Food: If You Knew Sushi Like I Know Sushi

April 30, 2014



I was blindsided the other day while walking through my local shopping mall.  Not physically, I hasten to add, but verbally.  You see, in the middle of one of the walkways there’s a fairly pleasant café offering light bites, toasted sarmies and the like, much frequented by shoppers, retired elderly gentlemen eyeing harassed mothers, and mall rats.  As part of the café’s offerings, they have one of those conveyor belts on which sit colour-coded plates bearing portions of sushi.  Or what passes for sushi in South Africa.

I was blindsided by a singularly piercing voice that stopped me in my tracks.  After looking around, I perceived the voice emanating from a male child some five years in age, who clearly has a future as a side-show barker or an auctioneer. But that doesn’t concern us. What concerns me was the child’s demand, “No Mommy, I want a Fashion Sandwich and a Hand-roll”.  It was delivered with all the imperiousness of a Queen Victoria declaring war or annexing a mineral-rich territory.  It was clear that the child’s mother was about to comply.  I was sorely tempted to slam-dunk the child into a pot of boiling miso soup whilst simultaneously slicing and dicing the mother in a display of dexterous Teppanyaki nakiri-bocho knife skills, but I didn’t.  I didn’t because I don’t carry my nakiri-bocho with me everywhere I go, pots of boiling miso soup are a no-no (they should barely simmer), and it was neither the child nor the mother’s fault that they are so grossly ignorant.  They are merely party to the awful terminal decline of sushi in South   Africa.

What’s so wrong with a child making a snack choice in a clear and decisive manner? My response is that it is not the child making a choice (though any child who spoke to me in that offensively entitled way would receive a snot-klap, no further questions), nor the wearily compliant mother who is objectionable.  No, it is what sushi has become in this country – a trendy but commonplace snack on the level of a packet of crisps or a Kit-Kat.  It is a fate that this noble, storied and exquisitely refined food does not deserve.

I blame the kugels.  I blame the kugels of Sandton, of Constantia, of Umhlanga and PlettenbergBay.  They are all affluent areas, and the residents of those areas had a chance to travel abroad, where they were introduced to this novel, hip and healthy foodstuff (though what Tim Noakes would say now about the rice and carb content I don’t dare think, hey).

But kugel appreciation of sushi hinges on the following:   “I love sushi, I really do, it’s my absolute best, fabulous! I just can’t stand the taste of fish!” (Pronounce fish as “fush”, will you?  Thank you).

Because of this widely held viewpoint, sushi-bars have tailored their menus to suit the demand.  As a result, all you get is salmon and tuna, tuna and salmon, badly filleted, low grade, bland and tasteless, on and on.  After all,  “No, we used to eat that anyway, so it isn’t strange and foreign. Smoked salmon is divine, and I often have a tuna salad when I’m dieting”.

Why bother?

Sushi began in Japan as a method of preserving fish sometime in the 8th century.  Fermented rice was layered with fish fillets.  At some point people stopped throwing the rice away and began to eat it together with the fish.   This most basic form still survives today as chirashi-zushi,  in which seafood is shredded and scattered on top of a bowl of vinegared rice. The vinegar is reputed to have come in with Emperor Keiko, who liked his clams served with vinegar.  Who wouldn’t? Actually, it had to wait until rice vinegar was developed.  The concept of fermenting, and thus preserving fish, had been knocking around Asia for quite some time and led to the development of those fermented fish sauces which are essential for the regional cooking.  (The Romans did something similar with anchovies, but that’s another story).

The fermented fish did pong somewhat, whereas vinegar did the preserving thing without the honk, which probably explains why it quickly became the dominant method.  And don’t be judgemental – look at the Swedes and their lutefisk.   Ever whiffed that?

Sushi actually refers to the rice – su meaning fermented or vinegared.   Blocks of raw seafood alone are called sashimi and have been part of the Japanese celebration of and appreciation for their abundant seafood for a long time.   The little patties of rice topped with seafood fillets were developed in the 18th Century (Nigiri-zushi)  and prior to that you had pressed blocks of rice and seafood (hako-zushi).  The rolls (maki) came about when sushi catered to the masses and became a form of fast food.

All of which brings us back to my indignation about sushi being treated contemptuously as snack food in South Africa.  If it was fast food in the Edo period of Japan, why am I getting so hot under the collar? Well, it was never fast food in the sense that we know it.  Perhaps it would be better to refer to it as portable food, or picnic food or even sophisticated canapés. While home cooks could and would prepare it in simple forms, expert chefs arose – the sushi itamae, who developed the very best ways of filleting the seafood to extract maximum flavour; who could serve and contrast a progression of flavours and textures that eventually combined into a sublime, unified experience.  That form of sushi does not come cheaply as anyone who has eaten in a top flight establishment knows.   However, good, honest, high quality sushi is accessible at affordable prices to most in other countries, but not here.

