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Asian Dining Rules
Sushi Is My Wife: A history with swords and half-bird men
Morimoto, Nobu, Masa: in the culture of sushi, it's common to name a restaurant after its owner. Hideo Kuribara's tiny restaurant in Manhattan's SoHo, however, is named Ushiwaka Maru.
According to samurai legend, Ushiwaka Maru was trained in swordcraft by the Tengu, a clan of mythological half-human/-half-bird creatures known for their skills in the martial arts. Slight of build, Ushiwaka Maru made up for his diminutive stature with preternatural swiftness and dexterity. It is said that his sword technique was so deft that he could slice the falling leaves of trees in half. He also played the flute.
The twelfth-century warrior-monk Benkei had taken possession of the Goyo bridge in Kyoto, defeating every sword-bearer who attempted to cross. A giant, Benkei had disarmed 999 opponents, keeping their swords as trophies. Ushiwaka Maru set out to face him.
Playing his flute as he strolled, Ushiwaka Maru came upon Benkei at the bridge. In the ensuing clash, skill proved mightier than strength, and Benkei never got that 1,000th sword. Instead, after being disarmed by Ushiwaka Maru, Benkei swore eternal allegiance to him. With his vassal at his side, Ushiwaka Maru (then going by Minamoto Yoshitsune, his adult samurai name, bestowed at his coming-of-age ceremony) achieved decisive victory in the Genpei wars.
"Ushiwaka Maru is my soul mate," announces sushi chef Hideo Kuribara as he pulls open his traditional summer kimono to reveal a tee-shirt painted with a scene of Ushiwaka Maru defeating Benkei at the bridge. It'slate: nearly 2 A.M. My friend Raji and I have been sitting at the sushi bar for hours after the restaurant's close as Hideo regales us with stories and opinions, slipping from English to Japanese and back without warning. Good thing Raji is here to translate.
"Ushiwaka Maru is my inspiration." Perhaps, but Hideo looks to be more in Benkei's weight class than Ushiwaka Maru's. In addition to having Ushiwaka Maru's skills with a blade (albeit a sushi knife rather than a sword), Hideo is built like a football player, has the shaved head of a warrior-monk, and holds black belts in both karate and judo ("I never have a problem in my restaurant").
Born in 1961 in the Tokyo suburb of Gunma, Hideo received his sushi training from then-eighty-year-old master Sadao Maneyama, the author of an authoritative sushi text and the owner of the sushi restaurant chain Kintaro. While it's possible to take courses in the United States and become a "certified" sushi chef in a matter of weeks, traditional Japanese sushi apprenticeships last for years. Hideo spent his first four years of apprenticeship cutting intricate decorative bamboo leaves for sushi platters, never once making a piece of sushi. After passing a series of timed leaf-cutting tests, Hideo progressed to a year of making only the sushi rolls called maki before being allowed to make individual pieces of nigiri sushi.
Hideo moved on to the restaurant company Sushidokoro Taguchi, where he rose quickly through the ranks. But after visits to Hawaii and Los Angeles, where he was disappointed with the available sushi offerings, Hideo became obsessed with the holy grail of bringing traditional sushi to America: he dreamed of opening his own restaurant in New York City. So he took a job with the Sushiden company, which operates sushi restaurants in Japan and had also just opened a restaurant in midtown Manhattan. Though lured to Sushiden by the prospect of being stationed in New York, Hideo was never actually offered a transfer (upon reflection, he notes, he never asked). Eventually he accepted an offer from another restaurant, Chinzan-So, which was in the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo and, Hideo had heard, had plans to open a branch in New York.
The transfer came through and Hideo was off to JFK airport. Much to his surprise, however, New York Chinzan-So was not in New York but in New Jersey, in a shopping center on the Hudson River overlooking Manhattan. With his limited English and general lack of worldliness (due to spending most of his adult life with fish, rice, and bamboo leaves), it took Hideo a while to figure out he wasn't even in New York. He slowly saved enough to open his own restaurant, but he couldn't afford New York real estate prices, so he stayed in New Jersey, where he had the dubious distinction of running the best sushi restaurant in the history of Cliffside Park. In 2003, nine years and seven months after arriving in America, Hideo finally opened his dream restaurant, Ushiwaka Maru, in Manhattan.
Back in the twelfth century, fortune turned against Ushiwaka Maru when his unscrupulous brother, Yoritomo, betrayed him. Ushiwaka Maru and Benkei spent two years on the run, avoiding detection through guile and trickery, but at the end they...along with Ushiwaka Maru's family and remaining followers...were surrounded in the castle of Takadachi. Capture appeared inevitable. Ushiwaka Maru first killed his family so they wouldn't fall into enemy hands. Then he committed seppuku...Japanese ritual suicide.
Benkei blocked the doorway to Ushiwaka Maru's chambers. The enemy shot him full of arrows. Benkei took so many long arrows to his body that when he died, he remained propped upright by their shafts. So great had his bravery been that out of respect none of the enemy soldiers would step past Benkei's body.
Most modern-day sushi counters follow a single design scheme, with a glass display case standing between the chef?'s work space and the customers' eating area. Hideo never liked that arrangement, because the glass case blocks the customer's view of the chef's hands. For the restaurant Ushiwaka Maru, Hideo worked with his contractor to engineer a custom sushi bar that keeps the food preparation in full view: the chefs' work area is elevated and the cutting surfaces are at the customers' eye level. The sushi display cases cascade down and toward the customers, who eat from a counter approximately a foot below. When the chefs need fish, they tilt the display case doors toward the customers and reach in from above. The customer sees every cut, every move, every specimen of fish (this top-access design is also the most efficient from a refrigeration standpoint). At Ushiwaka Maru, there's nowhere to hide. And there's nothing to hide: Ushiwaka Maru serves some of the highest quality sushi available outside Japan.Asian Dining Rules
. Copyright © by Steven Shaw. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.