For the dozen guests seated at the counter of the restaurant at Second and Battery in Belltown, the sushi master is in the house. They know that Shiro Kashiba, who opened Seattle’s first sushi bar, the Maneki, in 1966 and semi-retired four years ago, nonetheless comes to work twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Occupying the inside, spot-lit position behind the sushi counter, Shiro (no one calls him anything else) is far more outgoing than most sushi chefs but it is a professional friendliness. He smiles readily but pays close attention to the guests in front of him. He is a strict but sympathetic teacher, not a show-off chef.
When he first arrived in Seattle, sushi was almost unknown outside the Japanese community. Shiro would hike the Puget Sound beaches and dig his own geoduck; he would take unwanted octopus and salmon roe from fishermen along the Seattle waterfront. He would go clamming on the shores of Puget Sound and dig his own geoduck because there was no commercial catch. Eventually, it would start selling for 89 cents a pound in local markets; now, 30 years later (with increased demand and the rise of a sushi-mad Chinese middle class), geoduck is $20 a pound.
By training and temperament, Shiro is a traditionalist, and his restaurant, Shiro’s, is the archetype of a traditional sushi parlor. Guests who expect (and demand!) unusual peparations like “fusion rolls” are politely shown the door with the suggestion that Wasabi Bistro, a block south, might be more accommodating. Myself, I remember telling Shiro, after half a dozen visits, that I was ready for something “more adventurous.” (I might as well have asked Bach to improvise “An American in Paris.”) At any rate, Shiro set me straight: the adventure is created within a formal framework, in the pleasure of each piece of fish, in the satisfaction of the experience.
His memoir, “Shiro,” is an unaffected gem. The first two-thirds recount his journey from Kyoto to Seattle, passing via years of slog in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Ambitious, he persuaded a Seattle restaurateur named Ted Tanaka to hire him, and, in 1966 he arrived in Seattle. Within four years, he had opened the citys first full-service sushi bar, The Maneki. Four years later, he married Ritsuko, a fellow foreign student at Seattle Community College. In 1972 he opened Nikko (which he would sell to Westin Hotels); in 1986, Hana; in 1994, Shiro’s.
The book itself is a physical delight. First off, it smells good, a refreshing cedar aroma. (The book’s designer, Joshua Powell, explains that the paper used for the memoir section is known as “Yu Long Cream woodfree” and the for the recipe section “Chinese Woodfree,” both uncoated.) The content is full of memorabilia: snapshots, old menus, airletters from his patron, maps, caligraphy, sketches, watercolor illustrations. The first two-thirds are Shiro’s memoirs, told with good-humored modesty. It’s a tribute to Shiro’s character that there’s not a trace of braggadocio; perhaps because it’s about an unfamiliar culture that none of this gets boring. (Credit, too, to Shiro’s Seattle-based translators, Bruce Rutledge and Yuko Enomoto.) Shiro himself comes across as an ideal, if somewhat formal host, whether he’s preparing your dinner at the sushi counter in Belltown or Bill Gates’s annual c.e.o. dinner in Medina.
And then, just when you’re pleasantly sated, along come another 100 pages of recipes and tips: how to cook short-grain rice, how to prepare it for sushi, how to make nigiri sushi (with lovely photographs by Ann Norton), how to clean smelt, how to cut fish for sashimi, how to season and eat sushi (no dunking in soy sauce!). Plus a handy list of terms to use at the sushi counter. (Oaiso: Check, please!)
“I hope that long after I’m gone, traditional sushi will find a way to adapt to different regios of the world,” Shiro concludes. “With smart stewardship and respect for the oceans, the Pacific Northwest can remain a paradise for sushi lovers.”
But there are storm clouds on the sushi horizon. More of the Chinese middle class have discovered the allure of sushi, driving up the price of fish; more middle-class Americans find it sushi too expensive; fewer of Japan’s trained sushi chefs want to work in the US; there’s less good fish to go around.
In the meantime, Shiro Kashiba’s memoir should be read and taken to heart by every food lover for its celebration of simplicity and its reverence for nature’s bounty.
Shiro: Wit, Wisdom and Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer, by Shiro Kashiba with photographs by Ann Norton, Chin Music Press, 320 pages, $20