A Tumblr by Trevor Corson
Trevor is the author of The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice
For information about the historical sushi dinners Trevor hosts, please visit SushiConcierge.com
Feeling happy this morning: Last night I hosted a private dinner at Jewel Bako for a gentleman named Eric and his wife Michelle, to celebrate her birthday. They were both pretty experienced sushi eaters, but Michelle in particular had been playing it safe over the years.
To Eric’s great delight, Michelle ended up trying things Eric had been encouraging her to try for a long time: her first raw shrimp, her first raw scallop, her first piece of raw octopus, and her first saltwater eel. And, for two people who didn’t like mackerel, they both ended up complimenting the chef on a special old-fashioned mackerel preparation.
At the end of the meal, Michelle said that with someone there to talk over the menu in Japanese with the chef, explain everything as it was served, and build her trust in the chef and the ingredients, she’d felt more confident getting out of her comfort zone. Success!
This is why I love hosting these dinners, it’s gratifying. Even Eric, the more experienced one, commented that he was taking away a list of new things he’d learned about the cuisine and eating at the sushi bar.
The only trouble, as Eric complained to me at the end, was that “now it’s going to be awfully hard to go back to eating our regular sushi.”
Being a sushi guidance counselor is hard work—last night I hosted a nearly 3-hour dinner for ten guests (okay, I admit they were delightful) at my Monday-night dinner class series at Jewel Bako restaurant. But there are some perks. I don’t get to eat during the meal, but the maître d’ wouldn’t let me leave without taking a box of sushi home myself. Score.
The sushi in the picture—what the maître d’ insisted on sending me home with in a box, so I couldn’t really argue with him when I opened it up back home—is a more standard fare compared with the Sushi Concierge menu that I arrange for my guests and clients, which skews away from the tunas and fattier farmed fish towards lighter, leaner, and more traditional ingredients, which—bonus—tend to be more healthful and, though not perfectly so, often more sustainable, too.
What a great way to end the day. Hungry?
Today, bluefin tuna is considered the pinnacle of fine sushi, especially bluefin toro—the fatty belly cuts of the fish. This is kind of funny, because just a few decades ago the Japanese considered toro such a disgusting part of the tuna that the only people who would eat it were impoverished manual laborers. And prior to about the 1920s, no self-respecting Japanese person would eat any kind of tuna at all if they could possibly avoid it. Tuna was so despised in Japan that all tuna species qualified for an official term of disparagement: gezakana, or “inferior fish.”
In the old days in Japan, if you had no choice but to eat tuna you’d do everything you could do get rid of the bloody metallic taste of the fresh red meat. One trick was to bury the tuna in the ground for four days so that the muscle would actually ferment, which led to tuna being called by the nickname shibi—literally, “four days.”
Not until the 1840s did an unintentional bumper crop of bluefin in Japan cause sushi makers to try to sell the fish at all, and these were rather pathetic street vendors catering to the lowest classes. They did their best to mask the inherent flavor of the flesh by smothering the red flesh in soy sauce and marinating it for as long as possible. Even today, purveyors that handle bluefin may soak it in ice water all night in an attempt to expunge the less desirable components of the fish’s smell.
The arrival of refrigeration technology made it possible to distribute tuna more widely, and as people gradually grew used to seeing the red meat of tuna on sushi, disdain for the fish decreased. But the fatty cuts of the fish were still considered garbage. There are reports that tuna belly was a common ingredient in Japanese cat food.
After World War II, with the American Occupation and the influx of Western culture into Japan, the Japanese began eating a more Westernized diet, including red meat and fattier cuts of it, which paved the way for the acceptance of tuna and toro in more recent decades in both Japan and the West.
But the current bluefin fad—Atlantic bluefin in particular—remains a historical anomaly, and one partly manufactured deliberately, for corporate profit. During the heyday of Japan’s export economy, Japanese airline cargo executives promoted Atlantic bluefin for sushi so they’d have something to fill their planes up with on the flight from East Coast US cities back to Tokyo. And as the recent documentary film The End of the Line has reported, Mitsubishi Corporation, one of the largest bluefin distributors in the world, now appears to be stockpiling massive amounts of bluefin in enormous high-tech deep freezers so it can make a killing dolling them at inflated prices out after the wild fish is all but gone.
