I HAVE never been daring and experimental when it comes to food. I always play it safe and stick to familiar foods (my favorite maxim is: I don't eat strangers... hehe).
But during the birthday of my long-time buddy Sol a couple of years back, (hold on Sol, I'm not about to reveal your true age), I got bolder and treated him to dinner at one of the affordable beachside restaurants in the city. (Affordable by my standards, which is below average as there seems to be a permanent hole in my wallet. Money doesn't find it conducive for long stays).
Sol gave me free rein what to order for his birthday dinner and among the selections I made was one thing I've never tried but have heard of: shashimi.
Before the white-capped waiter placed a fish-shaped platter containing artfully arranged thin slices of tangigue sliced about 1-inch wide by 1-1/2 inches long by 1-1/4 inches thick surrounded with grated white radish and a greenish-looking paste shaped like a leaf, I had always thought that 'sashimi' was a member of the noodle family.
I refrained from making any remark and let the waiter finish putting little dishes of soy sauce for each of us before leaving to get the rest of our orders.
"Heh, P85 ang order unya kinilaw ra man diay ni oy (this is only raw fish)," I mumbled under my breath when the waiter was already out of earshot.
The greenish-looking paste, I learned later was called Wasabi, a very hot and spicy condiment which comes from the root of a plant that yields one of the strongest spices in Japanese cooking. It is often served in different shapes for added attraction (and maybe to justify its high cost).
When the rest of our food arrived, we dug into it and I made a show of serving the sashimi to Sol. I mixed all the ingredients and melted the greenish paste with the vegetables. I got a spoonful of the mixture, poured a small amount of soy sauce on it and spooned it into my mouth, urging Sol to follow suit.
I chomped on the mixture and sucked in my breath as a very undesirable taste started to spread into my taste buds. I endured it and loaded another spoonful into my mouth, wondering why Sol was just looking at me as though he wanted to say something but could not.
By the second spoonful, I was already unable to mask the unpleasantness but bravely swallowed it. Tears started to roll down my cheeks and I started to cough. I felt as though my nose was pricked with a thousand needles and I opened my mouth to let in some air.
Still without saying a word, Sol handed me a glass of Coke and I drank it gratefully.
"Whew! Kalain (It's horrible)!" I breathed in relief.
"Maybe we should start with a small quantity and add more soy sauce to suit our taste until we become accustomed to it," Sol suggested.
He was right. I discovered that once you're comfortable with the strength of wasabi you can pre-mix it with soy sauce, making one dish of dipping sauce.
I did not intend to order 'strangers' that night but decided to introduce sashimi to Sol to give him the impression that I've graduated from our favorite 'law-oy' and 'sinugbang isda' into something classy and foreign-sounding.
I learned later that sashimi has become one of Sol's favorites since we last saw each other; there was no need for introductions. He had been leashing his laughter since we started eating because he knew it was my first time but was too polite to jibe me about it then. (He's not too polite about teasing me about it now, though).
Meanwhile, here are five things which I've learned the hard (and embarassing) way about sashimi etiquette.
Rule #1: Don't pretend to know what you don't know (honesty is still the best policy, eh?)
Rule #2: Ask questions
Rule #3: Ask more questions
and Rule #4: Ask more questions.
I haven't tried sashimi since that night.