Friday, January 1, 2010

SushiFest - Part V: The Supreme Sashimi

New Year's is upon us, and we have finally arrived in the what for my generation has always been, "The Future!"   It is the year 2010.   When we all live in the sky in apartments that are so far above the ground you never see it.  When we all drive flying cars, which run on garbage in our Mr. Fusion.  When we frequently take vacations on the moon at Luna Park.  Wait.  What do you mean we don't have any of those things yet?   Are you saying television lied to me??  Dang it!  Then again, my flip top cell phone looks remarkably like Captain Kirk's communicator (and when my wife has her bluetooth earpiece in I'm constantly reminded of Uhura), the automatic sliding doors at Ala Moana cound certainly pass for the ones on the Enterprise, and my tablet PC looks bears a striking resembalance to the padd that Yeoman Rand carried.   So we're getting there, we're getting there.

Meanwhile, I guess we'll just celebrate New Year's the old fashioned way.   In Hawaii of course, that means a literal ton of fireworks.   Having so many Chinese families in Hawaii, you just have to have a 20,000 string of  firecrackers to scare off the bad spirits, with little bits of red paper all over your driveway to welcome in the blessings of the new year.  I was always particularly fond of those little ground blooms, that spin and look like red, yellow or green ladybugs. These days, fountains have gotten so complex, that they look like a little fireworks show in your driveway.   But I have never had any lack of a fireworks show.  Where I live, somehow every other family in the valley has gotten their hands on illegal aerials.  I really don't know where they get them from.  All I know is that, despite the illegality of it, you simply cannot stop the firmly entrenched tradition of it.  This is something I'm glad about, because from my parents' house, you can see practically the entire valley.  Every New Year's, we're treated to the most spectacular aerial fireworks show around, all at around eye level for us, just about 180 degrees all around us.  It's absolutely amazing.   Of course the smoke is also amazing.  It's as thick as San Francisco fog, and the thundering booms mirror that of a warzone.  But I wouldn't have it any other way.

However, while the rest of the country is singing Auld Lang Syne, and are focused on the crystal ball dropping in Time's Square, New Year's in Hawaii has always been more of a Japanese holiday than an American one.   In fact, aside of Obon, it is probably the biggest Japanese holiday of them all.  Rather than religiously watching Dick Clark's countdown, the Red and White song competition (also called Kohau Uta Gassen) has always been a yearly tradition in my family.   While most anime fans are familiar with J-Pop music, it is the Red and White competition that fostered my love of enka style music.  My favorite was always Saburo Kitajima (famous for playing the Chief of the Megumi Fire Brigade on Abarenbo Shogun).  His crooning is as unique and unmistakable as Sinatra, and to me it just isn't New Year's without hearing it.

Practically every other door is adorned with a kadomatsu (or a bamboo & pine arrangement).  Like the firecrackers to the Chinese, the kadomatsu to the Japanese is a way of warding off evil spirits and welcoming in the blessings of the new year.   Besides the traditional decoration at our doorstep, many businesses and homes are scrubbed spotless, and all debts paid, to start the New Year clean.   Thankfully, being Chinese, like getting an extension on your income taxes, we get a reprieve from all that cleaning until Chinese New Year, about a month later.   But perhaps nothing is more iconic of New Year, than a stack of mochi with an orange on top.

Mochi Variety from Kansai Yamato
Mochi is essential to the Japanese for New Year's.  Just like gao for Chinese New Year, the stickiness of the mochi is meant to symbolically bind the family together for the New Year.  Back in high school, I actually got to try pounding the mochi myself (in tandem with a partner of course).   Swinging that giant hammer over your head is worthy of Looney Tunes, but it's much heavier than it looks.   I would just as soon leave it up to the experts.   In Hawaii, that usually means picking up a pack of Hawaii Candy from Longs.   But we also have a true mochi specialist, right in the Makai Market food court at Ala Moana, called Kansai Yamato.  Just like Mana Bu's who makes nothing but musubi, Kansai Yamato makes nothing but mochi.  This fanatical dedication to making one, and only one product, naturally yields nothing less than absolute mastery and perfection in their craft.   The mochi at Kansai Yamato, is simply the perfect texture.  Soft and sticky, and nothing like the hard, chewy, dried up nonsense you can pick up at some places.  Their variety pack even has flavors that you wouldn't even find in Japan.   Besides the traditional an dango (the white with azuki bean filling) and kinako an (the shoyu brown one), you can get brilliant local flavors and colors like cruncy peanut butter, mango, melona, and guava.   Each one is distinctly local tasting and different from each other, but all of them are just mouth watering.