Back in Japan you can still find a few old-school sushi aficionados who disdain bluefin toro. They’ll tell you that toro is child’s play. Anyone can enjoy that simplistic, melt-in-your-mouth succulence, they say. It takes the real skill of a connoisseur to appreciate the more subtle and complex tastes and textures of the traditional kings of the sushi bar—delicate whitefish like flounder and sea bream being some of the best, along with mackerels, jacks, clams, squid, and other types of shellfish that have been popular all along. Personally, I won’t eat bluefin anymore, and I don’t miss it at all. My sushi eating experiences have actually become more interesting as a result.
This post was first published on The Atlantic.
Some days I think the most influential Japanese chef in America might actually have been John Belushi.
If you’ve seen Belushi’s "Samurai Delicatessen" skit, originally performed on Saturday Night Live in 1976, you’ll remember him channeling a touchy Japanese chef, perpetually on the verge of violence, who screamed out loud while slicing ingredients with a sword.
Belushi’s character was a riot, but would you really want him making your lunch? Apparently, for many sushi lovers in America, the answer is “yes.”
Consider this inquiry I received from a reader named Peter the other day:
Does etiquette permit a customer to request sushi without any wasabi? I’ve always been afraid to ask. … There are those famous sushi chefs who kick you out of the restaurant.
Here we have a patron with a simple request—no different, in fact, from a customer at a deli who asks that his sandwich be “very lean on the corned beef,” as the customer does in Belushi’s “Samurai Delicatessen.”
Yet poor Peter is genuinely terrified that the chef will banish him for his insolence, if not disembowel him with a fish knife.
It seems to me that no dining experience should involve this much fear. Unless you’re deliberately after a plate of poisonous blowfish. But as Peter’s comment reveals, many sushi chefs in America have built reputations by inspiring just such dread.
Chief among these is probably Kazunori Nozawa in Los Angeles, whose habit of ejecting customers for minor infractions of etiquette earned him the nickname “the Sushi Nazi”—a formulation borrowed from a popular episode of Seinfeld that featured a dictatorial soup vendor called “the Soup Nazi.”
Every profession has its share of nitpickers and curmudgeons. So why have Nozawa and his ilk acquired such fame? Last fall, the Wall Street Journal even published a report about them called “The Sushi Bullies.” The article claimed that such behavior is the norm in Japan.
But the article also quoted a Japanese chef and instructor named Toshi Sugiura who said quite the opposite—that traditionally, sushi chefs are trained to be polite and friendly, like neighborhood bartenders. So which is true? Is the caricature of the crazy samurai chef based in reality or not?
Sugiura is someone I happen to know well, having spent several months watching him work behind his sushi bar. He has a forceful personality, but he’s more monk than samurai—he wins you over with his warmth. He inspires his American customers to follow proper etiquette, and eat authentic sushi, without threatening anyone with eviction. In fact, his customers are his pals, and the atmosphere at his sushi bar can be delightful and even boisterous.
My own experience of Japanese chefs in Japan, acquired while residing there for several years and eating sushi with Japanese friends at their favorite sushi bars, was that they were more like friendly neighborhood bartenders than surly samurai.
There’s a well-known short story in Japan called “Sushi,” written in 1939 by Kanoko Okamoto, that gives a sense of what a typical old-school sushi bar ought to be like. The chef knows his customers by name and remembers what each one likes to eat and in what order. The atmosphere is relaxed, sometimes even silly.
Why, then, do we assume that Japanese chefs should be tyrants, and that we should put up with their reign of terror, and even reward it? Maybe it’s because we believe we’re getting something authentic. We conjure up a vision of the stern Japanese warrior and feel obliged to become his supplicants. If that’s the case, I can think of a word that describes this impulse well: masochism.
