SUSHI: WE HARDLY KNEW YEE (Part One)
Sushi jumped the shark a long time ago. It maintained a slice of its dignity throughout the ‘90’s, but by the turn of the century it crossed the pizza line, never to return to what it is supposed to be. I remember being amused the first time I saw sushi rolls (maki-zushi) in Trader Joe’s ten years ago, just as I recall being horrified when they became staples in the isles of Costco and Wal-Mart around 2005.
To hear me expound on this phenomenon on KNPR- Nevada Public Radio (rather than read the incisive and witty prose for which ELV is known)….click here.
Like pizza, sushi, in its native and best form, is about the combination of a few, pristine ingredients into something far greater than the sum of its parts. And like the cheap cheese, doughy, over laden bread concoction that pizza has become, sushi in America is now so far removed from whence it came that it can’t even remember its roots, much less try to respect them. And like pizza, the entire cult of raw fish has become so twisted that it no longer matters whether it’s any good or not.
Sushi literally means: “it’s sour” and refers to the rice not the fish. Just as Vera Pizza Napolentana (certified authentic Italian pizza) is more about the dough than the toppings upon it, sushi is supposed to be about the rice at least as much as the fish garnishing it — something that’s become lost in this race to the bottom of the ocean. Connoisseurs look for and praise the taste and texture of the sumeshi (vinegared sushi rice) as the true star of sushi. That rice is always the starchy, short-grained Japonica rice to which sake, rice vinegar, sugar, salt and sometimes kelp are added. Americans who praise huge slices of fish on tightly packed gummy rice are missing the whole point.
Sushi was unheard of in American until well after World War II, but in the last twenty years it has slithered its way into the American consumer consciousness on the twin fins of healthfulness and cheap seafood – although it’s doubtful these days just how healthful giant maki rolls containing avocado, ham, mayonnaise and cream cheese actually are. And the fatty belly or toro (chu-toro or o-toro — depending on where in the belly the flesh comes from) now runs at least $100 for a few slices in any top sushi restaurant in Vegas. Interestingly, toro was unpopular with the Japanese after the war, since it spoiled quickly and lacked “umami” – the “fifth taste” found in such items as dried kelp and dried bonito (not to mention mackerel, anchovies, Parmagiano-Reggiano cheese and a dry-aged New York strip).
In its present form, sushi didn’t become popular in Japan until the 19th Century, in the form of a quick lunch for urban Japan’s growing mercantile class. In those days, all of the seafood atop the sour rice, was fermented, marinated, cured or cooked. It was the fast food of its day and spread throughout the country after the Tokyo earthquake of 1923. The small rectangles of rice topped with fish we take for granted in sushi restaurants is Edo (Tokyo)-style nigirizushi. (when sushi is used as a suffix, the “s” becomes a “z”)
Some sushi chefs in Japan are so fanatical about their rice that the rice grains in each piece of nigirizushi always face the same direction. “Nigiri” means to grasp or clutch – which is the way the rice is shaped by the hand. The apprenticeship for such craftsmanship lasts ten years in Japan although many, like Nobu Matsuhisha (the founder of the Nobu empire), abandon this rigorous training years short of the required goal. Even worse, sushi “schools” have sprung up in Southern California (and no doubt elsewhere) offering “degrees” and “certifications” in sushi-making after only months of training. In other words, in Japan this revered skill requires advanced training akin to an advanced degree. In America, a GED will do.
The best description of what sushi should taste like comes from Toshihiro Uezu chef and owner of Manhattan’s Kuruma Zushi in a fascinating article on sushi and sashimi by Elisa Herr in The Art of Eating, (Number 77, 2008): “It’s the flavor of the of the rice, the quality of the fish, the taste of the nori (seaweed), all combining with a touch of soy in the mouth.” He told her “The fish and rice should hold together (barely), be small enough to eat in one bite so the fish isn’t torn, and the rice should fall apart in your mouth.”
According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, only 10% of the Japanese restaurants in America are owned by Japanese. (AofE No. 77) Korean-Americans own most of the sushi bars in Vegas, but you’re just as likely to see a Latino or a kid from Nebraska making that Rock-n-Roll or Rainbow Roll for you. But unlike pizza, there are no sushi franchises out there (yet), and no ad campaigns have ever been launched to extol the virtues of eating Japanese. None of this, however, explains the crazy popularity of sushi, and why it threatens (or maybe has) replaced Italian food as America’s favorite eating out option.
Trying to critique American-modern “sushi” restaurants with an awareness of what sushi is supposed to be like is like reviewing The Dukes of Hazzard through the prism of Citizen Kane. Nevertheless, two sushi restaurants opened recently, within weeks of each other in two of our most prominent hotels, and the menus of both may help explain just what makes this food so irresistible to the American palate.
Coming soon: complete reviews of Sushi Samba and Yellowtail.