Party at Izakaya Pontaro for Yuka’s bday

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything. Let’s just say I’ve been busy having the best travel experience of my life. I have a few posts brewing, and each of them will start off by reiterating how much I absolutely love living in Myoko Kogen (妙高高原).

Cast of Characters: Pontaro (“Pontchan”), runs Izakaya Pontaro; Yuka, Pontaro’s wife, also runs the izakaya; Sachiko, my Japanese mother at Hotel Moc.

Last night was Yuka-chan’s 56th birthday, and, to celebrate, they closed the izakaya to hold a private party for her. Pontchan and I were supposed to have a sushi making competition – Iron Chef: Myoko Kogen edition. The secret ingredient? Well, we didn’t really have a secret ingredient – wasabi, I suppose. But we did have $100 worth of sashimi-grade fish! Pontchan and I were supposed to compete, but, once the beer and sake started to flow, the competition disappeared, and I ended up making nigiri sushi for the birthday girl and her 6 guests. Part of the reason the competition evaporated may be that, being the only gaijin present, they enjoyed the novelty of having a gaijin make them sushi. Either way, it was super fun to learn how to make sushi and pretend to be a sushi chef for a few hours.

Pont-chan and I were behind the bar, working away, while Yuka and everyone else sat up at the bar. Yuka was done up nicely for her birthday. She was wearing a kimono, as she often does, but this was a very elegant one passed down by her mother. She became a little less elegant when I gave her a big pink wig as a birthday present, and Pontchan and I became much less elegant when the sexy aprons came out.

I’ve never made sushi before – not in Canada and definitely not in Japan, but, dressed in white chef’s clothes loaned to me by Sachiko-chan, I helped Pontaro prepare $100 worth of fish using a deadly sharp Misono knife. We had purchased the fish at a market earlier in the day; it was one among several errands we carried out in Myoko city that morning. Cutting up the fish was fun and not terribly difficult. You had to use a bit of imagination to get the right size and shape to come out, and I was chastised for using a sawing motion instead of making one continuous cut. It was so much fun that I recommend to anyone to give it a try. But don’t just get tuna and salmon. Get a variety of fish and try some flat fish (like hirame) – they are more interesting to cut and are delicious. I bought maguro and thought it would be popular, but, at the end of the night, there was mostly maguro left over.

With everyone up at the bar, I asked them each in turn which fish they wanted. In response, they would shout out the type of fish in Japanese. There were 12 different types of fish that we had prepared, and they were spread along the bar in small dishes ready to be joined with an oblong ball of rice. At the start I didn’t know which fish was which, but if I didn’t know, they would help me by pointing. I’ve been using flashcards to memorize Japanese words and phrases, but this was like a real-life game of flashcards. After about half an hour, I started to figure out which fish was which, but a single session of rote memorization doesn’t stick so I’ve forgotten everything except for maguro, tako, and ika.

In order to make my facsimile of a sushi chef more authentic, I was instructed to shout out “aiii yo!” when receiving a sushi order, and upon serving the fish, I was told to shout out “hey! oh match!” I’m not sure what either of these mean. Maybe I will ask Sachiko at our next lesson.

I tried to keep a mental note of each step Pontaro carried out so that I could make sushi again in the future. If your date made you sushi from scratch that would be pretty damn impressive, but then again, living Vancouver with all the inexpensive sushi around, maybe not.

How to make nigiri sushi:


  1. Buy a variety of fish and keep them on ice.
  2. Make a lot of rice (optionally cheat and buy pre-formed Nigiri sushi rice balls)
  3. Put the rice into a flat-bottomed wooden bowl (sushi oke), pour in vinegar, and stir. Have your assistant fan the rice while stirring to keep evaporation up.
  4. Transfer the rice into a container and set somewhere to cool.
  5. Wash a cutting board and spray with ethanol.
  6. Find the sharpest knife possible and cut the fish into sushi-sized chunks. The cut should be one single continuous cut. Wipe your knife after each cut to remove fish oil from the blade. Be creative with the angle you cut at in order to get the proper size. Place the fish on a tray and keep cool.
  7. Prepare a bowl of cold water and vinegar. Dip your fingers in this to keep the rice from sticking to them.
  8. Prepare a bowl of wasabi.

The real action:

  1. Dip the fingers of your left hand in the water/vinegar mix. If you dip both hands, you won’t be able to pick up the wasabi on your finger.
  2. Grab some rice and form a ball.
  3. Flatten the ball in your palm of your left hand. The rice stays in your left hand until served.
  4. With your index finger of your free hand, add a dollop of wasabi (quanto basta).
  5. Put a chunk of fish on top and press with two fingers of free hand. Apply enough pressure so that the fish stays attached when the nigiri is upside down but try not to deform the fish.
    1. Ebi are a pain in the ass plus you should put two on each nigiri.
  6. Serve!

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