I’d rather enjoy good food along with good company and be treated with respect and perhaps even a dose of charm. Chefs like Sugiura are proof it’s possible for a sushi master to educate Americans into the finer points of their tradition without making us feel like juvenile delinquents.
I’d even argue that sushi chefs ignore at their peril the fact that the relationship between restaurateurs and customers should be a two-way street.
Take bluefin tuna. Most sushi chefs are still blindly serving it, but consumers are waking up to the fact that it’s becoming an endangered fish. I myself won’t eat bluefin anymore. But does etiquette permit a customer to request sushi without it?
It certainly ought to, and even the most stubborn of chefs had better listen. Because if they don’t, sooner or later they’ll lose business to the hip new sushi joint next door that just started serving a menu of sustainable seafood.
As for requesting sushi with less wasabi, wouldn’t it be nice if our friend Peter could feel comfortable enough to ask without fearing for his life? Because then he might learn from his friendly neighborhood chef that sushi with less wasabi is actually the more authentic choice.
"Sushi with too much wasabi is just bad sushi," the chef would say, smiling. "Here, try this piece, I’ve made it with just the right amount of wasabi—only a tiny bit."
And if Peter still felt it was too much for him, the chef could act like that chef in the Japanese short story, and say, “Okay, from now on, I’ll remember to put almost no wasabi at all in your sushi.”
And probably, Peter would keep going back to that sushi bar for the rest of his life.
John Belushi was a comedic genius. For my money, the samurai chef shouldn’t be something to fear. It should remain, as Belushi intended, something to laugh at.
Screen shot at top: Saturday Night Live on Hulu.com.
This post was first published on The Atlantic.
Big things are happening this summer for a big fish. If conservationists get their way, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, a majestic swimmer that’s long been overharvested for the sushi trade, may soon receive protection as an endangered species. Many sushi lovers are understandably upset, because they don’t want to give up their favorite meal.
But I sit down for a sushi meal at some of the best restaurants in America almost every week – as part of my efforts to educate Americans about sushi tradition – and I can safely say that giving up sushi altogether to save the bluefin would be a terrible idea. In fact, the plight of the bluefin is an opportunity for us to enjoy better sushi than ever.
The bluefin tuna is a tiger of the sea, with glistening red flesh that can fetch tens of thousands of dollars per fish. As sushi has spread across America and around the globe, the bluefin has been decimated.
The situation is so dire that efforts to protect the fish are finally gaining traction.
In May, a group of celebrities, including Sting, Elle Macpherson, and Charlize Theron, spoke out against the consumption of bluefin, and in June, Prince Albert of Monaco spearheaded a commitment to list the Atlantic population as an endangered species.
In July, Nicolas Sarkozy pledged France’s support, followed immediately by leaders in Britain. And earlier this month, a former Japanese fisheries minister declared that even the Japanese will have to get used to eating a lot less bluefin. Now the media and blogosphere are alight with talk of culinary doom.
The end of sushi, it seems, is upon us.
But such talk could hurt the bluefin even more.
Sushi connoisseurs tend to be obsessive folks – I know because I am one. If we think we must sacrifice good sushi to save the bluefin, we may just as well keep eating bluefin.
Indeed, the best-known sushi chef in the world, Nobu Matsuhisa, has refused to remove Atlantic bluefin from his 24 luxury eateries around the globe, despite increasing pressure from activists, because he believes connoisseurs won’t dine in his restaurants without it. A Nobu spokesman pledged to list the fish on Nobu’s London menu as “endangered,” but the company then reneged, calling it only “environmentally threatened.”
Chef Nobu may have forgotten the special joys of his own tradition. I wish he would join me for one of my educational sushi dinners to be reminded what makes a sushi lover a true connoisseur.
The people who come to my dinners are American sushi eaters ready to experience and understand a completely authentic Japanese meal. I work with Japanese master chefs, and we provide sushi as it was served in Tokyo in the old days.
