Alexandra Marshall


Sukiyaki Song

The Book of Worst Meals: 25 Authors Write About Terrible Culinary Experiences, 2010

"Well, it was definitely my Worst Meal," my daughter says to this day about my Best Intentioned dinner suggestion—Most Expensive too—at Tokyo's New Otani Hotel.

While backpacking on a budget in Asia she'd been eating Pad Thai twice a day for the previous few weeks, and though Sukiyaki wasn't her idea of comfort food—her preferred diet was the boxed macaroni and cheese I'd packed in my suitcase for the next leg of her journey—when I mentioned that the cozy pleasure of tissue-thin beef cooked at the table had been my own introduction to Japanese cuisine, this seemed like a sufficiently convincing endorsement. I didn't yet realize that to save money and guard against digestive distress she'd been avoiding meat altogether, though in a four-star hotel in the "Garden of Asia," wasn't Sukiyaki the foolproof entry-level meal?

I hadn't actually eaten it in decades, having learned to favor more exotic alternatives during a stay of several months in Kyoto and while working at the Japanese Consulate back in New York. In meeting up with my daughter at that point in her journey I was returning to Japan for the first time in more than 35 years, and I was eager to share my love of that culture while providing R&R in a country considered too costly for backpackers. Her introduction to Tokyo was to be a splurge, and I'd chosen this luxury hotel for two reasons. It has a 400 year-old 10-acre garden that even includes a waterfall, and because I was fortunate enough to have stayed there once before, as an overnight guest of Japanese friends, back when it was called The New Otani because it was new.

The precision of this overlap was fitting because I too had set out after college graduation with a round-the-world air ticket valid for a year. I'd made an unexpectedly committed first stop to study Japanese classical dance in Kyoto, so it was the faster-moving second half of my journey inspiring my daughter when she announced her intention to embark upon a comparable adventure.

Times had changed, of course, and while it definitely took guts for my provincial parents to send me off in the summer of 1965 with only the promise of a trail of airmailed letters to keep them informed of my whereabouts, our daughter's senior year had commenced with the September 11th attacks. The world I had ventured into took kindly to Americans in that precious interval between JFK's assassination and the still gradually escalating war in Vietnam, but in the shadow of the radically transformative events of 2001, I don't mind admitting that, only months later, it wasn't easy to watch her disappear onto a plane with her American passport. I felt responsible for having set such a benign—naïve—example with my own improvised itinerary back when I don't even remember my parents having to say, "Be careful."

But during the summer and fall our temperamentally cautious daughter had proved steadily reassuring with frequent email updates and occasional phone contact—her international mobile worked everywhere but Kenya—so it wasn't until the horrific Bali nightclub bombings on October 12th that our worst fears took specific form. Her most recent call from the porch hammock of a beach bungalow on the Thai island of Koh Peng Yang had featured a vivid description of the fluid community of travelers like her who were coming from or going on to Kuta, the tourist-friendly Balinese beach counterpart where the bombings occurred. Until we were able to verify that she hadn't decided to make a spontaneous detour to nearby Indonesia, it was frighteningly easy to imagine her among the targeted foreign nationals—240 injured and 202 dead—whose young lives were taken that Saturday night.

Those casualties were still being counted a dozen days later when we each flew into Narita Airport, I on Northwest from the States and she on Air Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong. She was scheduled to land just ahead of me, so we'd agreed to meet up in the common baggage claim area, a plan excluding consideration of the fact that, under heightened security, any lingering passenger would be regarded with suspicion for not briskly moving along with the others. My flight arrived after a significant enough delay that, as I finally descended the long escalator into the baggage hall—she at the bottom wearing a girlishly peach beach complexion with the wrapped cotton trousers of a Thai fisherman—I heard the distress in her voice as she cried out, "Mom!"

The outlying Narita Airport is surrounded by travel-poster rice fields, but during the ride in, all I saw was my daughter's beautiful face. At the hotel we were welcomed by a fleet of uniformed greeters poised to anticipate our every imaginable need in that lobby the size of a vaulted railroad station, and though our Japanese-style room overlooked central Tokyo, we decided to postpone exploring it because there was already so much to see in the city-within-a-city of The New Otani.

First investigating its ancient classic garden in the chrysanthemum-perfect light of that October evening, as we reentered the main building we found a street-like corridor lined with a series of specialty restaurants from which to choose our first meal. Not even in what I assume to be the birthplace of Sushi would this be an option for my daughter, but you may still ask—I still ask myself—why we continued along to the corridor's far end instead of stopping for the more obvious Tempura or Teriyaki that, later in our trip, would thankfully correct for the mistake we were about to make.

Instead, we entered the Okahan restaurant as if Kobe beef was our destiny, and before the hot hand towels had a chance to cool, I'd ordered us the deluxe version. My limited math skills were always a liability—let's see: if JPY 3000 = $24, what's 15,750 each?—but it surprised me to find that, once we got past the entry-level greetings and the cooking pot was put before us, I didn't prove capable of retrieving any of those exceedingly polite phrases I used to know.

Once, I might have been able to explain to our server that, while in the venerable tradition of her culture such exquisitely marbled beef is a delicacy, to us—I'm sorry—sumimasen—it looks unappetizingly fatty. Or, with my sincerest apologies, I could have explained that it was I, certainly not her, who ought to have remembered to warn my daughter about the raw egg she was expected to drag her food through to cool it.

The larger problem was that, since it was apparently our server's job to kneel beside our table throughout the meal—so desuka, I said to acknowledge her "experienced chef" status, as proclaimed on the menu—it was impossible for my daughter to simply drape a boiled cabbage leaf over everything else on her plate and call it a day. All the color had drained from her face, so it wouldn't work for me to eat either. Not that I was tempted to risk it.

Across the otherwise empty restaurant, it was a relief to sense that another pair of western tourists acted like perfect guests, wildly appreciative of the colorless raw vegetables tightly arranged like wedged petals, and of course exclaiming over the white-swirled purple beef so thinly sliced, with such skilled precision, that it was almost transparent. They were eager to be taught how to scramble their raw eggs with their chopsticks, and after consuming everything on the platter, yes, they could still make room for green tea ice cream. Needless to say, they'd kept on ordering sake refills too, another failure on our part to get with the program.

In the end, our chef proved not so "experienced" as to know how to cope with such disappointed customers, but eventually she capitulated by mutely clearing away the platters and unplugging the cooker. Our folded legs were numb, and my jetlag—was it yesterday or tomorrow, back home?—exaggerated my clumsiness in factoring up the surreal calculation. In case I'd failed to take note on the menu, I was gently reminded—so now it was our uneasy chef's turn to apologize—that the total amount was "excluding service charge." ▣