American-born food writer Harris Salat, who writes a terrific blog called The Japanese Food Report (japanesefoodreport.com), was sympathetic to my plight. “Japanese food forces you to appreciate subtlety. The more I eat Japanese food, the more Western flavors start to feel too strong,” he told me. We were sitting in a room at Aburiya Kinnosuke, an enormously popular midtown restaurant specializing in robata, foods cooked in the heat of charcoal.
Aburiya Kinnosuke’s under-$20 lunch deals all seemed way too inexpensive to be good. Harris ordered the sanma because it was shun. In response to my blank look, he explained: He’d ordered a mackerel pike (sanma) that was at the peak of seasonality (shun). Shun is a critical concept in Japanese cuisine. Said Harris, “Japanese culture is so food-obsessed, even the mailman knows when an ingredient is at the height of its seasonality. And, in fact, the Japanese have narrowed the timing down to the very hours when an ingredient will taste its best.” And I thought Alice Waters, the California-cuisine revolutionary at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, was fanatical about seasonality! But the Japanese have been refining their knowledge for millennia.
Chef Jiro Iida, standing in front of the open fire, threaded the sanma onto a short wodden stick. Then he stuck the skewer into the floor of the grilling pit, leaning it a bit toward a pile of red-hot charcoals that formed a tepee about a foot tall. Before he served us the fish, he seasoned it with a shake of salt—simplicity itself. I didnt’t have to try hard to appreciate the flavor of the grilled sanma: It was obviously delicious.