And guess what? There’s no bluefin on the plate. There’s no toro, no hamachi, no unagi, and no fatty salmon. None of these usual suspects of today’s global sushi business are part of the traditional sushi lineage. In fact, until just a few decades ago the Japanese considered tuna a garbage fish.
It wasn’t until after World War II, when the Japanese started eating a more Westernized diet, with red meat and fattier cuts of it, that the bluefin fad began. And it was a fad practically invented by Japanese airlines, so they could load their international flights with pricey cargo.
Instead, my dinner guests and I savor the old-school kings of the sushi bar – smaller, lighter, leaner, and more local fish and shellfish that have more interesting flavors and textures.
These items can take some getting used to, and require knowledge about what to look for and how to appreciate it. But I’ve never met a sushi lover who didn’t want to acquire more expertise and experience with the authentic sushi tradition.
My guests finish dinner entranced by their new awareness and these new tastes. In Japan, the most hard-core aficionados pass over the fatty cuts of bluefin, considering them too simplistic a pleasure. Once you experience sushi’s full range, you begin to understand why.
Perhaps the most significant development for bluefin in recent days was a little-noticed event this month in Seattle.
A Japanese chef named Hajime Sato did what celebrity chef Nobu has not had the wisdom to do. With the help of a seafood conservation expert named Casson Trenor, Chef Sato converted his sushi bar, Mashiko, to an entirely sustainable menu.
Although a few other sustainable sushi bars have sprung up in recent months, this was a first for a Japanese chef in America – perhaps anywhere.
Sato no longer serves bluefin. And he’s thrilled. “I found probably 20 more fish that no one uses for sushi anymore,” he says. “My restaurant has so much more different fish that I can’t fit them all into the new menu.”
Sushi doesn’t need to die because the bluefin is endangered. With our help, sushi can be reborn – better than ever.
This post was originally published by the Christian Science Monitor/Yahoo News.
According to some insider info I received recently from a Japanese fish distributor, we can expect the price of hamachi—farmed yellowtail, a sushi favorite—to rise in the near future. The cause: a massive epidemic of red tide that is ravaging Japanese hamachi farms. Details on the red tide epidemic below.
(Red tide is scary stuff—a thousand times more deadly than cyanide. I’ve written more about it in the New York Times.)
Hamachi is not a fish I ever feature in my Sushi Concierge classes and dinners anyway—it’s one of the “usual suspects” of contemporary global sushi that I avoid. Hamachi owes its popularity not to the fact that it’s a traditional sushi topping, but rather to the fact that, like industrially farmed salmon, it’s overfed and underexercised to an unnatural degree to satisfy our modern demand for fat. It’s cloying and oily, probably carrying toxins, and was never considered particularly appealing by traditional sushi aficionados.
As I write in The Story of Sushi:
Hamachi farmers feed the fry three or four times a day. The tiny fish quickly grow to a hundred times their initial weight. The farmers vaccinate the fish, because disease is a constant danger under crowded conditions, just as on salmon farms. Then the fish are transfered into floating pens.
Disease isn’t the only problem. Humans like to eat yellowtail, but yellowtail also like to eat yellowtail, which makes them a tricky species to manage. At night, when the fish stop swimming and drift at the surface, the farmers cull through them and segregate them into different pens by size, so the big fish don’t gobble up the smaller ones.
Every day the farmers fire feed pellets out of a canon into the pens. The feed pellets are similar to the ones salmon farmers use, packed with ground-up fatty fish such as mackerel, herring, sardines, and anchovies, often along with extra doses of oils and vitamins.
The yellowtail eat so much of this feed, and get so little exercise, that the excessive amounts of fat they accumulate actually weaken the matrix of connective collagen fibers that holds their muscles together. That’s why farmed yellowtail is so soft.
Independent researchers have conducted thorough investigations into farmed salmon, revealing that the fish accumulate much higher levels of PCBs from their feed than wild salmon. So far, yellowtail have not been the subject of similar studies, even though lots of people eat high-fat farmed yellowtail in sushi. It would not be surprising if farmed yellowtail have the same problem.
