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Beef, It's what's For Dinner
Although temporarily blinded by the steam rising from our beefy delicacy, I could still see our surrounding company. My two friends and I searched the streets of Kobe, Japan, for the perfect dinner but what we experienced was more filling than even the tastiest steak.
Imitations of these Asian steak houses exist in all areas of the United States, including in my home town. At one of my favorite restaurants, named "Kobe's Steak House," the staff entertains as much as the food satiates. Shrimp tenders often are tossed at lightning speed into a diner's mouth and onion volcanoes, spewing soy sauce, still excites my eighty-year-old grandmother. Laughter, conversation, and massive intakes of sake only cease, in my family, when we are stuffed with fried rice and sauteed vegetables and must be wheeled out to our cars.
How could I visit Kobe without a first-hand experience of the original steak house experience?
After wondering the streets of Kobe and vetoing many contenders in our search for the perfect slab of beef, we stumble upon perfection. We cannot read nor even pronounce the name of our chosen destination, but decide that any place advertising with a large banner of raw red meat is suitable for our needs.
We are seated on the top floor, tucked away at the back table of the cramped and steamy house. It truly resembles a house, with dark timber walls and paper lanterns that take us back to an earlier dynasty. From our corner of the room, we can easily observe the almost ritualistic process that masks a casual lunch in Japan. My anxiety grows as I witness the detail each action requires.
Directly across from me sits a thirty-something couple, dressed in casual summer linens; there matching attire fit perfectly in with the Japanese tradition of conformity. As they take their seats they are presented with a menu, the husband points at the menu and with a delicate bow of his head, he has made the meal selection for him and his wife.
Moments later, a second couple, this one a slightly older set, quietly place themselves in the chairs between us and the other couple. This silent set of four only flinch their stoic faces to exchange meaningful glances when we idly chatter about the food we will select.
When our raw meat and bean sprout platter is tossed on the stove, we giggle and point at the rapid dicing and rhythmic clatter of knives and spatulas. The Japanese couples sit peacefully observing, as if reflecting about the very nature of food and hunger.
Our chef, in a similar trance-like state balances our steak in a perfect geometry with a mountain of rice, chop sticks, and pickled vegetables aligned in the shape a flower. The presentation alone mimics the simplicity of Japanese architecture, seen in many of their pagodas and temples.
We sit stunned for a few moments at the feast before us, unsure if it was rude to begin eating before the other guests. Sensing our uneasiness, the stone face on the opposite end of the table lightly bows her head and an almost undetectable smile appeared for a millisecond.
With this subtle gesture I understand and we began our feast.
Whereas I usually compete with my sister in a dumpling eating contest, shoveling in the salty meats in a horrendous display, these Japanese couples treat their food with respect and attention, savoring each grain of rice that they pluck with their chopsticks. They drink their soup by lifting it level with their lips and slurping, enjoying every last drop. They sip their tea with poise, a calm bend in the wrist and closed eyes. They thank the chef with a nod of the head, a motion requiring the utmost attention to notice.
Throughout the meal, the clatter of the dishes from the kitchen and the sizzle of meat are the only sounds permeating the steamy air. Although the two couples both sit in complete silence, our corner feels unified with the flow of the meal.
We thank our chef with a bow and just before we ascend the stairs back down to the street, my mysterious neighbor flashed her demure smile once more.
I had entered our meal in the search for beef, and left with a sense of calmness and insight into true Japanese culture.