Last weekend I finally attended one of Jeff Orlick’s (a.k.a. Jeffrey Tastes’s) Ambassador Program events, in which one person acts as expert of a cuisine (and, often, culture) and leads a meal for a small group in a NYC restaurant of their choice. Held at Tori Shin uptown and led by Japanese native Yasushi Sasaki, this event revolved around yakitori, or grilled chicken skewers—a more upscale take on the popular street snack than what I’d previously been exposed to along St. Marks Place, this time involving organic birds from Pennsylvania—and I hastened to participate, as Scott and I were feverishly researching our own trip to Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto next month. This was one day after the devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, before the nuclear fears reached their apex.
The meal included a demonstration by Tori Shin’s affable chefs, who skillfully sliced the chickens and formed the skewers, each of which highlights a particular part of the bird: the breast, thigh, neck, wing, skin, liver, heart, gizzard, knee cartilage—nothing goes to waste here. It turns out there are some 40 different varieties of yakitori possible, including vegetable options (like the skewered salty shishitou peppers we tasted). Watching the butchers’ precise and practiced cuts called to mind the expert skills of a sushi chef.
Between sips of Sakura Emaki, a sweet springtime sake, my fellow diners and I were treated to eight different yakitori, most of which were basted with a seaweed-infused sake before getting charcoal-grilled. While I enjoyed the moist shisomaki (breast with shiso) and the popular kashiwa (breast and thigh meat mix), those were quickly overshadowed by the more interesting tsukune (chicken meatballs), juicy bonjiri (chicken tail/butt), and crispy-fatty kawa (skin), which I ordered separately. What a joy, though, to be served with such pride, to receive one skewer every eight minutes or so and savor each bite as it comes. As a bonus, I was learning so much about yakitori—just one of the many foods we intend to cover for EYW in Japan next month, but an important one. I left with the name of a recommended yakitori restaurant in Tokyo scrawled on the back of a Tori Shin card, a gift from a waiter.
Except a few days later, after much thought, we decided we had to postpone our trip. The radiation fears, the supply shortages, the potential food contamination— although each of my Tokyo contacts has assured me via email that Japan will bounce back quickly, it’s simply not a good time to embark on a self-styled culinary tour of the country. The Japanese are strong, but badly scarred; they are rightfully proud of their gastronomy and traditions, but how can we ask them to embrace us and our mission at this time? It’s too soon, too uncertain.
So we are setting aside our airline vouchers to fly to Japan in the fall—ideally in October, when the country’s maple trees are aglow and nuclear fears surely a thing of the past. As the Japanese say, nanakorobi yaoki: Fall down seven times, stand up eight. The rising sun will always rise again. Until then, our thoughts are with Japan for a speedy recovery.