04 November 2009

Sushi and the modern, skittish tourist

From back in Berlin in early September.

I believe that I am on the record as being a bit squeamish, food-wise--by which I mean, of course, that I am incredibly paranoid and neurotic, particularly when it comes to German food.  "Picky eater" would probably be too nice--it makes me sound discerning and knowledgeable, a bit elitist. Nope. I'm just a wimp with a fragile gut who doesn't like to take any risks with said gut. And right then, I was already feeling preemptively food-poisoned.

Arthur seems to understand that not everyone enjoys weird foods, or at least he understands in concept. (Perhaps not, though, in reality, considering his rhapsodic praise of the previously-mentioned leberkaas, the mere thought of which still makes me slightly nauseated).

Here's what he says in the intro to his Menu Translations chapter in E5D: 
Somehow, there are few words to describe the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach caused by a Barcelona menu that lists "alcachofas, angulas y lletados con acelgas" as the choice you face for supper. Absent a translation of these exotic phrases, dinner becomes The Big Surprise. You stab blindly at the bill of fare, hope for the best, and usually end up with Octopus Soup or some similar delicacy. 
It's interesting to me that this is what Arthur chooses as his prime example of scary food. OMG, octopus! Sea monster!

To the typical modern eater--particularly this one--octopus is way less off-putting than some of the other items Arthur lists in his German Menu Items, like turtle soup (Schildkrotensuppe) or pig's knuckles (Eisbein) or pigeon (Taube) or, most of all, BRAINS (Hirn).

Forced to choose between octopus soup and Hirn, I would . . . well, first I'd wimper and pull an energy bar from my bag and just settle for that, thanks. But if you stole it from me and I actually had to choose between those two offerings, I'd go with the octopus soup. No question.

Of course, cultural tastes change over time, and maybe it's just that German foods were more common in the US in Arthur's era than, say, octopus.  The world is more seafood-friendly than it was 45 years ago; today, when sushi is available on every urban street corner and calamari is on the menu even at dive bars, octopus just doesn't sound very scary.  Does your nearest Whole Foods or similarly upscale grocery store have a sushi counter? Yes. Does it have a Bavarian cuisine section? I'm guessing not.

(In fact, sushi has spread far and wide, becoming a symbol of globalization, not just because of the ease with which its necessarily-fresh ingredients can now be transported around the world but because of the spread of culture that its prevalence represents. Sasha Issenberg has written a whole book about it, The Sushi Economy. Go read it. I'll wait.)

Lee and I hadn't really intended to eat sushi our first night in Berlin--though to tell the truth, I hadn't really intended to face down my German food phobia right away, either.

We sat down at the restaurant, a few doors down from our hostel, thinking it was Thai. That's what the sign promised: "Thai and Chinese cuisine." Some panang curry sounded like a good Last Supper before I poisoned myself with Teutonic toxins. But when the friendly server handed us the menus, we saw only sushi, sushi, sushi.  (We later figured out that all "Thai" restaurants in Berlin are apparently actually sushi restaurants; no curries or pad thai in sight.)

This might be a good time for a confession, one that will probably come as no surprise: up to this point, I had only had about two kinds of sushi, both from take-out counters of Twin Cities grocery stores, both purchased by other people, both consumed by me after much assurance that the ingredients consisted of normal fish and maybe some avocado and rice--nothing I hadn't heard of; nothing bizarre.

This was probably a better option than spaetzel or sauerkraut, I supposed. Probably. Maybe.

"Yeah, um, I don't know," I said Lee. "Do you really trust German sushi?"

Lee shrugged. "I trust it enough. It's here. I'm hungry."

I let out a small whimper--I thought it would be imperceptible, but apparently it wasn't, because Lee then added, with an evil, impish grin, "Spirit of adventure, my friend."

Right. That. Adventure. That's why I was here: to become a more worldly person, more bold, more swaggering, more open to new experiences, more awesome.

I gulped. "Okay. But you do the ordering."

"Great. Do you like eel?" Lee asked.

"Um, well . . ."

"Have you ever had eel?"

"Of course not."

"You'll like it."

The server arrived to take our orders. I ordered a large, strong beer. It seemed prudent. The server didn't speak any English, but the menu was basically a multi-page collage of photographs, so Lee used the point-and-pray method of ordering.

And now, here's our food. The method worked: there's the eel. Also tuna and tempura shrimp, plus a large dollop of wasabi, which I mistake for avocado, a confusion that is quickly cleared up, along with my sinuses, when I take a large sample.

After I've determined that the other items won't kill me--in fact, they taste halfway good--it's time to put the eel to the test.

"Adventure. New horizons," Lee says. His grin has grown even more evil. His eyebrows are arched, his posture upright with anticipation or maybe just in preparation to laugh heartily and maniacally.

I take a good, long look at the sushi. Much to my relief, it does not move.

"Chicken of the sea," Lee says. "Therefore you'll love it."

"That's tuna," I say. "You can't fool me. But I appreciate the effort."

I pick up the roll with my chopsticks and examine it warily, not unlike a scientist examining a specimen in a lab. Lee's been stuffing these suckers into his mouth in one go, his cheeks bulging, sidekick as chipmunk.

I picture the headline in tomorrow's Der Spiegel: TOURIST CHOKES TO DEATH ON SUSHI.

"You know the Heimlich Maneuver, yes?" I ask Lee. "They taught it in Sidekick Training?"

"Of course," he says. "I know all the moves. They taught me well."

Annoyed that I have one less excuse to get out of this, I bid the world auf wiedersehen and open wide.

And . . . damn, it's good! The avocado, the spice I can't identify--even the eel. Not exactly my favorite food ever, but more than decent, reassuringly Not Bad At All.

I mumble my approval and chase the eel down with a long pull on my beer.

Lee's posture has become more relaxed again, the evil grin softened into a look of relief and glee.

"I'm glad you liked it," he says. "And I don't know the Heimlich Maneuver."