Diary of a Sushi Virgin

As fresh as the sea. Image by Sruthi Vijayan.

If queues were measured on an amphibian scale — from plankton to blue whale — the line outside Sushi Dai is a sure-fire Moby Dick.

I’d heard stories about the wait that preceded the meal, usually one that lasted a minimum of two hours.

Sushi Dai is minutes away from the heat of the fish auction at Tsukiji, Tokyo’s (and the world’s) largest seafood market. It’s easy to find. Like a school of choreographed herrings, the tourist crowds that come to watch the 5 AM fish auction naturally head to the legendary Sushi Dai for breakfast.

Anticipation (and Anxiety)

My parents and I make it to the very end of the line that stretches around an entire block, the discomfort of our projected wait made milder as the queue behind us grows two-fold within minutes of our arrival.

A tall blonde man ahead of us is vocal in his love for Sushi Dai. He points to his trolley bag.

“Straight from the airport,” he says.

“I’ve eaten sushi all over the world, man.” He nods his head, not the kind of nod that conveys dissent, but instead one that denotes a recollection of an epicurean ecstasy.

“But this…this is just so fresh,” he adds.

A middle-aged Japanese woman in a black apron approaches us, her notepad in tow.

“How many?” she asks.

“Three,” I tell her.

I look over to my parents who now have that anxious look of a vegan at a barbeque party.

We are sushi virgins.

My dad is a vegetarian who occasionally eats chicken. My mother’s ideal fish is fried in masala, and my only attempt at sushi was a carryout maki roll that smelt more like fish and tasted less like it.

“Which one do you choose?” the woman asks us.

We pick the Omakase — seven slices of nigiri-sushi (sliced raw fish with a molded ball of rice underneath).

Twenty minutes in, as we edge closer, my father is the first to drop out. He opts for fresh melon at the fruit market, assuring us that it’s too early for breakfast.

An hour and 30 minutes in, we are in plain view of the restaurant — a narrow passageway with a bar-style counter and a dozen chairs.  Three chefs man the counter, and 12 seats occupy the rectangle around them.

My mother notices the English menu plastered on the glass front. She holds her own till she hits the halfway mark.

“Eel?” she asks.

“But what if I don’t like it?” she wonders.

“You just swallow,” I tell her.

Minutes before we head through the door, she bows out.

“Maybe I’ll try something less adventurous,” she adds. “You have fun!”

The First Taste

I occupy the first seat at the counter, a little scared and mostly excited. The genial, middle-aged chef greets me with a wide smile.

“Your mother is not coming?” he asks.

“She’s vegetarian” I tell him.

“Oh. Sad,” he says. “Sorry for the wait. Today we have amazing fish.”

Seated besides me is a young Norwegian girl from Singapore, Christine.

“Is this is your first time?” she asks.

I nod.

“You’re brave,” she tells me. “Eight slices of Nigiri at a stretch. For a first-timer! Brave,” she repeats.

She makes me sound adventurous — like Anthony Bourdain in a remote Icelandic village devouring a puffin heart.

“First time?” The chef hears me. “You are going to love it.”

The first cut is slender and pink. The cool metal slides over a fresh slice of tuna. The thin slice is laid over rice and wasabi.

Chūtoro.“Fatty tuna,” he repeats, for my benefit.

The live tuna auction at Tsukiji is one of the largest in world. Images by Sruthi Vijayan.
The live tuna auction at Tsukiji is one of the largest in world. Images by Sruthi Vijayan.

The first bite goes down like lemonade on a summer’s day. The texture is smooth and silky. It melts in my mouth — a quality I had assigned to cheese and chocolate, never to raw fish.

“Do you love it?” Christine asks me.

I do.

Fish and Friendship

We go quickly through the next four. The red snapper tastes as glorious as it looks; the silver-streaked mackerel is sharp but delicious. The shrimp is sweet, and the urchin is strong but smooth.

Through four rounds of sushi, I learn that Christine hates her job, likes silk scarves, and loves Asian men. We demolish an incredibly fresh swordfish whilst dissecting Christine’s last breakup.

“This one is special, “ we are told by the chef. A croissant-shaped gizzard shad.

And then it happened. In a crowded sushi restaurant in Tokyo, a Norwegian and an Indian shared an unexpected connection — the gag reflex. Our eyes meet at the exact moment of possible regurgitation. Fortunately, we both manage to hold it in.

“That was something,” we say in tandem.

The maki rolls are last — a fitting palate cleanser.

I bid goodbye to Christine and promise to keep in touch. Just as I ready to leave, our chef calls me back in.

In a small piece of cling film, he rolls out four maki rolls.

“Vegetarian cucumber roll,” he says. “For your mother.”

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