I am forty years old – geez that sounds old – and I remember growing up that sushi was an exotic cuisine here in Los Angeles. Today, it seems sushi exists on every block in most metropolitan areas of the US, and even the entire world. What was once a cause for a shudder of “ew, raw fish” is now something seen as a safe option for a blind date. But what exactly is sushi, how did it originate, and how can one experience it both in Japan and around the world? In this profile, we will delve into the force that is sushi, examining where it came from and where it may be going.
It is unclear exactly when sushi began as a cuisine, but it stems from a process in both China and Japan of preserving fish in rice. The rice would ferment, fermenting the fish, thereby keeping it safe to eat for a considerable period of time. Documentation from the fourteenth century shows that some among the Japanese elite preferred to eat the raw fish wrapped in rice before it fermented. This was called namanare. It was also during this period that vinegar began to be added to the rice, shortening the fermentation process.
Ultimately, over the subsequent centuries, fermenting the fish phased out. Instead, fish was eaten directly with vinegared rice. Pressed into shape with wooden molds, it was called oshi-zushi. During the Edo period of the 1600-1800s, the molds were removed, and vinegared rice was served with a piece of fresh raw fish over it. That is the beginning of modern nigirisushi.
Today, sushi in Japan is as serious of a cuisine as classical French sauce work is to that country. Becoming a sushi master takes years, or even decades, of study and apprenticeship, learning precisely how to handle each type of fish. But what any sushi master will tell you is that sushi begins with the rice. Sushi rice is short grained Japanese rice mixed with vinegar, cooled to room temperature to be able to handle with bare hands. It is said that some masters will have their apprentices separate rice out by exact size so that cooking is completely even. In Jiro Dreams of Sushi (watch with a drool cloth), the chef speaks about rice being more important even than fish in the sushi process.
In Japan, one can find sushi ranging from very inexpensive, paid for by the piece, to pris fixe gastronomic adventures in Michelin starred establishments. If you enjoy sushi, I recommend trying one of the latter. When I was in Tokyo in 2017, I was lucky enough to dine at Ginza Iwa, a Michelin starred sushi restaurant consisting of six seats and the chef. The experience is pricy, more than $100 per person – and I think closer to $200 – but is a combination dinner and a show. The chef prepared 25 courses, most of a single piece of sushi, in front of us, dazzling with his knife skills before amazing with the flavors. At a place like this, one eats what one is served, as it is served. There is no side of soy sauce or wasabi. If the chef wants those, he will put them on.
At the other end of the spectrum, the best cheap sushi I found was a conveyer belt joint inside of the Kyoto train station. (Yes, I went to the train station just for dinner.) Plates come down a belt pre-loaded with sushi, and the color of the plate let’s you know how much it is. You pay according to the pile of plates at the end. I believe I filled up for around $15-20 with high quality sushi!
Here in the US, we have a combination of more traditional sushi – nigiri, or fish served over rice – and some bastardized, but tasty, hybrids: sushi rolls. In Japan, there is no such thing as a Philadelphia roll (rice and seaweed wrapped around salmon, cucumber, and cream cheese) and I’m guessing most Japanese would look down on such a monstrosity. However, the American spirit of cuisine hybrids has allowed for some pretty fascinating combinations, and at a decent sushi place here, I delight in my spicy tuna filled, tempura fried, salmon and avocado covered goodness.
Modern trends, especially in a more environmentally-conscious United States, would see sushi lean more toward local and fully sustainable fishing. Geisha Sustainable Sushi in Capitola, California offers Arctic char sushi, for example, and it is delicious! With over-fishing of things like tuna being a real concern, a move to more sustainable ingredients would be both beneficial and culinarily adventurous. I wonder what else would make good sushi. Sand dabs? Mahi mahi? Who knows?! (The Texan concept of beef in sushi is an abomination and I hope it doesn’t spread widely.)
It has been fascinating watching sushi change from a fringe cuisine here in the US, seen as just something for Japanese-Americans and a few adventurous gastronomes, to something available in nearly every grocery store, out of food trucks, and with lines for all-you-can-eat joints all over the country. It is one of my personal favorites, and I am excited to be able to share it with you!
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