Sushi samurai

In aTokyo gripped by a foodie craze, smart Japanese women won't look twice at a man who can't do a decent coq au vin, and the comic book heroes are chefs. By Lesley Downer
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
In London's newest sushi restaurant, Yo! Sushi, you can eat sushi made by robots. But in Japan such a concept would be regarded as heresy. The Japanese take their cuisine very seriously indeed. It takes 10 years' hard apprenticeship to be a sushi chef, of which the first two are spent scrubbing the floor and being clipped around the ear by the master chef.

Sushi and other chefs are the unlikely superheroes of an increasingly popular breed of comics - Cooking Manga ("manga" is Japanese for comic). Today's salaryman, strap-hanging on his way home from work, is as likely to be reading about the exploits of Shota the Sushi Chef or Ryosuke Kure, the Wanderer with a Kitchen Knife, as Akira, Golden Ball or Golgo the Professional Killer.

The chef heroes of these epics are like samurai in white aprons. They conduct themselves according to the sternest of samurai codes, but, instead of a curved sword, they wield a razor-sharp kitchen knife and their quest is for the ultimate cuisine - the most exquisitely carved sashimi, the perfect tempura.

Shota, the youthful hero of Shota's Sushi, is the archetypal sushi shop apprentice. Spiky haired and impetuous, he has to learn not only how to wield his knife but the code of honour of a sushi chef. In one story, his deadly enemy appears, a rival chef who ruined his father. Shota is about to set upon him when the master chef intervenes. "Not with those hands!" he roars. "A sushi chef's hands are for sushi only!"

Shota's Sushi first appeared three years ago and is so popular that it was recently made into a television series. The most popular cooking manga of all is Oishimbo (The Gourmet), which sells an astonishing two million copies per issue. This is the story of Shiro Yamaoka, a food journalist. His quest for the perfect dish takes him to a series of masters who initiate him into the secrets of the chef's art. Each strip ends with vividly drawn instructions on how to prepare a particular esoteric dish, such as puffer fish, the famous food whose liver contains a deadly poison. (It's to be hoped that no readers tried this particular one at home; most people who die from eating puffer fish liver were trying to save money by preparing their own.)

Most romantic of all is The Chef. From time to time referred to as "The Phantom Chef", Takumi Ajisawa is a kind of Superman figure who appears out of nowhere to right wrongs with his brilliant cooking, then disappears as mysteriously as he came. Usually, the first you see of him is a moody figure with spiky hair half hiding his face and a battered suitcase covered in labels.

In one story, he goes back to visit his old master who has had a stroke and can no longer speak. The Chef cooks up the perfect omelette for him, exactly as the old man taught him. The master eats it, recognises the flavour, and stammers out the Chef's name, "Ajisawa", then dies happy. The Chef cooks not Japanese but French food, and every issue includes a menu and enough information to talk knowledgeably about the dish, even if you can't cook it.

Perhaps that is why so many Japanese men have suddenly started reading these comics. For several millennia, apart from professional chefs, no self-respecting Japanese man would dream of putting even his toe inside a kitchen. The kitchen was the woman's place. But now, more and more Japanese women are abandoning marriage in favour of work. Japanese men, desperate to find a wife, have discovered that bachelor women will not look twice at a man who cannot throw together a decent coq au vin. The Japanese New Man must be able to cook.

In reality, most can manage little more than instant noodles. But this does not prevent them from setting out on a quest through the restaurants of Tokyo in search of the perfect meal, like the comic book heroes - as I myself did on a recent visit to Tokyo.

There is excellent food of every kind to be had in Tokyo. At the last count, there were more than 80,000 restaurants, as opposed to 5,723 in London and around 15,000 in New York. At one end of the scale are "hole in the wall" joints where six people squash in to eat yakitori (chicken kebabs) for a few pence a stick. At the other are kaiseki (hot stone) restaurants serving Japanese haute cuisine at several hundred pounds a head to the president of Mitsubishi and his ilk; they are usually behind high stucco walls and forbidding closed gates. The Beautiful People (there are still "beautiful people" in Tokyo) usually go for Western food. Italian food, cooked by real Italian chefs, served by real Italian waiters, is enjoying a boom, and so is Hawaiian: everyone goes to Roy's for Sunday brunch, to enjoy Roy Yamaguchi's blackened island ahi (tuna) and American-sized desserts for Y3500 (pounds 17.50) - very reasonable by Tokyo standards. Irish bars are also wildly hip.

Japanese food is in an entirely different category. One has to bear in mind that there is no such thing as the "Japanese restaurant" that we have in the west. You go to a sushi bar for sushi, a tempura restaurant for tempura, or a sukiyaki house for sukiyaki. The staple is always rice, usually served plain and on its own to mark the end of the meal, like a full stop. Preceding that is an amazing variety of fish and vegetables, including wild vegetables such as burdock and as many varieties of mushrooms as in French cuisine. A full meal, such as the kaiseki haute cuisine meal, is arranged in a standard way according to cooking method: often, your menu will tell you only "starter, soup, grilled dish, simmered dish, fried dish..." with no indication of the ingredients.

First stop on my quest was Daigo. A bastion of traditional cuisine, Daigo occupies a rambling tea-house in the grounds of a temple and serves Buddhist vegetarian food, shojin ryori. We arrived one sunny Tokyo day (most winter days in Tokyo are sunny). The shallow stone steps leading to the entrance hall, where you leave your shoes, had been freshly watered. A bevy of kimono-clad dowagers ushered us to our room. This was an exquisite tea-room with a ceiling of plaited cherry wood, a simple flower arrangement of camellias and yellow rape blossoms, and a hanging scroll. The paper screens on the windows slid back to reveal a mossy garden with stepping stones - picture- book Japan, in fact.