What is served up here is a sloppy approximation.  The choice seems limited to salmon or tuna for nigiri-zushi  and cucumber, carrot and (horrors) imitation crab sticks for maki.    Avocado was a non-authentic Californian addition but crops up here, even though it was intended as a substitution for the rare fatty tuna. If you are lucky enough to get a shredding of nori (the black seaweed sheet) it has not been toasted, the proportion of seafood to rice is completely inverted and out of kilter, and let us not even begin to consider the inept application of wasabi, which is more often than not absent – what’s worse, the little nub of wasabi paste served alongside is an adulterated powder dyed green.   The wasabi applied to the sushi by the maker should suffice, but as a courtesy, extra is provided for those who really like the turbo-blast that real wasabi delivers.

Johannesburg gets better and fresher fish and seafood than Cape Town, believe it or not.  There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have an interesting array of fish on offer in a sushi bar.  And for the tuna obsessed – what we get here is largely albacore and a far cry from the quality belly meat served up in genuine sushi-restaurants in Japan.  Anyway, that’s largely blue-fin tuna which is very endangered, and goes for hundreds of thousands of dollars at the famed Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.  Authenticity and diverse taste sensations would require sushi-yas in Johannesburg to do daily marketing with seasonal availability. It’s just not financially worthwhile because of the pig-ignorant dominance of the salmon and tuna, tuna and salmon brigade.

Now let’s talk about the rice. Sushi rice should be short-grained, cleaned and rinsed, soaked and carefully cooked. The vinegar dressing (containing other ingredients like mirin) is mixed in while the rice is still hot, and the whole is vigorously fanned while turning, so that the dressing not only flavours the rice with a subtle sourness, but also glazes each kernel so that they are bright and glossy. It goes without saying that the rice should never be soggy, bland or mushy.   The rice should be packed into the finger forms at a density appropriate to the topping.  It should never be a heavy, glutinous mass.

Try and sample the quality of rice here.  In Japan (and good establishments elsewhere) it is appropriate to ask for a piece of the blandest form of sushi to begin with so you can appraise the rice.  Usually it is tamago , the thin, rolled, dashi-flavoured omelette atop a finger of sushi rice.  If the rice and its texture, flavour and quality is not to your liking, it is perfectly good manners to leave, there and then, and go in search of a better establishment.

They say it takes ten years to become a sushi-ya, and far longer to became an itamae.  The apprentice spends the first two years doing grunt work – rolling towels, emptying slop-buckets, scaling fish and the like.  After that comes three years of learning how to cook the rice.  Only once that is mastered does the apprentice begin to learn filleting techniques, the selection of seafood, the pickling of accompaniments and the more arcane, zen-like and spiritual aspects of the work.

You didn’t think there could be a spiritual dimension to the making of food?  Try to track down a superb documentary available on DVD called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” about one of the greatest sushi-itamae in Japan today.  The dedication, artistry and focus of this man and his sons is extraordinary.  I guarantee you will never be able to consider sushi as slightly exotic fast-food after viewing it.   You may even gain some respect for it.

My own initiation came, like the kugels, on my first trip abroad.  Actually, I fell in love with the extraordinary range and flavours of Japanese cuisine in general.  Back home, I discovered there were but two restaurants in Johannesburg claiming to serve Japanese food.  One was down the lower end of Commissioner Street, a dark little establishment catering mainly to Japanese businessman adrift in the Western desert of apartheid South Africa.  The Japanese had been declared honorary whites for commercial reasons to facilitate trade, but they were discreet and exotic, nonetheless. As the Japanese community grew, a tiny grocery store serving its needs opened up and soon appended a small restaurant.  Called Daruma, it settled on the Illovo border on Corlett Drive for some time.  Eventually the restaurant alone grandly relocated to Sandton, since it had been discovered by a whole range of Joburgers and was far more popular than the shop.

The proprietress was more than bemused by the young Westerner who frequented her store, but was more than willing to explain the use and preparation of various foodstuffs, occasionally summoning me to a minute kitchenette at the back where she would demonstrate a technique.

And so I began to attempt simple Japanese food at home, and made a few faltering attempts at sushi, limited as I was by the constrained range of fresh fish and seafood available in Johannesburg at the time, and my own ineptitude.  Whenever I could find them, I’d buy yet another Japanese cookbook; now they are easily available, but then you had to search high and low.  I cherish a photo I have of actress Fiona Ramsay, who dressed appropriately in a magnificent kimono, about to sample my efforts.  It was her first taste of Japanese food, made by a nice Jewish boy in wildly bohemian Yeoville.

