Licence To Eel

Japan has been on my mind a lot lately, though unfortunately for terrible reasons. Given the many areas in which Japanese culture has influenced me–ceramics, cooking, and to a lesser degree painting–there’s not another country that has made such an impact on me, at least one I’ve never been to. Italy taught me to cook, and France taught me about wine. Japan is more of an aspirational influence, a strange attractor that shapes my cooking and serving from afar.

From a culinary point of view, I love the aesthetic that pervades the rituals, the utensils, the presentation, and the plates; I love the rigorous use of subtlety and the highest-quality seasonal ingredients; I love the small plates approach to meals. It’s fair to say too that Japanese food has been far more of an influence on 21st century cooking than French; all the great Spaniards (no offense meant to the Catalan and Basque chefs who top that list) enthusiastically cite Japan as a major inspiration.

I have no doubt that the country will recover, though the task is monumental. If you feel moved to help the many thousands of displaced people, you can easily donate $10 to the Red Cross (via your phone bill) by texting REDCROSS to 90999. And at least, unlike Katrina in this country, the brunt of the disaster wasn’t borne by people who were largely disenfranchised to begin with. It’s hard to imagine Kanye West saying “Prime Minister Kan doesn’t care about Japanese people.” And with any luck the head of their FEMA equivalent isn’t a horse lawyer.

And even though I’m increasingly trying to find, grow, or create local replacements for distantly-sourced ingredients (using vinegars more and more in place of citrus, for example) this meal was mostly from afar. Arborio rice cooked like suhi rice (washed  until the water ran clear, then cooked in the cooker, cooled in the handai, and seasoned with lightly sweetened vinegar) and some nice eel that I found pre-filleted and seasoned in the freezer of a fish market nearby. I made more sauce for it, because more sauce is a good thing: soy, mirin, vinegar, and a bit of maple syrup. Scallions on top. There was also some yellowfin sashimi and hand rolls, but I didn’t take pictures. I had some plans for a vegetable thing that was going to showcase another new plate, but I didn’t get to that either. I’m trying to put the various quotidian ass pains of life into their proper context. Any day that doesn’t include a 10-foot wall of car-strewn seawater bearing down on me and my family is a pretty good day.

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  1. March 15

    I don’t use my handai and shamoji enough. Time to make more sushi!

  2. March 15

    Your last sentence says it all. There, but for the grace of God…

  3. March 15

    And nice title. I would have been tempted to go with “Eel Communication”

  4. Peter
    March 15

    David: It’s always a good tim to make sushi. And the tools are particularly satisfying. Eel communication would also have been good. Sometimes it’s hard to choose.

    Zoomie: Yeah.

  5. A beautiful plate… I saw some ancient step kilns in Japan and awesome tea bowls (my personal favorite) that were the ceramic version of gnarled tree burl… well so much of that is lost in water and mud.

    I am feeling like I lost something very precious and pray that things get better there and not worse from those devilish reactors. It is a devil’s bargain we have made with nuclear energy… it is beginning to look like the devil is winning this round.

  6. March 16

    Gorgeous. And your last line is so right.

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