Our menu, printed on a fan of paper and personalised with the name of our group, listed 14 courses. The first were hors d'oeuvres: mashed lily root, deep-fried, like a small potato croquette; a spoonful of fresh nori seaweed, black and distinctly slimy, doused in vinegar with a hint of ginger; and a delicate soup in a lacquered bowl, with a sliver of bamboo shoot floating in it. The waitress knelt beside us in turn and placed each dish in front of us with both hands, with as much care and precision as an artist applying the last stroke to a painting. Indeed, each was a little work of art, worth admiring before we set to work with the chopsticks.

The "simmered dish" was a small square pot containing 12 different vegetables. We counted them - the carrot, cut into a plum blossom shape, nestled up to fried gluten and transparent rice noodles (romantically known as "spring rain" in Japanese), the gingko nut arranged next to the square of tofu. But for me, the masterpiece was the tempura, which included a sprig of rice, deep fried so that each kernel, lightly salted, burst open like a mini popcorn. A single butterbur bud, with a heady, sesame-flavoured miso dressing, was the "dressed salad", followed by another soup described on the menu as the hashi arai, for "washing the chopsticks". Finally, congee rice brought the meal to a close, though there were still strawberries and a sweet bean soup to follow.

Sipping on nectar does not come cheap. The whole meal must have cost my publishers (who were paying) upwards of Y15000 (pounds 75) a head - and that was just for lunch. Perfection? Perhaps; but the place was not new and hip, vital requirements in Tokyo.

In the Eighties, when Tokyo was the world's swinging city, new restaurants serving more and more outrageous cuisine seemed to open and close at weekly intervals. In those days, it was a Tokyo obsession to stay abreast of whatever was new and strange. Now things have calmed down a lot. The buzz word is jimi, meaning "plain, sober, earthy, back to one's roots".

The current hot place, the second on my quest, exemplifies a new ethic. Shunju occupies the basement of the Giorgio Armani building and, as you would expect from the location, is tasteful, sophisticated and very grown up. The interior was designed by Tadashi Sugimoto, one of the gurus of the Japanese design scene, who has done many of the Muji shops in London. It is a symphony in concrete - beautifully textured concrete walls and funnel-shaped concrete pillars looming over straw tatami mats and low tables.

The food is all natural - tofu made on the premises, organic vegetables from selected farms, air-cured fish, free-range chicken. We started out with yuba, which is soy milk skin rolled into custardy, cream-coloured cylinders, then grilled over charcoal. Next we had udo, which the dictionary translates as "spikenard" - a kind of hairy, pale-green woodland plant with a distinctive rooty taste, served slivered with a vinegary dressing. Octopus sashimi - octopus tentacles, rubbery like snails - was served with half a lime on a green shiso leaf.

Yukiko, my companion, had chosen two particularly rare and expensive dishes for us. The first was angler fish liver, which came in small, pink wedge-shaped pieces and tasted rather like foie gras. By the time the second came, we had worked our way through two rather nasty oily little fish called hata hata (not in my dictionary) and deep-fried avocado served on a mat woven out of minuscule whitebait, and we were feeling rather full. Perhaps that was why we did not appreciate the cod intestines, which looked like a mound of white earthworms and held together in a gluey way when you pulled at them with your chopsticks. When I finally ripped a piece off, it had the taste and texture of soft-boiled egg yolk. One mouthful was quite enough.

We finished with ice-cream flecked with sesame seeds. The bill for sampling the fashionable Tokyo scene came to a little under pounds 100 for the two of us.

I had assumed that the excesses of the Eighties were over until I heard about Seiryu-mon West and immediately decided that this should be my third choice. It is in the most unlikely of locations, among cabbage fields and concrete somewhere on the outskirts of Tokyo. After 10 minutes' walking, we were ready to turn back, when we suddenly spotted an extraordinary golden building, like the hull of a ship. There was a tiny wooden house squashed next to it, which swung open like a door.

Inside, we stepped onto a walkway suspended high above a shadowy, cavernous space. Below us, crammed like troglodytes after some unspeakable nuclear disaster, were the diners. An entire wall consists of pinball machines through which water occasionally bubbles, bathing the place in an eerie light. There is a staircase jutting into space, Blade Runner-style, and a deep crater of fused metal sunk among the machines.

We were tucking into our meal when lights began to flash. The whole place, we realised, was a giant pinball machine - an appropriate metaphor for at least one aspect of Tokyo. In the loos (as if the tone needed to be lowered any further), are life-size, Disneyland pirates who roll their eyes and clash cymbals over your head.

With all this activity, it is hardly surprising that the food, which is Taiwanese, is a secondary affair. We rather enjoyed "mixed pork ear", which is exactly what it says - rubbery slivers with cucumber, in a hot chilli sauce. We also had sauteed crab in sweet-and-sour sauce and sticky rice served in a bamboo steamer with a crab shell laid on top. "Taiwanese fried fish ball" consisted of four white slabs which, said my companion, looked remarkably like cheese on toast, while "fried cuttlefish tail" was simply calamari under another name.

And the cost of going back to the future? A mere Y3000 (pounds 15) per head for a gloriously outrageous environment but certainly not the ultimate meal which, somewhere among those 80,000 restaurants, must be lurking. Or perhaps it only exists in comic books

Daigo, Seishoji, 2-4-2 Atago, Minato-ku (03 3431 0811); Shunju, 5-16- 47 Roppongi, Minato-ku (03 3583 2611); Seiryu-mon West, Soho's West, 5-25-9 Nakamachi, Setagaya-ku (03 5707 1990)

Comments