It’s 2014 and chances are if you are savvy enough to use the internet and know what a blog is (and I know you do), chances are that you’ve had sushi. Very American, very Western sushi. Delicious and saucy, raw tuna or salmon with rice rolled up into a tasty treat with avocado, cucumber, tempura, wasabi, and soy sauce. Yum. Can’t get enough. Your belly hurts thinking about the last time you couldn’t refuse that last little piece of a Philadelphia roll, named such because it really is a Western creation.
But what really makes sushi sushi? Surprisingly it’s not the raw fish. You are actually not eating sushi if you are eating a simple piece of raw fish, you are eating sashimi. It seems ridiculous but here in Japan you can have fried chicken or hamburger sushi and it is legitimate sushi. What makes sushi is the rice, it has sushi vinegar. There is a real art to sushi rice and it can be complex, mixing different vingars and types of rice (medium or short grain) as well as other seasonings. A good sushi chef will take their rice seriously. Furthermore, sushi in Japan is not covered in hot sauce or teriyaki, and not usually in rolls with several flavors. It is much more often the simpler “nigiri style” with a little ball of rice, wasabi and a topping, the “neta” draped over the top. The neta is usually salmon, tuna, mackerel, eel, you get the idea. Wasabi has historically provided an important part to the sushi as well. In addition to making the fish seem sweeter, it is an antibacterial and helped prevent food poisoning when refrigeration was not available.
When one chances to find oneself in Tokyo as I did a little while ago, what better to do than to eat sushi? Authentic, fresh never frozen Japanese sushi. The answer is nothing. That is what my husband Matt and I did. We started our trip in Tokyo in the Ometasando neighborhood and ate at Sushi Yasuda, later exploring the famous Tsujiki Fish Market and having a 6 AM sushi breakfast at Daiwazushi.
Confident chefs in the West like to show you they know how good their restaurant is by not giving you salt or pepper on your table. Any sushi chef worth their wasabi won’t like to give you soy sauce in a similar fashion. Chef Yasuda did give us soy sauce but told us we did not need it; we knew he was watching us closely to make sure we did not do the forbidden faux pas and insult him. Indeed, the beautiful flavors of the rice, wasabi, and fish often salted and drizzled with lemon juice presented to us would have been distorted by soy sauce. In fact, Chef Yasuda owned one of the first sushi restaurants in New York City, it is hugely successful today but he sold it as he wanted to have a smaller venue and be more of a chef than a manager.
At Sushi Yasuda we opted for the 12 piece tasting menu and got to try cuttlefish, yellowtail tuna, ocean trout, scallop, scallion sprout, sea urchin, toro, mackerel, eel, omelet, and a different eel. Matt and I agreed that the eel or unagi was our favorite. Soft and sweet they melted in our mouths. The toro and red shrimp were delicious and I loved the little scallion sprouts. They were tangy and tickled your tongue. The sea urchin may be a taste we have not yet acquired as the bitter flavor was the only bite we did not enjoy. We had an amazing meal, the sushi was fabulous and the rice which he told us was a secret mix of rices and vinegars was perfection.
A couple days later we made the very early morning trip to the fish auction at the Tsujiki Fish Market. It will soon be moved to another location in Tokyo and is one of those quinessential Tokyo experiences, so we got up at 3:15 AM to get to the auction by 4 AM. Ouch. Each giant tuna had a thin slice taken out that the buyers were inspecting for levels of oiliness, feeling with their fingers and looking carefully with their flashlights.
At 6 am we wandered over to the area where sushi is served in tiny little restaurants with about eight seats around each sushi bar. We entered Daiwazushi, one of the most famous sushi stalls at the fish market. We got the 12 piece assortment which was probably far too much sushi for a six o’clock breakfast. The sushi at Tsujiki Fish Market is the freshest sushi you can find in the world. I truly believe this. It was not fishy. It was sweet. It was salty. It was far too beautiful of a breakfast for a person who has not yet had their coffee. They gave us huge chunks of fish. We had tuna, sea urchin, scallop, shrimp, squid, salmon roe, omelet as well as other things. We were there for only about half an hour and a long line had developed outside the door so we left, full, ready for a midmorning nap.
Western style sushi is really really good. I honestly still love it. The simple perfection of Japanese sushi challenges it though. Why if your fish is so good do you have to cover it with so much sauce? Why do you have to create an amalgam of avocado and cucumber and teriyaki if your rice is being hidden beneath their strong flavors? If you love sushi you owe it to yourself to try Japanese style sushi to fully understand the beauty of this cuisine.