Most yellowtail served in sushi—regardless of the region, type of restaurant, or price the customer pays—come from the same cluster of yellowtail farms, located off the coast of western Japan.
And due to the red tide epidemic, these farms are in trouble. Here’s the insider info I received from the fish distributor, who also talks about “CO”—carbon monoxide—which is widely used in the sushi industry to gas tuna and yellowtail to make it look red after it’s already lost its natural color:
Subject: Massive Death of Hamachi caused by Red Tide
The below is an email I received from a shipper in Japan which explain how this on-going incident might affect Hamachi production/price in near future:
One area has lost 240,000 ps of 2-3 years old Hamachi because of current red tide, and this is where [distributor names] have been sourcing their frozen Hamachi.
Other areas have been hit as well. … The scary part is that this red tide hasn’t been contained, still out there and nobody knows what happens next. …
I feel bad enough for those small Hamachi farmers. They’ve been struggling for years, just barely surviving, but now this natural disaster is hitting them.
About two weeks ago, the guy who has patent on treating Tuna loins with CO just won a case against CO Hamachi packer. People in the industry thought that all other CO Hamachi processors will be in trouble because this guy has been making his living by suing companies. … I didn’t let you guys know about this because I don’t think we need to worry about [distributor names], etc. losing battle against this guy and [distributor name]’s CO Hamachi will become unavailable, or cost gets higher. This guy sued me over three years ago for moving CO treated Tuna in 2003-2004 and my lawyer took care of it and no damage at all. Just like my case, I don’t think a potential lawsuit will do any harm to [distributor names], etc. for sourcing their CO Hamachi.
However, this red tide is different. In Japan, red tide of this magnitude has never occurred, but this year’s much-more-than-normal rain falls and higher air temperature have cause red tide to be formed at a scale which unheard of. Two possible trends to take place soon; 1) The market price will jump; 2) Farmers will harvest remaining Hamachi immediately and turn them into case, or keep them in freezers for later processing. One way of another, Hamachi price has to rise soon, because now Hamachi farmers have to pay higher insurance premiums to feel secure about their inventories.
That mound of pinkish pickled ginger on the plate next to your sushi isn’t an appetizer, nor is it a garnish to be added to the sushi. Believe it or not, it’s more like a serving of ice cream. But it’s not dessert, either. It has a much more specific purpose.
In the traditional style of eating at the sushi bar, the chef serves just one or two pieces of nigiri at a time, featuring a different fish or shellfish with each serving. Each type of fish or shellfish has a particular flavor profile and fat content, and often the differences can be subtle. To fully appreciate the distinctions, it helps to have a clean palate before sampling each new piece of sushi that the chef serves.
The acidic spiciness of pickled ginger is the perfect antidote to the tastes of seafood. And here’s the parallel to ice cream. In sushi, the ginger serves as a palate cleanser between courses—just like sorbet in Western cuisine.
So the proper way to employ your pickled ginger at the sushi bar—or even when dining at a table—is to eat a slice between each different type of fish. It’s like resetting your tongue so each piece of sushi seems new.
All the more reason not to put a piece of ginger on top of your sushi when you eat it, as some of us have always thought we’re supposed to. In fact, this achieves the exact opposite of what’s intended, preventing you from appreciating the subtle flavors of the fish instead of enhancing them.
I didn’t think there was one—until now!
American sushi chefs are reinvigorating the traditional cuisine in surprising ways at the moment. One of the more unusual chefs in this movement is an African American woman in Memphis named Marisa Baggett. She’s just written a touching vignette about how Michael Jackson became part, in a roundabout way, of her effort to master the Japanese culinary arts.
You can read more about Marisa and other American sushi chefs in my recent article on this subject in The Atlantic. There’s also a video slideshow I put together that features Marisa and her African American apprentice, Kevin Sullivan.
I’ve also blogged recently about the curious question of why there are so few women sushi chefs in general.
