Landlocked, 45°C-boiling, chicken-crazy Delhi has lately taken to sushi and sashimi like a politician to a crooked deal. Raw fish is everywhere, in restaurants like Sakura, at the Nikko Metropolitan hotel, and 19, Oriental Avenue at the Shangri-La hotel, and at Tamura in Vasant Vihar’s D Block market. And if you can’t be bothered to get off your backside in this miserable heat, a sushi catering company called Sushiya will bring it right to your doorstep.
Wouldn’t you know it: just when the newspapers are reporting that even the tuna-crazy Japanese are experimenting with horse and deer meat because the world’s bluefin tuna fisheries are almost gone thanks to the growing popularity of sushi around the world, a country of a billion souls suddenly starts to look fondly at the stuff.
I encountered sushi as a student in America, which embraced the Japanese tradition of raw fish and rice and seaweed decades ago. I remember being blown away by the subtlety of the taste, by the aesthetics of the dish, by the genius of wasabi that goes straight through your sinuses and does an exquisite little tapdance on whatever the saké has left of your brain. If I had to pick two cuisines to live on for the rest of my life, they would be Japanese and South Indian.
Raw fish may not seem like the most obvious thing to voluntarily put in your mouth. But then, if you like food, and have a bit of pervert in you, you can end up putting quite a lot of odd things in your mouth, raw or cooked. The other night I had a Japanese meal with a radio jockey, an actor, and a television anchor. I asked each of them what their weirdest morsel ever had been. The anchor had eaten (cooked) puppy in Nagaland; the actor had eaten (cooked) horse, and I’d eaten (cooked) fish eye, the grossest part of which was finding some stuck in my teeth several hours later.
We went through the raw stuff with not too much difficulty. Raw sea urchin looks and feels very much as if the sea urchin in question couldn’t take it any more and threw itself off a thirty-storey building, or like any food put through the digestive system and expelled in a manner indicative of gastric illness, but it tastes pretty good. The sashimi—raw tuna, salmon, scallops, octopus, squid and prawn—was familiar and delicious, and the sushi roll was uramaki, with rice on the outside and toppings of salmon roe. All that was well and fine.
Then the chef put before us a phalanx of the cutest little freshwater crabs, fried to a crisp while still in an attitude of joyful play. We’d met these crabs, gambolling sweetly in a glass bowl, half an hour earlier, and now here they were, complete with legs, eyes and heart, dead as doorknobs but doing a wonderful job of looking as if I had just laid them all off and their wives and little crab children were now going to starve and I wasn’t even going to pause to take their shells off, but never mind, I must be a good person deep down…
So it took something of an effort to pick one up, ignore the feeling that the tender shell was reverberating with the palpitations of a panicked little heart, and put it in my mouth. But it was so worth it; even though it tasted almost completely like fried chicken, it goes on my resume to make up for the plate of breaded crayfish I once ordered in New Orleans and was unable to eat.