An hour ago, I started awake from a mid-afternoon Sunday nap, set to the soundtrack of machine gun fire from C's video games. He's started a new campaign of Fallout 4 on his high-powered Predator gaming laptop, with a character he is calling “dumb guy”, designed with the highest strength stats possible and no intelligence.
My new summer bob haircut now crimped on one side by my couch cushion, I took a shower, and have now sat down to summit the millennial Mount Everest: I will clean out my personal email inbox.
But first, I have a more pressing matter to attend to, which is to write to you. This morning at 9am, as I sleepily trudged through the cheerily-lit aisles of my local Whole Foods trying to find where they moved the dang peanut butter again this week, I had an inspiration: Instead of trying to throw together a snazzy homemade dinner and gather the ingredients before C finished his boxing lesson, I would instead take us out to a dinner that I’ve missed having for quite a while. I would take us to get trumped-up, sauce-laden, Americanized sushi rolls.
My first sushi experience came at a time when I was young enough to be mesmerized by the experience; but formed enough in my own personality to know that any new food experience would always be great. Let’s say 13. My sister and mom were off on a school or soccer field trip, leaving me and my dad behind with the house to ourselves. My dad had taken an extended business trip to Taiwan at some point before this, bringing back pictures which had sparked my interest in Eastern culture. The photos were of what looked like a distant planet, filled with bustling street scenes of scooters and food stands selling strange concoctions; a huge billboard that read, “DRUG TRAFFICKERS ARE SENTENCED TO DEATH”; and one bizarre photo of my dad, smiling with a half-dozen asian businessmen, all framed around an enormous bronze duck with neck and head still attached, seemingly also smiling at the camera.
We pulled into a strip mall parking lot in Lewisville, TX. Walking into a restaurant called “Oishi”, I remember the curiosity burrowing through my brain as we passed through the first door, an entrance chamber with a mini-koi pond and a few happy prancing cat figurines, and then the following true entrance, next to the hostess stand/takeout counter. We were waved on to the sushi bar, and there lied before me an expansive spread of all things raw fish, all unknown and overwhelming to comprehend as a young white girl raised in the Tyson foods, Kid Cuisines and Chef Boyardee in the 90s.
I carefully took a seat at the bar next to my dad, as the chefs bowed courteously to us and placed fresh ginger and wasabi (pink flower petals and green fuzzy stuff) within our reach. My dad, at that point the most cultured human I knew, began to order us nigiri (slabs of raw fish resting on small cylinders of sushi rice) using the Japanese names of the fish as opposed to the American namesakes (unagi/eel, uni/sea urchin). He then showed me how to hold my chopsticks, using one stationary one held in the crook of my thumb and steadied by my middle and ring finger, and one moveable one held like a pencil, which allowed me to grab the things being passed to us. Lastly, he showed me how he used wasabi, taking a small pearl of the substance and swirling it in his tiny bowl of soy sauce. I still do this today.
As my timid excitement seemed to grow, so did our order. We had salmon, so smooth and slimy I didn't know what to make of it, but I still had another just to make sure. He ordered tempura battered vegetables as a mid-meal palate cleanser, and who knew a lighter, crispier batter could make fried things taste SO MUCH BETTER. By the end of the meal, I had in fact tried eel (my favorite), tuna maki, and to the bemusement of the entire row of sushi chefs, one chewy sucker off an octopus tentacle. My dad already knew that I'd like the experience, but I’m not sure he knew he’d created a lifelong fan. Just before we paid and left, there was placed before me a hand-carved orange, made to look like Micky Mouse, with perfect ears held on by toothpicks, and if you lifted the top of his head, you could reach in and pick out a pre-sliced piece of juicy orange fruit with your chopsticks.
It took nearly five years from that night (and my leaving for college) for the family to convince my mom that raw fish would in fact not kill her, and could potentially be an enjoyable experience. To my knowledge she has still never gone for a full-on nigiri-only sushi experience, opting instead for the same rolls I’m craving tonight. After spending the fall at the University of North Texas, I was delighted to hear I’d be meeting my entire family at Oishi on my way back home. When I walked into the now familiar black-walled, black-floored restaurant, giving a quick nod hello to my sushi counter, I saw that the Farrises had already ordered a “jalapeño roll” as an appetizer: a spicy jalapeño skin with crab and cream cheese inside, and then deep fried. From there, we got everything on the sushi menu that was sauced, sprinkled, and dotted with every manner of outside influence, culminating in the “volcano roll”, a California roll base covered in lobster, crab, and shrimp meat, tossed with spicy mayo, and then baked for a minute underneath the broiler. I felt my neck get red as the plate hit our table, this emblazoned tower of steaming fish before me; I could feel the eyes of the chefs behind the bar glass peering over. But you know what, I’ve made jalapeño poppers at home ever since that day, and never sprung for crabmeat, which I'm sure would take it to the next level just like it did back then.
Oishi had a fire after I left Dallas for Nashville, and never fully recovered. Before it closed, my sister brought her then-boyfriend on one of their last dates together, and she fears she may have doomed the establishment.
C and I have had many great nigiri nights in Nashville, especially at a hole-in-the-wall place on Elliston Pike called Samurai. I’ll thank my dad forever for that very first trip to a sushi bar, and for having enough faith in me to think (and be right) that I would enjoy a piece of raw octopus. But those sauced-up rolls, the ones we got as a family after mom was brought into the fold, that’s an experience I rarely have. It could be snobbishness, but really, I think it’s more a deep feeling of nostalgia tied to everyone sitting together, having a silly, wasabi mayo-striped, sriracha-laden sushi experience. I do love those tempura flakes: on either a crunchy roll or a battered piece of carrot is fine by me.
Looking ahead to tonight, I’m checking out at the menu of the restaurant, Virago. You’re not going to believe this, but there’s a roll on the menu called the Oishi roll.