Besides mochi, the other crucial thing you must have at New Year's is of course sashimi.  Fresh fish is so important to the New Year's celebration that a quarter of the island seems to pack itself into tiny little Tamashiro Market on New Year's Eve.  Not only is everyone frantic to get a piece of fish, they're willing to pay several hundred dollars a pound for the really premium quality fish.   I wouldn't be surprised if Tamashiro makes half its dividends on New Year's alone.   Of course, once you get it home, you really must know how to cut the fish properly too.   This is a precision task that takes years to master, so if you're not up to the task, I would recommend finding a sushi chef that really knows his stuff.   My very favorite sushi place, would have to be Yanagi Sushi, at the downtown end of Kapiolani.

Family Roll at Yanagi Sushi
If you my wife, she will tell you that sushi may be my all time favorite food.   I'm completely addicted to it.  In my quest for the perfect sushi, I've found innovative makimono rolls, battleship shaped gunkan passing by on the conveyor belt, perfect bowls of poke, ingenius temaki hand rolls with supremely crunchy nori, and the master sushi chefs that serve you with an obsession for the perfect bite.   But when it all comes down to it, Yanagi Sushi is the one place that I would consider my absolute favorite sushi restaurant.  On my birthday, it usually tops my short list of places I want to go.  I'm definitely not alone in this regard, either.  When you walk in to this unassuming little restaurant, the walls are lined with the most photographs of patrons I've ever seen adorn a restaurant, many of them big celebrities.  

Sashimi Deluxe at Yanagi Sushi
While Yanagi makes some fantastic sushi rolls, it is actually not the sushi (which by definition requires the sweet vinegar rice), but the sashimi that is my favorite thing there.    Their Sashimi Deluxe platter may be one of my favorite meals in the whole world.  Every item is super fresh, premium quality, and masterfully cut to bring out its own magnificent natural flavor.  The oyster is plump and briney, with a full intense oyster flavor.  Every piece of ikura (salmon roe) is bursting crisp little sphere, none of which are dry or shrivelled.  The ika (squid) is crisp and clean, and doesn't have that slimey pastey film that bad quality ika has.   The ebi (shrimp) is blanched so fast that it has an ever so slight crispness, while retaining all of it's raw natural sweetness.  I especially love the piece of shiso, which has such an intoxicating perfumey fragrance, that perfectly complements the flavor of the fish.  I would rather have shiso than wasabi any day.  But what makes this platter so perfect, is how well they do the core triumvirate of sashimi, the ahi, hamachi, and salmon.   All 3 of these incredibly buttery.  The natural fat and fish oils in each piece of fish makes it so rich and flavorful.  Eaten with a nice hot bowl of steaming, slighly sticky, plump, calrose rice, the fish flavor just melts like butter on hot bread.  The ahi, salmon, and hamachi each has its own distinct flavor, and I adore each one.   Despite how elite and prestigious the sushi at Sushi Sasabune is, I think that the flavor of the fish at Yanagi even surpasses it.  The shrimp is sweeter and the flavor of the hamachi is much stronger.  Besides that the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed and unpretentious, and the price is much more affordable, so the overall experience is just far more enjoyable.

Even though my family isn't Japanese, in Hawaii each of our cultures has become so integrated with our super-culture, that we just couldn't welcome in the new year without all the Japanese elements.  It is tradition that I look forward to enjoying year after year for decades to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment