Lost in Translation

Ichiban in Japanese.

Ichiban in Japanese.

“Ichiban” (Japanese) – literally “first” with an air of superiority; alternatively, “the shiznit” as urban slang….

This is NOT a story about shiznit. It is a story about things getting Lost in Translation, a favorite pastime of the Japanese.Realizing that Jody and I will probably not eat enough Japanese food while living in Okinawa over the next three years (here’s where you should feel the sarcasm dripping down the back of your neck), we decided – after an exhausting day of moving and packing for our Far East Fling – to head over to one of our favorite local Japanese restaurants in Pensacola, Ichiban.

Ichiban has been consistently good, marginally authentic, and we both consider it one of our better Asian-inspired and flavored eateries.  We ask for one of their low tables, the gimmicky ones with a tatami floor, you know, to help us get into the habit of taking our shoes off about five times as often as we ‘Mericans do in the states.  I glance over at the Sushi bar, and I see THREE what appear to be full-blooded and able-bodied Japanese sushi chefs.  No Amerasians or API knock-offs here.  Oh, and they are working in a space the size of small linen closet.  The ambiance is good; picturesque Japanese-themed décor in low light, all seats taken by eager, happy and hungry customers.

Ichiban, Pensacola, FL

Ichiban, Pensacola, FL

And then our overly caucasian waiter shows up.

No problem.  He’s very courtesy, soft-spoken, and by all appearances, seems to be a seasoned waiter capable of handling the most complex of sushi orders.  So, we start to order, and something odd happens….

Jody orders a couple of sushi rolls and asks to leave the cream cheese off, to which the waiter – we’ll call him Gaijin for purposes which complement this blog oh so well (and if you really appreciate this particular vernacular reference, please leave a comment!) – jokes that he too dislikes cream cheese on his sushi and gladly annotates his order-taking/keeping pad just so.  One hopes.

Now my turn.  I order vegetable tempura – a very hard thing to cook properly at home (seltzer water is the key in the batter, but mum’s the word).  One of the primary reasons I asked Jody to marry me stems from our mutual, shall we say, “dislike” of mushrooms, and since the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty keeps me from declaring global thermonuclear war on all mushrooms far and wide, I asked Gaijin to substitute another vegetable in place of ‘shrooms.

He smiles helpfully as he offers his first and almost instantaneous suggestion for a viable substitute for the disgusting and offensive fungi:  cucumbers.

Jody and I share one of those almost imperceptible yet knowing glances with each other, the kind that come only from a deep intimacy, mentally and silently both stating in unison, “cucumber tempura??”  I swear Jody’s lips mimed this phrase!

I look up at Gaijin and smile that kind of smile where you don’t know exactly what to say without embarrassing someone you don’t know nor wish to put on the spot.  I start, trying to buy some time while my mind raced for a more optimal solution, “Well, I was thinking more like….”

“Asparagus?” Gaijin replies.

If we could only empty them on our command.

If we could only empty them on our command.

“Yes,” my response comes, said quickly in relieved fashion.  But then immediately the thought flashes through my mind:  asparagus is not normally a “standard” tempura vegetable.  Way too expensive.  Confusion returns, but all seems well and I really like tempura asparagus, so I let this portion of my order go.  And I continue order udon soup – my favorite Asian soup besides maybe Vietnamese Pho – as my main dinner entrée.

The service is good and attentive, and our drinks and Japanese ginger tea quickly arrive.  But we wait and wait, and for a tempura appetizer, it seems an inordinately long period of time.

And then suddenly food appears.  Jody gets her sushi rolls…as ordered.

And just as suddenly, what appear to be sushi rolls are placed in front of me.  “Veggie sushi roll,” Gaijin speaks softly as he glides a plate in front of me.

Vegetable Sushi - what's the point? And not what I ordered....

Vegetable Sushi – what’s the point? And not what I ordered….

“Oh I don’t think so!” I reply.  Now he looks as equally perplexed.  “No, I ordered the vegetable tempura.”  More bewilderment as you can literally see the waiter replaying in HIS mind the order-taking process from 15 minutes prior, but surely one of fifty tonight to try and remember, and no doubt, one of hundreds for the week which would befuddle even the most proficient of servers.

Weird yet Official Signage in Japan

Weird yet Official Signage in Japan

No problem.  Mistakes happen.  And as quickly as the food was placed, it was removed while Gaijin retires to correct his mistake.  In the meantime, my soup does arrive.  As ordered, mind you, but not as prepared as it is in the orient.  Nor does it taste even remotely like even the shadow of an udon soup bowl in the Far East….

Delicious Udon Soup.  It awaits me somewhere in Okinawa....

Delicious Udon Soup. It awaits me somewhere in Okinawa….

Jody and I, however, make the best of our situation and endeavor to happily enjoy our food, talking about how much we look forward to eating out in Okinawa.

And my tempura arrives….

An official boatload of tempura....

An official boatload of tempura….

…to our shock and awe.  And even speechless amazement.

It is a “tempura boat” dinner entrée!  I literally have never seen more tempura on one plate – which happens to be one of those cheesy boats so often used in American Asian food – in my life.  Certainly easily enough to feed a table of four, if not six comfortably.  So large, in fact, that it’s quite ridiculous not just to be placed on my table, but served with another entrée item off the menu…to a single diner.



At this point really all we can do is laugh.  And we do.  However, as I’m smirking about the foolishness of this particular situation, I do tell Gaijin that what and all I really wanted was a couple of hot, succulent, perfectly breaded pieces of tempura.  Well, actually no, I didn’t say exactly that; I did say that I wanted the appetizer tempura, and at this point, Gaijin offers a final apology and retires quickly, and quite unexpectedly extricates himself from the awkward situation.  Of his making.

Needless to say, the attentiveness to our needs for the remainder of the evening was significantly curtailed.

So, this actually turned out to be the perfect way to prepare if not wet our expectations – and our taste buds – for our upcoming Far East Flirtations with any number of forthcoming culinary adventures.  We, at least, can be assured that our wait staff overseas will be…for sure Japanese…and mostly correct in translation, even though quite certainly English will be at least their second language.

And hopefully, god willing, this will be our LAST silly gaijin-boatload of tempura.

PS – if you couldn’t figure out or decipher the featured graphic, below you’ll find the key: