Eating excellent eel


  • Metro Times Photo/Larry Kaplan
Kenichi Shinohara, a native of Osaka, Japan, was in Detroit to do research at the Walter Reuther Library. He joined us for dinner at Tokyo Sushi and Grill, where I found that dining with a native has its advantages.

Following Ken’s suggestion, we ordered unagi don (barbecued freshwater eel), something I might otherwise never have gotten around to in this lifetime. Grilled with a sweet sauce, eel has a delicate and delicious flavor; like trout, but elongated.

Ken explained that in Tokyo the eel is gutted from the back, a tradition that dates back to the samurai. These warriors objected to putting a knife through the belly, as it reminded them too much of seppuko (ritual suicide).

Osaka was traditionally dominated by merchants, a practical bunch of people who hated to be as formal as the samurai. They still gut from the belly. I asked which way our eel had been gutted, but Ken said there is no way to tell.

There is a spare simplicity to Japanese food that makes it possible to savor each component of a dish. But when we commented on the ease of making sashimi (raw fish) at home, Ken said he prefers to eat it in a restaurant. "It is not so easy to tell what is fresh in the supermarket," he noted.

Owner and chef of Tokyo Sushi and Grill, Chanpheng Sayanthone (Americans call him Chris), says that many of the supposedly raw fish used in Japanese cooking are marinated in salt and/or vinegar, then frozen and sliced. Many types of sashimi are prepared in this way, and served with green wasabi paste (made from Japanese horseradish) that is fiery hot. The juxtaposition of flavors – the hot wasabi with the rich and cool fish – is another enjoyable element of Japanese cuisine.

Sushi may be raw or cooked, served on a little pillow of sticky rice or in a roll. Some varieties do not even include fish. The thought of raw fish strikes fear in the hearts of many Americans and keeps them from frequenting Japanese restaurants. If you find yourself in that category, order tempura or teriyaki. Or go for the big bowls of udon and soba noodle soups.

Haikara udon includes bright green seaweed, tempura, egg, fish cake and chicken. (The gelatinous, round, white slice with a bright pink rind is fish cake, I learned from our guide.)

Tokyo Sushi and Grill, which recently celebrated its first birthday, is a strip mall storefront with an informal atmosphere. "Unpretentious," said one in our party.

In a similarly unpretentious effort to demystify Japanese cuisine, Chef Sayanthone offers free sushi classes on Saturdays, but call ahead. He works alongside his students. "If you do not know how to roll, I put my fingers on yours and show you." He also gives demonstrations at area schools.

For dessert, I followed Ken’s lead and ordered green tea ice cream. It is a most beautiful dusky green and less sweet than American ice cream – the kind of dessert that takes the edge off a hot day.

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