Sushi became “big” in America in the late Sixties, beginning on the West Coast where university students and the like were more open to exotic Asian cuisine.  On the East Coast, sushi bars grew exponentially as New York businessmen sought out places to impress new Japanese business partners, and where they could cut deals.  (At more or less the same time, there was an explosion of classical French restaurants in Tokyo.  Go figure…).

My brother and his family relocated to Pasadena and I would often visit – I still do.  Pasadena is the gateway to the San Gabriel Valley, which is now ground zero for echt Asian restaurants in LA.  My brother had a work colleague called Toshi who had made it his life’s work to discover the best sushi joint in greater Los Angeles.  It was Toshi who occasionally invited me along on his expeditions and taught me the finer details of sushi appreciation, especially the dazzling range and forms it could take.  Bet you didn’t know that there is cooked sushi in multiple styles. (It’s called aburi).  It was also Toshi who taught me the value of handing the choice over to the itamae if his Tomago proved acceptable.  By saying “Omakase” to the man (“I leave it up to you”), a gifted sushi chef’s true artistry comes to the fore, as he sets out to impress and demonstrate his ability.

Regrettably, I can’t think of a single sushi restaurant in Johannesburg where I could do that. Salmon and tuna, tuna and salmon!   Curse you, Kugeldom!   There may be a real sushi genius somewhere in Gauteng, but they don’t let it show because all they’re asked for is salmon and tuna.   And while we’re on the subject, a word or two on basic sushi etiquette.

Firstly, don’t rub the chopsticks against each other “to remove splinters” – it is considered very rude, as no-one would ever give you chopsticks that would do so. For that matter, don’t struggle with chopsticks if you’re not adept at their usage. Sushi is finger food.

Don’t mix the wasabi paste into the soy sauce.  If there is not enough on your piece of sushi add a dab with your chopsticks.  Making a soy/wasabi slurry is uncouth.  Anyway, you’re trying to taste the subtle flavours that the itamae has assembled for you, not sear your tastebuds into silence.

Don’t drown the piece of sushi in soy.  Firstly, it will very likely fall apart, and secondly, you’re killing the true flavour of the sushi which is meant to be clean, clear, individual and fresh.  That’s why you use the pickled ginger – gari – to refresh your palate in between different types.  (Unfortunately, it’s likely to be that ghastly pink-dyed stuff that tastes of artificial sweetener instead of the real thing, here in SA).  If you are sampling nigiri-zushi , flip it so it is the seafood that is moistened by the soy, not the rice.  In the same way, the fish should touch your tongue with the rice on top.  And don’t munch your piece of sushi with a slice of gari on top.  That’s akin to saying that the itamae does not know how to flavour his portions – very rude, indeed.

Don’t point with your chopsticks.  If you are transferring a morsel from a communal platter, lift it onto your own plate with the reverse ends of your sticks (the blunt side).  When your chopsticks are not in use (I told you that sushi is primarily finger food) let them lie parallel to the table or bar edge in front of you with the sharp ends balanced on the chopstick rest – and if you have not been given one, make it with a piece of crumpled serviette.  If you balance them on top of your sauce bowl it’s a signal that that’s it, you’ve had enough.

Take your time, savour the different flavours and textures and appreciate the artistry of the chefs.  Presentation is big in Japanese cookery and meant to appeal to all of your senses.

All of the above predicates on the fact that you are sitting in a genuine sushi restaurant where such things matter, but my beef still applies because of the paucity of such places in South Africa. It is time to stop accepting, out of the ignorance engendered by hip-ness and fashionability, the forth-rate rubbish dished out in the name of sushi in this country.  Little children growing up thinking that sushi is equivalent to orange-dyed Niknaks are symptomatic of the level of trendoid foolishness among their parents.  If you don’t know, educate yourself.  Teaching children to truly appreciate food is one of the gifts that parents should bestow.

For the record, the one place I do eat sushi in Johannesburg is Hokkaido in Norwood.  It’s not brilliant, but it’s good and honest, and they do make an effort to extend the range of sushi available, depending on the seasonable availability of seafood.   You might see yellowtail, octopus, mackerel, eel, kabeljou and sea-urchin in addition to salmon and tuna, tuna and salmon.  They have a double teppan station for those who like a bit of flamboyant show and tell with their meal and the general Japanese menu is pretty good.  They are one of the few places where you can get an authentic chawan mushi (which is a steamed savoury egg custard), and they do an excellent tempura udon.

Hokkaido Japanese Restaurant, 40A Grant Avenue, Norwood, tel: 011-728-7882.