Apr 2, 2014

FOOD FARE: Sobetsukai

Sobetsukai is the dinner party we all say goodbye to transferring staff. Word has come down from on high (i.e., the board of education) that the Asahi JHS vice-principal, cook, and training social studies teacher will be moved to different schools. As the rather aggressive saying goes here, "The flower will bloom where it's planted."

To wish them farewell, we celebrated their hard work over an expensive, traditional Japanese meal. Everyone filled their glasses with either beer or oolong tea, then clinked them together with a synchronized kanpai! before sitting down to the feast.

The room smelled of soy sauce from the little bowl beside every pair of chopsticks. One by one each piece of sashimi was dipped into the soy sauce to make it salty.

The sashimi platter consisted of cod with fish eggs, a dandelion (for effect), red bream, squid, sweet shrimp, seaweed, wasabi, and tuna over shredded white radish and leaves. The radish is eaten to settle your stomach from eating the raw fish. The green leaves were so overpowering, I think if you crushed them and added water, you'd make your own Listerine.

The battered peapods and white fish became soggy after being dipped in the golden tempura sauce. No doubt they would have been better if they had been eaten within a minute of being deep fried, which is when tempura is said to taste the best.

A small helping of Westernized appetizers: baked bacon, cod, onions, a mushroom, and lemon.

Ebi, tsukemono
The shrimp must be pulled apart by hand, and my fingers were soon sticky with the soup it was marinated in. It's fleshy taste was complimented by the tartness of the pickled vegetables.

Another dish of cod covered in fish eggs. The eggs attached themselves all over my teeth as soon as I took a bite. They were hard and tiny like sand. I took several swishes of oolong tea to wash them away.

Egg custard, steamed in a tea bowl made with shiitake mushrooms, is one of the few dishes native to Japan that can't be eaten with chopsticks. Like everything else, it's gone in a few spoonfuls because of the small portion.

The crunchy Japanese half beak fish was fried and dipped in tangy brown sauce. A surprise and unwelcome dose of mayonnaise was hiding underneath.

At this point my co-workers ask if I like Japanese food. I of course say yes. In response I'm asked the inevitable question, "What about nattō?" I'm not excluded from the average foreigner's disgust with fermented soybeans, but I tell them, "Yes, with lots of mustard," in order to dispel the stereotype.

Members of the PTA are present at the dinner, and are meeting me for the first time. Like most Japanese, they are astonished that I can speak and understand basic phrases in their language. When they see me using my chopsticks, they say, "Umai, umai!" (wow, you're so good!).

Yes, I've been using them since I was eight. Yes, Americans know how to use food utensils, too. I decide it's time for another gulp of warm saké. I'd like another glass, but in this social setting, pouring for yourself is forbidden - you may only pour for others.

wakame, kyuūri, inarizushi
The bright green seaweed is like a slippery film reel, while the dark seaweed looks like the crumpled, pulled-out tape of a VHS cassette. I manage to drop a piece into my lap and try to make out like nobody saw. I console myself by eating the rice wrapped in dried tofu-skin in a single mouthful.

This exotic dish, believe it or not, is beef with lettuce. I hear it's really catching on.

Soba, meron, ichigo
Dessert usually conjures up images of ice cream scoops and oozy apple pie, but in Japan noodles and fruit are in order. Along with a thimble-sized cup of hot tea, there's buckwheat noodle soup, a pale slice of honeydew, and one-half of a red, ripe, juicy strawberry to cap off the evening.

Once the dessert plates are cleaned off, or even if they aren't, everyone stands up all at once to listen to a final speech. With our hands hovering apart above our plates, there's a final synchronized yo-o! and we clap once to finish our meal.

By the time we return to work the next Monday, we will have three new staff members to welcome.


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