The best Sashimi I ever had was better than Toro
One of the most frequently asked questions during my sushi class is "What is your favorite fish?"
I answer, "Saba, Mackerel."
For me, Saba is an all-round player: Cook it in any way, and it never disappointed me. Grill it with a sprinkle of sea salt (Saba Yaki), cook with miso and ginger (Saba Miso Ni), after being cured (shime), press it hard on top of sushi rice, with a thin slice of marinated konbu (Battera). And, don't forget Saba Sandwich, which I never had but planning to travel to Turkey to taste it.
Then, there is Sashimi.
Saba is a tricky fish to eat raw. To eat it raw, you must "cure" it with salt and vinegar because it comes with a lot of parasites. Saba also deteriorates quicker than other fish, so freshness is the must for Sashimi.
Almost all the Saba Sashimi had in my life were cured except, there were two occasions I had it without being cured.
"I can get everything and anything from Tsukiji," hide told me.
My brain had difficulty processing what Hidé said.
"Anything?" I repeated what Hidé said.
Hide was an independent fish supplier specialized in High-end, hard to find fish from Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.
"They airship twice a week: Tuesdays and Thursdays," Hidé said. "If you order today, I can bring it in next Tuesday."
"I even don't know half the fish on this list, " I mumbled. "
"We are Rock'n Roll Sushi joint on Sunset Strip. California Roll and Spicy Tuna are our best-sellers. None of the customers would order your fish," Toshi, the head sushi chef explained.
Toshi was right. We made more tips from testosterone-driven young male patrons drinking multiple Sake Bombs before going to the strip club next door.
Hidé shrugged his shoulder but remained cheerful.
I started to feel sorry for not being able to order any of Hidé's fish.
My eyes scrolled down his price list.
"Wait a minute. You have Shiraebi?" I shouted. "I only had it once in Toyama. It was unbelievable. Sweet and tasty. Sweeter than Sweet Shrimp we get from Santa Barbara."
"I can get you live Unagi, if you like," Hidé said.
"Live one? We don't even know how to fillet it," Toshi said.
"How about Fugu?" said Hidé.
"What? Fugu?" everyone's voice echoed in the restaurant.
"Yup. Comes in this beautifully-fillet package. Never seen anything like that. It's so beautiful. Amazing, like an art."
I liked Hidé's enthusiasm.
As I continued scrolling down the list, my eyes caught one item.
"Hide, what's so special about this Saba?" I asked.
"Oh, this one, it's like Seki-Saba."
"Seki Saba?" Toshi, Kai shouted before I did. "You can get Seki Saba? Are you sure?"
"I said anything, right?" Hidé grinned.
"So, is this the kind you can eat raw without curing?
Hide looked into my eyes and smiled.
"Can we order one?" I said to Toshi. "I will pay for it."
"I will see you next Tuesday," Hidé said.
"Did I ever tell you about Saba Sashimi I had when I was in high school?" I asked Toshi.
"No, tell me," Toshi leaned in.
I was at home studying for my high school test when I got a phone call from my father.
"What are you doing? Why don't you come down here and join me? The food here is fantastic."
Why now? I asked myself. My father never invited me to a restaurant before. Was that anything to do is what was going on in our house? My parents were arguing and shouting at each other every night. They were on the blink of getting a divorce.
I felt it was all my father's fault - he never listened to my mother. He failed to pay attention to his family's needs. His work dominated his priorities. I work for my family was his slogan, but it sounded like an overly repeated political propaganda no one paid attention.
Even though I knew reconciliation was the first thing in my father's mind, I accepted his invitation.
When I arrived at the local Izakaya, he was having dinner with his colleagues over a glass of sake. I sat at the counter my father suggested I eat Saba Sashimi.
"I didn't know you can eat Saba in Sashimi," I said to my father.
"I didn't either, but I had it, and it was great," he said. "The chef told me they only get it a few times a year."
The Saba on my plate had shinning silver skin with a thin blue reflection on the outside. The inside was light and bright red accent. White thinly-shredded daikon decoration made a nice contrast.
I almost forgot: I was hungry.
"Are you sure it's OK?" I asked the chef.
"Yes, you'll like it," the chef smiled.
My chopsticks grabbed a piece of Saba. I put some wasabi on top and dipped into the soy sauce into my mouth.
It melted in my mouth, like Toro, tuna belly.
I looked at my father, and the chef, my eyes opened as wide as they could be.
"Wow...," I whispered.
A wave of joy burst into my chest, my brain, my whole body.
I wished I had words to explain what I was feeling.
The only thing I could do was sit still and feel the moment.
Next Tuesday, Hidé came back in the late afternoon with my order. All the sushi chefs anxiously waited for his arrival. When Hidé opened a small paper-wrapped packaged, beautiful silver shining Saba appeared.
"Wow...," I whispered just like the night at my home town Izakaya.
"So, this is it, yes? No need to cure it, right?" I asked Hide one last time.
"Yes, I asked and the fish guy said we can," Hide replied.
I picked up one Saba with my left hand, a Sashimi knife on my right hand. The blade split the fish in half. When I moved the top fille of the bones, a beautiful white and red flesh appeared.
"Hello," I said. "Thank you for 'appearing' in front of us. We are so ever great for you, Saba-san."
While I made Sashimi slices, Toshi and Kai prepared soy sauce and fresh wasabi.
I split my chopsticks and said, "Itadaki Masu."
My mouth was watering with excitement.
I wanted to experience the same feeling I had over a decade ago.
I reached out and grabbed a piece of uncured piece of Saba Sashimi, held it in front of me, gazed for a second or two, then put it in my mouth.
I wished I could tell Hidé the Saba was better, if not as good as the one before.
"Um, it's good, but maybe it was not in season," I told Hidé.
Did you enjoy the story? If so, find more stories like this in my book: How I Became A Sushi Chef.