Sabeen Abbas — The Art of Concentration




Sabeen Abbas

The Art of Concentration

I  t’s seven p.m. on a Tuesday and Sus...
Sabeen Abbas — The Art of ConcentrationConcentration
                                             — The Art of


   “Konni...
Sabeen Abbas — The Art of Concentration


   I repeat the question.
   He does a mental translation of the question and qu...
Sabeen Abbas — The Art of Concentration


   He thinks for a moment and says, “Cutting the tuna.” In Japanese
he adds, “Th...
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Art of concentration nov2009

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Art of concentration nov2009

  1. 1. Sabeen Abbas — The Art of Concentration Sabeen Abbas The Art of Concentration I t’s seven p.m. on a Tuesday and Sushi Tetsu is packed with business- men celebrating the end of the workday with sushi, a smoke and Kirin beer. My friend, Tae, and I sit at the crowded counter table in the basement restaurant of Sendai Station. Tae, a new graduate, used to work part-time as a waitress here, when she was a university student. With little more than a month left in my one year teaching contract in Japan, I had confessed to her my dream of interviewing a sushi chef. Later, I received a text on my cell phone from Tae: “I talked with chef. He can meet Tuesday or Wednesday night. Tell me what day is better. Have a nice day!” And that is how I came to be sitting across the counter from Sushi Chef, Hideki Soga. He wears a white happi coat over a white T-shirt, and a white hat. Behind a glass counter displaying trays of fresh uni, slices of fatty tuna, entire marble-eyed fish, Hideki-san’s hands mould sushi rice into perfect rectangles. He has a heart-shaped mouth and eyes that smile. 6
  2. 2. Sabeen Abbas — The Art of ConcentrationConcentration — The Art of “Konnichiwa,” Tae says hello to her former colleagues. The staff wear black uniforms, and hustle bustle about with platters of sushi. Tae orders green tea for us, “O-cha, onegaishimasu.” From absolute zero, eleven months ago, I have inched up to a level three or four (on a scale of ten) in my Japanese ability. I still make plenty of mistakes. I recently introduced myself as, “I think I am Sabeen.” I wanted to communicate with people in their mother tongue. After months of understanding very little, I can now make sense of everyday things. The language is no longer an indecipherable code. It seems to me that people have started speaking slower and I can hear most words even if I don’t know their meaning. Unlike the majority of adults, Hideki-san shows an active interest in speaking English. For the past year and a half he has studied at a private English school. Our conversation is a hybrid of English and Japanese, smoothed along by the presence of Hideki-san’s English teacher at the same counter (What a coincidence!) and Tae’s electronic dictionary. Hideki-san serves us an appetizer of lightly seared katsuoboshi slices in a clear sweet broth with grated daikon radish on top. The dish has the effect of cooling us despite the smoke and heat. He asks, “Do you want to try?” holding up a spiky purple thing the approximate size and shape of a sweet potato. “It’s koya.” Tae’s electronic dictionary translates, “Sea anemone.” I shrug and agree. I am here to try new things. The cut up koya is served with lemon slices. I tell myself to be brave and try one yellow bite, but the texture is chewier than octopus and slimier than natto. I encourage Tae to finish the rest. “What made you want to be a sushi chef?” I ask. Hideki-san leans forward and concentrates. “Once more, please.” 7
  3. 3. Sabeen Abbas — The Art of Concentration I repeat the question. He does a mental translation of the question and quickly checks his understanding with the English teacher. Hideki-san tells us, “When I was a junior high school student, we went on a school trip. I am from the mountains. We went to Shiogama by the sea. I ate lunch at the main shop. I thought I want to work here.” Tae and I wait while a fresh batch of rice cooks in a large steel rice cooker. The rice is then cooled in a large cypress tub. Hideki-san uses a wooden paddle to gently stir in the vinegar, sugar and salt so that each grain of rice is coated without being crushed. I find out that when Hideki-san was eighteen years old, he went to cooking school for one year. After half a year of training, he saw a va- cancy at Sushi Tetsu and applied. He got the job and has been working as a sushi chef for the past thirteen years. Usually, it takes three years of training before becoming a full sushi chef. Hideki-san jokes that he got a lucky break. Hideki-san makes the nigiri sushi in front of us. We watch as the serving platter fills with jewel-like pieces of sushi. The back row has two kinds of eel, glazed brown with sauce, and paper-thin flounder. The middle row has two kinds of shellfish, pearly and moist, and three grades of melt-in-your-mouth tuna. The front row has sweet egg stamped with the store’s name, shrimp, orange bubbles of cod roe in a seaweed wrapper, and yellow sea urchin. Last, he places a scoop of pink pickled ginger in the corner. I forget about conversation and think only about what piece I’ll eat first. Sushi is followed by tiny portions of strawberry ice-cream. The con- versation resumes. I ask Hideki-san, “What do you like best about your job?” 8
  4. 4. Sabeen Abbas — The Art of Concentration He thinks for a moment and says, “Cutting the tuna.” In Japanese he adds, “The concentration.” He thinks some more. “Hearing Oishii – delicious – from the customers.” I look around the restaurant at the people eating sushi like it is an event. Each bite a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. I look back at Hideki-san in his chef’s uniform and nod. 9

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