11pm on Friday night. The counter of Anaguma Kushikatsu bar in Nishiogikubo.
Pissed Man Number 1: “That stinks!”
Pissed Man Number 2: “What is that?! It stinks!?”
Pissed Man Number 3: “Who ordered this!? Take it away, it stinks!”
Before I tell you the source of the stink, I want to introduce Anaguma, the extraordinary venue. Anaguma, a 30 second walk from the train station, is the home of creative cooking in Nishiogikubo.
The owner, genial and eccentric Kagami, displays no respect for traditional menus and methods – he does not know them.
All kinds of food are battered, skewered and dipped in his deep-fat fryer: from spam, gizzard, banana and lotus root to freshly-gutted turtle and eel.
As well as the bizarre ingredients, Kagami`s cavalier frying technique also invites controversy. He is notorious for his inattention to one fundamental detail:
“Kagami-san, kore agetenai yo” (This is not cooked!)
At Anaguma on Friday a new explosive ingredient, rather than Kagami`s cooking, was the problem. The source of the stink was kusaya –this appropriately translates as stinker. Kusaya is preserved fish. The fish are soaked in a vat of salt-rich broth – which might be centuries old, then they are sun-dried.
I knew of kusaya, but I had never eaten it. Yesterday I ordered two portions, the first battered, the second soaked in sake. I wanted to give it a fair chance.
An unearthly stink arrived well-before the plate. It was impossible to keep a clear head. I have no idea what it tastes like, I couldn`t breakthrough the nauseating waves of stink to distinguish a taste.
So what was the smell like? My fingers dare not type the word.
I needed at least one person to like stinker, just so I would not be stuck with it. Sadly, Kagami was the only person with a good word to say about it. After being passed along the counter, stinker returned to the metal counter in front of me.
In the end, there was only one way to get rid of the smell – eat it.