I hate waking up early. To put this more accurately: I’d love to be a morning person, but my body has decided otherwise. My family knows all too well, since I’ve subjected them to 20-odd years of grouchiness when forcibly shaken from slumber before noon. More recently, though, I’ve become attuned to the pleasures of not sleeping in, and instead having a longer day ahead. Waking up becomes even more appealing when there’s food involved. Oh yes. In particular, I will drag myself out of my coffin and schlep across a city for a sushi breakfast. During holidays I wake up late, but in Osaka, I woke up at 7 for breakfast at Endo Sushi.
Find your way to the Osaka Central Wholesale Fish Market. Arrive early, at least an hour or two before the lunch rush at noon. If you’re alone (as I was) grab a counter seat, and preferably furthest away from the entrance. You’ll get tea, a moist towelette, a menu. There’s one in English, if you need it. You order sushi – which is largely nigirizushi, here – by the plate, from 4 combinations available. Three of the four will include a slab of toro (fatty tuna belly); one of the plate combos sticks the tuna in a roll. If there’s something you don’t like or can’t eat, you can tell them and they’ll make some changes. You can also get a bowl of miso soup with little clams in it, which I highly recommend. It’s terribly delicious.
These are not great photos, but have a look at the ratio of fish to rice. That beautiful pink- white-orange palette plucked from the ocean. Look at how voluptuous and thickly-cut the slices are, the way they’re seductively draped over a wee finger of vinegared rice. Now tell me you’re not salivating. Tell me you’re not clawing at your computer screen. I swear, there was nothing more beautiful that morning than the plates of sushi in front of me.
At Endo’s, they’re rather old-school about their sushi, which means that each piece comes seasoned with wasabi – actual wasabi, not the radioactive-green shit you squeeze out of a tube. No plates for your shoyu here, since you are not to dip it rice-side down. Instead, take a brush from the shoyu pot in front of you, and paint your sushi. Eat, and repeat.
While probably less acceptable if there’s more than two of you, when dining solo I have a tendency to linger at certain places, especially at counters. (No one here seems to come to sushi joints alone.) I love watching chefs at work; if I had a TV and the Food Network channel I’d never leave my room. The bespectacled man in front of me looked more like a schoolteacher than a sushi chef, but was clearly the leader of the 3-chef pack behind the counter. In between constructing pieces of nigirizushi and chatting to the other chefs – about the customers, perhaps – he would occasionally take a swig from a bottle of murky green liquid behind him. Green tea? Vegetable juice? Bile? Who knows.
(Aside: sushi chefs always remind me a little of surgeons; with some application maybe that could be their black-market baito. Harvesting organs by moonlight, filleting fish by daylight…)
There were two other chefs, mainly taking care of orders, answering the phone, ringing up the sales. One of them was an old man with thick, white-framed spectacles, wearing an apron with Endo scrawled elegantly on it. All the chefs – including him – wore white construction worker-style wellies, but only he perched on a pair of steep wooden clogs. His job seemed to consist of peering at everyone else, sometimes bringing some plates to customers, conveying their orders to the counter staff. While I was savouring my second plate and completely engrossed in the sushi-making spectacle unfolding in front of me, he appeared next to me. He looked at me, then at The Schoolteacher behind the counter.
(He had a very thick Osaka accent, so I’m not too sure that this is really what he was saying.)
Ojiisan: Maybe she thinks you’re the Endo of this place, eh? Well, girlie, I’m the real Endo! Not this guy!
Which explains a lot, really. Only The Real Chef Endo gets to totter around in steep wooden clogs.
Both of them laughed, and the boss teetered off. The Schoolteacher continued to slice various pieces of fish; three obaasans next to me tittered at something. As noon drew closer the joint grew livelier, with more customers filtering in. It was an older crowd, more than half of them seeming to be retirees. The chefs echoing the orders – “Hai, two of plate one! One plate two!” – punctuated the buzz and chatter, cries of “Ookini, maido ookini!” growing more frequent. Conversation dies down behind the counter. Speed is key. His hands are almost a blur. A few deft strokes for the rice. Slice, pinch, press, squeeze, onto the plate it goes and down the customer’s gullet. Do sushi chefs suffer from RSI?
I lingered till a little after noon, when it became obvious that I wasn’t going to have a fourth plate. (Note: I seriously regret not ordering another.) But it was my first full day in Osaka, and I had a city to explore, so I dragged myself out of my seat and paid up. I haven’t had sushi since then, not even in Tokyo’s Tsukiji. Somehow sushi seems like a special-occasion, holiday-only meal to me. If I ever take another trip to Osaka, though, I know where I’ll be headed for breakfast. I’ll even wake up early. See you in the morning.
1-1-86 Noda, Fukushima-ku, Osaka City, Osaka
5 AM – 2 PM
Plate combinations, as of March 2013:
#1 Anago (sea water eel), uni (sea urchin), tai (sea bream), toro (fatty tuna), hamachi (yellowtail)
#2 Matsutake (matsutake mushroom), akagai (ark shell), hotate (scallop), toro (fatty tuna), hamo (sharp-toothed eel)
#3 Tamago (omelette), ebi (shrimp), awabi (abalone), tekka (tuna roll), tako (octopus)
#4 Sake (salmon), ikura (salmon roe), ika (calamari), toro (fatty tuna), sayori (halfbeak)