Adventures in Eating: The Other Kind of Sushi in Tokyo

“I serve raw meat,” said the chef, as I approached an empty seat at the counter.

“Did you hear me?,” he said. “Raw. Meat.”

He said it as if he were trying to scare me away, a verbal tone akin to “inadvertently” lifting up his shirt above his waste to reveal a handgun tucked into his pants. I nodded and sat down. After all, I didn’t just happen upon this restaurant by accident. I was in Tokyo and had read on a food message board about a small place in the back alleys of the Ebisu neighborhood that served the raw meat from your favorite farm animals as sushi.

Meat sushi, particularly of the horse variety, isn’t the most uncommon menu item in Japan. The Japanese began consuming “basashi,” as they call it, due to necessity. Mid-19th-century Japan was not the foodie paradise it is today; the people were undernourished and needed protein. So when the hungry people of pre-Meiji Japan looked around, they saw a galloping dinner with four legs and a tail and began sharpening their knives. Still, I gathered from the chef’s hesitation at my presence, raw horse meat is not something a lot of non-Japanese seek out when they’re in town.

Besides, the place was hard enough to find, so I wasn’t going to turn back now. I only had a vague idea of its whereabouts and wandered the narrow streets, popping into restaurants to ask if they served meat sushi. When I’d get a blank stare in return, I’d say, “Sushi: neeeigh,” doing my best equine imitation. Everyone I had asked shrugged. Except for one guy, a chef in an izakaya, who took me by the arm and led me here, to a narrow, covered alleyway flanked with countertop eateries. This place, I later learned, was called Wakadaisho (1-7-4 Ebisu Yokochowai, Tokyo, 03-3444-7005).

The chef plopped a piece of purple, veiny meat in front of me, stretched out on a thumb-sized bunch of rice and said, “Horse.”

The meat was all texture, like masticating on a chewy piece of Play-Doh. The thirty-something couple next to me, slid over a bowl of edamame and gestured for me to indulge. Either I was now part of the horse-eating club or they were taking pity on me. As the chef would plate sushi, I’d ask him to identify each piece: horse neck, cow lungs, chicken breast. It was a virtual farm of raw meat at this tiny 12-seat eatery. The chef, whose name was Hiraoki Toda, said he had only been a meat sushi chef for three months. He had previously been a bartender, but his love of raw meat was so strong it inspired a career change. And from the look of it, he was doing well: the restaurant was full with young people munching their way to raw meat Valhalla.

Next up: a gooey, chunky, pale concoction wrapped in seaweed. I was afraid to ask. But before I could, Toda nodded at me and said: “Raw pork guts.”

I know what you’re saying: yum! For many people, this entire meal probably goes against all things that are good and civilized in the world. And this finale-raw pork-seems as counter-intuitive as eating road kill. After all, how many times did our mothers tell us never to eat raw pork, as if some day we might be stupid enough to actually do it. I guess I am: I commenced chewing, my taste buds absorbing the chewy texture and the porky flavor. When I was done, the couple next to me, slid over a bowl of raw chicken skin. Then raised their pints of beer to me and I followed. “Kompai,” we said, clinking glasses. I came for the raw meat, but I stayed for the new friends I made while I was there.