to learn from them.
It is expected that restaurant dine-in options won’t be making a comeback any time soon, quarantine or not. So, what happens next? Does that spell the death of sushi in the Philippines in 2020? Can sushi be part of a takeout menu?
Gamboa thinks it can. Sushi and sashimi are done in a cold line and can be packed to-go, and picked up within minutes after it is ready. Assuming light traffic conditions will continue to exist post-quarantine, it will make it to the customer’s home in under an hour, with a warning that it must be consumed immediately. The restaurant will stand by its food safety practices as well as its personnel, but the moment the food leaves its premises, it becomes the customer’s responsibility. An iced cooler ensures safer food storage during transit time. I would really forget about kuya on a motorcycle handling your raw seafood. Every moment your food spends in 30°C temperature is a disaster waiting to happen.
What about eating raw seafood while COVID-19 rages? Experts declare there is no evidence to suggest the virus can be transmitted through the consumption of food. Contagion is from person to person. Or in the case of sushi, the virus can be picked up through its packaging. (By now, we are all familiar with discarding or disinfecting packaging for deliveries and takeout.) In conclusion, sushi need not be obliterated from our dining options moving forward. Takeout can be done. It really can, safely and with freshness intact, especially if you want it badly enough.
First things first though, let’s get those Japan flights coming.
Tokyo and Osaka photos by Maricris Encarnacion