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Japanese Food

  

When I traveled to Japan as a fourth year medical student from the Indiana University School of Medicine I was thinking less about sushi and more about the medical experience. I spent three months under the tutelage of my good friend and sensei (mentor), Dr. Shozo Tateishi, a thoracic surgeon at Kyoto University in Kyoto, the ancient capitol of Japan and perhaps my favorite city in the world. Kyoto is magical and historic, flush with magnificent and inspiring Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines scattered liberally throughout the city, castles, gardens, intimate winding streets, small inviting shops, and grand festivals, rich with spectacle, costume, and tradition. Nara, the original capitol of Japan, also replete with a seemingly unending array of temples and shrines, including the great Todai-ji temple containing the largest bronze Buddha in the world, is only an hour away. These two cultural gems rank among the great paired cities of the world. It was even more enchanting to later take my then thirteen-year-old daughter Arielle to visit Dr. Tateishi and see Kyoto and Nara through her eyes after ascending, as Dr. Tateishi had always urged me to, to fatherhood, he being the progenitor of his own five "kittens" (daughters), as he called them. But apart from the mesmerizing temples, shrines, and gardens, and the delightful atmosphere of these fabled cities was the food. And here Dr. Tateishi exposed me to the eminent culinary tradition of Japan. "Rick-san," he would say, "please try this," as he passed a dish of some exotic morsel, encouraging me to sample yet another item from the elaborate banquet spread before us. Through Tateishi, I encountered sushi and sashimi, at his home or in a restaurant, and in extravagant fashion, always with a cup of sake (a rice based alcoholic beverage), and innumerable condiments and spices for enhancing the entrants of the spectacular buffet. As a mere medical student, I hardly deserved such lavish treatment by Professor Tateishi and his beloved wife Kyoko, a pediatrician, and the many colleagues and professors who took turns hosting me in yet further adventures in delectable dining, but in those months of feasting, I became familiar with the virtuosity and appeal of Japanese cuisine. Now I am in Indiana with wife and four children, living in the small town of Jasper. And my love of Japanese food has not ebbed. It is light, weighs easily on the stomach, and the tradition of presentation along with taste, remains paramount, an art form. And some restaurants are better than others. I took my wife and son, Noah, to one such establishment in Evansville, which emphasizes more Hibachi. I did not recall the Hibachi experience in Japan. I didn't know how authentic it was. But being true to sushi, I ordered a Las Vegas roll as it was called. And I could see that their heart was not in it. The presentation was sloppy, the rolls of sushi unkempt and scraggly, not tightly packed little parcels as they should have been. For a cuisine that emphasizes display as much as taste, it was not impressive. But the Hibachi was good. The spatula acrobatics with eggs and pieces of sea scallop coursing through the air put on by the Mexican man was entertaining. My wife enjoyed her meal. But I hearkened back to another Japanese restaurant, this one in Jasper that did not have Hibachi grills and related circus stunts, just another working eatery subsumed in the timeless Japanese culinary arts, providing sushi and sashimi and other traditional items flawlessly such as teriyaki, yakisoba, tempura, udon, and miso soup. Named "Yamato's," its owner is Chinese. I see few Japanese in America, at least not in the Midwest. I miss them. I believe in the Japanese, their manners, qualities, and skills in so many things. They are an accomplished people and take a second seat to no one, one of only a handful of prosperous, productive, and functioning nations. It is also a small island country and possesses precious few natural resources yet has become one of the major cultural, economic, and technological powers of the world. Particularly, when one considers their emergence from the ravages of World War II, their homeland destroyed and 2 major cities atom-bombed. They did not wallow in their crushing and, yes, deserved defeat; they rose quickly from the ashes to assume their role as a top-tier nation. No, I have never lost my fondness and respect for Japan and its people. And at Yamato's, they maintained the sushi tradition. The pieces of salmon, tuna, eel, or yellowtail, are set alongside slivers of avocado or cucumber, encircled by a blanket of white rice, tightly swathed in seaweed, encrusted with tempura flakes or orange masago, lined with crunch and topped with spicy Tobiko sauce or other tasty condiment, arranged pleasingly atop the polished porcelain boat-shaped platter, a pugnacious but soldierly air about them, like little samurai garbed and festooned in battle armor and ready for an honorable death. The pink ginger slices and green wasabi paste and small bowl of soy sauce are positioned to the side for dipping the individual rolls. It is a seamless and transcendent realm I have entered into at Yamato's, an alternative universe. Indeed, I am restored here through succulent food, reunited in memory, visual and gustatory, and the soothing aromas, with my beloved Japan, and old friends, Tateishi-san and Kyoko-san. It is they who introduced me to the wonders of Japan, its art, religion, and temples, and, yes, its food. I live now for these precious moments, immersed in a web of pleasant sensations and reflections. I bask again in the glory of one of the great cuisines of the world, its cultivated variety, subdued majesty, refined hue, texture, and arrangement, and, yes, its transporting tastes and rarified flavors. At Yamato's, I am absorbed like a monk in the exalted deep eating of yesteryear - and today. 

 

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