Long before baby Prince G was born and long before the Royal Wedding I used to work as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant. It was traditional Japanese: tatami-mat rooms, a teppan-yaki bar and two eccentric Japanese owners who used to get red-faced on sake most nights of the week. The restaurant was booked out, with double or triple seatings on a Saturday night (would you like the 6pm, 7:30pm or 9pm?)
Might I add, this was all before Japanese cuisine became trendy. Especially in my part of the world in regional Australia. In fact, it was the only Japanese restaurant I knew.
In my blue kimono uniform and slip on shoes I tried (unsuccessfully) to channel my inner Japanese. You see, I’m 6 foot tall and blonde: not quite the classic Japanese look. But I worked hard, respected the owners, and only ever once dropped a tray of miso soup over a group’s removed shoes.
And it was where I first tried the eel. It was on the menu – unagi – and was served in a teriyaki sauce on a bed of rice. I only got to try it because it was returned to the kitchen one night via a waitress complaining that ‘table 7 says they ordered the veal, not the eel’ and I couldn’t see it go to waste. Especially on my limited income where meals were sometimes optional (and always second-place to vodka and garage sale bargains).
Anyway, it was delicious. The texture of fine fish, with a subtle taste and crisp edge. I was hooked (like what I just did there with the fishing pun?)
A few years later, I met Bill. And a few years after that we went to Japan for a holiday. During this holiday I had both the worst eel and the best eel I have ever tasted.
When reading the Lonely Planet guidebook, I came across a restaurant that specialised in eel. That’s right! Specialised in the stuff. I highlighted the restaurant in the book and we pretty much planned our trip around getting me to that eel.
Hindsight is a marvelous thing. In an earlier blog post More money, more problems: why I don’t want to win the lottery, I discuss happiness and how it relates to expectations. Well, in Japan as we traveled closer and closer to this restaurant, my expectations lifted through the roof of the shinkansen and into outer space. It was unlikely that reality was ever going to meet those expectations.
Unsurprisingly, it was a major let down. The restaurant was old, empty and, due to the fish-tanks of eels glaring at me while I ate, it was also a little creepy. The restaurant owners glared just as much as the eels and the food itself was terrible.
And expensive! I don’t know how much it costs to buy wholesale eel, but I suspect there was quite a bit of mark-up added to these beedy-eyed creatures. Back home, eels are nothing more than creek-dwelling water snakes that lurk under rocks. In fact, one time while camping with some friends and driven by my taste for eel we tried to catch some in a pillowcase full of rancid meat… but that’s a story for another time.
So I was disappointed with the eel restaurant. Such is life.
Then, on the same Japan trip, but in a completely different city – Kanazawa this time – we stumbled across a food cart selling eel on rice. Bill and I, hungover and struggling to walk following a random night drinking with two English guys and their Japanese girlfriends, had collapsed on a park bench outside the not-to-be-missed city gardens. And there was the food cart. My savior.
It was as if it had been sent from above. Eel. Just as I remembered it from my waitressing days. Light in texture, subtle in flavour. Melt in your mouth and groan with pleasure eel. Zero expectations and outstanding reality. Perfection.
What’s the moral to this story, you ask? Maybe something about stumbling across a food cart beats any review a guidebook could give you…? I’m clutching at straws here.
And because of that, I’ll leave you with this meme I saw on Facebook today that seemed rather appropriate…