Saturday, November 08, 2003

Little raw slices of salty brain food

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The quickest way to my heart is paved with garlic. My parents’ cooking is loaded with the stuff. But the quickest way to my head is paved with sticky white rice, seaweed and chunks of raw fish.

I speak of sushi, nature’s perfect food. This is the story of how a closed-minded European fell in love with exotic Asia — like James Clavell’s epic novel “Shogun.”

I became addicted to sushi when I was an undergraduate student at college in Boston. I was a naïve, chubby Portuguese kid raised on kale soup, pork four nights a week, beef on the other three, and roast rabbit for Easter dinner.

There was no chourico to be found in my college dorm’s dining hall. I asked. Instead, they served chicken patties, pasta, pizza, hamburgers — American fare that my dad calls “cat food.” He says this with the expression of someone who has accidentally swallowed his mouthwash.

Worse, the dining hall had a salad bar — with romaine lettuce in it, and that crazy purple cabbage. Portuguese people cannot abide salad, or vegetables of any kind. In Portuguese houses, “vegetables” means chicken-flavored yellow rice and “salad” is a bowl of sliced cucumbers.

After a few months of eating cereal for breakfast instead of chourico and eggs, I was a wreck. I visited my parents on the weekends and replenished myself with enough buttered bread, potatoes and malassadas to make me feel whole again. But once all the red pepper was out of my system, I would withdraw.

One day, when I particularly needed a garlic fix, some friends asked me along to a sushi bar.

“Raw fish,” I said, my eyes wet with tears. “So this is what rock bottom feels like.”

“It’s really good,” one of my two roommates said. It could have been either one of them — I was too strung out to notice. “You try sushi once and you’re hooked.”

My friends dragged me like a man to the gallows into a sushi bar on Boston’s Newbury Street, and ordered me things like tuna, mackerel, salmon, squid — all raw.

Before the moment the first piece of raw tuna touched my tongue, nearly everything I had eaten had been marinated in oil, ground red pepper and salt, fried in its own fat and served with two kinds of starches and a gallon of homemade red wine.

Sushi is nothing like this. Some pieces, nigiri, look like little wads of white rice with a strip of colorful fish on top. Others, maki, are seaweed-wrapped cylinders filled with rice, fish and vegetables. A filling dinner often fits in two hands. You dip the pieces into soy sauce flavored with ginger and wasabi, which is this green goop that is so spicy it will send fireworks up your nose and make tears squirt out of your eyes if not used in miniscule amounts. To naïve, chubby Portuguese kids, it looks like food that people in the post-apocalyptic future eat.

I fumbled with the chopsticks for a minute, then dug in. Long story short, my friends carried me out of that sushi bar a half-hour later as I held onto my swollen stomach. I leaned closely into my friends’ faces to smell the soy sauce still on their breath. I was hooked.

Its main ingredient is raw fish, yet sushi doesn’t taste remotely like fish. It’s more about how it feels than how it tastes. Some fish snap, others slide. I have spent several hundred hours analyzing its hold on me. This has required, let’s say, extensive research at places like Umi in Somerset, Tokyo in Providence and Gyuhama in Boston, better known as “Rock and Roll Sushi.”

I have never become sick from eating it — actually, if I have an upset stomach, eating sushi works better than Tums. I’ve eaten raw seafood that I won’t touch cooked, like octopus.

Dig this: I’ve eaten sushi for breakfast.

I went to this one sushi bar in Boston so often that the Japanese waitresses began to recognize me. Once, when I came back from winter vacation, the waitress took my order — raw tuna, salmon, squid, and a Coke — and said, bowing, “Not see you, long time!” I felt like Marco Polo.

What interests me most about sushi is its clean taste. Portuguese food is heavy with spices and odors — the same spices and odors for every meal. Compare two fish dishes: sushi and bacalau. Sushi is light, its tastes complex; bacalau is heavily salted codfish made with potatoes and sopped in vinegar, pepper and olive oil. Burp after eating sushi, and you detect a delicate tinge of ginger. Burp after eating bacalau, and you quickly lose friends. It reminds me of “Shogun” again — where the European sailor washes up in Japan, and his “barbaric” Japanese captors force him to take daily baths and eat a healthy diet.

Sushi is food for my brain. Portuguese food is stomach food; it’s there when I want something easy to stretch out my pants.

My wife and I visit my parents for Sunday lunch whenever I can. Mom will sometimes broil up tuna steaks the size of catcher’s mitts and brew a pot of yellow rice.

“I’ll just have a little,” I say, absently carving a slab of tuna into sushi-sized pieces.

“You’re always telling me how you love this stuff raw,” mom says. “You don’t like it cooked?”

Dad shakes his head. “Could have used more pepper.”

“It’s great,” my wife says, and she peeks over at my plate. I am packing yellow rice into little wads.

Mom reaches into the fridge and presents us with a bowl half-full of sliced cucumbers. “Almost forgot the salad,” she says.

I bow slightly. “Konichi-wa, mama-san.

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