I was born and raised in Western Japan, and that’s given me a very specific concept of what chirashi sushi is. I don’t care what the Prime Minister of Japan thinks it is. I don’t care what UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan thinks it is. Chirashi sushi is a colorful dish made of sushi rice mixed with a variety of thinly sliced ingredients. Strips of egg are scattered over the top (chirashi means “scattered” for goodness sake) giving it a cheerful look that would be the perfect boxed lunch provided to kids after a morning of sports. The day before, I’d watch Mom spread out freshly cooked rice in a big bamboo bowl and cool it down with a fan. White steam rises like the spirit of some unsung hero, and the smell of vinegar wafts faintly through the kitchen.
But I was shocked to see what arrived at my table when I ordered “chirashi” at a Tokyo sushi restaurant. It was sashimi and other ingredients laid out side by side on a bed of sushi rice. And sure, there’s a big difference in taste and preparation for the same dishes made in Eastern vs. Western Japan, like with eel bowls and oden, but the irreconcilable difference in the basic concept of the dish put me at a loss for words. The two dishes have the same name but couldn’t be more different. It’d be like picking out some beautiful slender woman based on her picture, then meeting her and seeing she was this big busted lady who looked nothing like what you were shown. Most people can’t relate, right? You know what, I think it’s a great example.
In the 30 years I’ve lived in Tokyo I’ve grown accustomed to their “Edo-style” version of the dish, and I’ll enjoy it for lunch sometimes, but the Western Japan style I grew up with is where it’s at. There are plenty of restaurants in Tokyo that serve authentic Western Japan style chirashi, and every now and then I’ll go to this spot called “B” where they serve it up my way: rice that’s completely blackened with a liberal application of seaweed, all sorts of ingredients on top (including sea bream, green peas, and shiitake mushrooms), and when you push them to the side and dig down into that black seaweed rice it’s like uncovering childhood memories from the deep recesses of my mind. What a delight.
There’s an anecdote in the book “Meals Of The Wise” about the director Kajiro Yamamoto running into the actor Takashi Shimura while he was sitting alone eating chirashi (the Edo-style kind). Shimura was separating the fish from the rice, placing the it on a side plate. When Yamamoto asked why he was doing that, Shimura explained that his family was descended from samurai, and ever since he was a kid his parents sternly told him, “You must not engage in indecent behavior like eating rice with other things on top of it.” “But chirashi is my favorite food,” he said with a wry smile, and he kept ordering it even though he had to go through this whole annoying procedure to eat it.
I understand how Shimura felt. Chirashi possesses a strange power that goes beyond mere style or morality.