It comes as a shock to most of us. Not only is that spicy green paste we call “wasabi” not actually wasabi, it’s not even meant to be served alongside your sushi at all.
First things first. What is it? It’s fake. Instead of being real wasabi, it’s just plain old horseradish, plus some mix of mustard extract, citric acid, yellow dye no. 5, and blue dye no. 1. It comes in big industrial bags as a powder, and the chefs mix it with water before dinner to make that caustic paste.
Real wasabi, pictured at right, is a delicate, finicky plant that’s extremely difficult to grow and even more difficult to handle. And it has a more delicate, complex, and sweeter flavor than the fake stuff you’re used to. People who attend my Sushi Concierge dinners are always surprised at how different the real thing tastes.
Real wasabi is a distant relative of horseradish that is native only to Japan and Sakhalin Island, a Russian outpost off Japan’s northern coast, and thrives best in shaded mountain streams. It’s rarely used at most sushi restaurants because it’s so expensive, so rare, and so volatile.
In Japan, even the best sushi chefs, who use real wasabi, generally don’t provide extra wasabi on the plate along with the sushi they serve. That’s because the chef puts exactly the right amount of wasabi inside each piece of sushi when he makes it. Good chefs actually alter the amount of wasabi they add inside each piece of sushi depending on the type of fish being used—less for more delicate fish, more for fattier fish with stronger flavors.
In Japan, sushi is a man’s world. Male chefs use all manner of excuses to defend their sushi bars against women who want to work there. Women can’t be sushi chefs, they say, because makeup, body lotion, and perfume destroy the flavor of the fish and rice. Some male chefs claim that the area behind the sushi bar is sacred space, and would be defiled by the presence of a woman. Others say women don’t have the reflexes necessary for the knife work.
The most common argument against female sushi chefs is that a woman’s hands are warmer than a man’s—the insinuation being that this warmth can somehow “cook” a piece of raw fish. In fact, a study published in The Lancet in 1998 demonstrated that women are likely to have colder hands than men, as I report in The Story of Sushi.
Last night, the diners in my Monday-night Sushi Concierge class were treated to a gorgeous spread of traditional sushi prepared by one of my new favorite chefs, Ms. Sho at Jewel Bako in New York. Everyone agreed the sushi was exquisite. The only disappointing part of the meal was the thought lurking in the back of my head that Ms. Sho would have had a much harder time in Tokyo getting a job at such a top-notch sushi restaurant than in New York. Well, Japan’s loss, our gain.
The reasons given for why women shouldn’t be sushi chefs are ridiculous, of course. It’s just old-fashioned patriarchal prejudice. Check out my webpage on pioneering women in the world of American sushi, and scroll down for interviews with female sushi chefs in Japan.
And here’s a narrated slideshow I put together for the Atlantic featuring an interesting African American female sushi chef in Memphis.
The real-life main character I follow in The Story of Sushi is a woman named Kate Murray. She has a hard time mastering the art of sushi, but it’s not because her hands are too hot!
Photo: Angela Kim, a sushi chef in Los Angeles, was featured in Inland Living magazine. Photo by William Vasta.
Last night I hosted a Sushi Concierge dinner for a family of four, including a young man who was 12 years old. He turned out to be quite the gourmand, keen on the very traditional types of sushi we tried. But he hadn’t yet completely mastered chopsticks. When we started the meal he was worried about this, which gave me the perfect opportunity to share one of my favorites sushi tips: don’t worry, no chopsticks.
True sushi aficionados in Japan seldom use chopsticks to eat sushi. They use their fingers. What a revelation!
And there’s a fascinating reason why. The primary form of sushi eaten in Japan is nigiri—the little hand-packed balls of rice with a slice of fish on top. What most of us don’t realize is that nigiri shouldn’t be packed too tightly. Rather, part of the fun of eating a nigiri is that it should fall to pieces on your tongue. Believe it or not, a sign of perfectly-made sushi is that it’s packed so loosely that it barely holds together until you get it in your mouth.
To eat such loose sushi, you have to know what you’re doing, and you should use your fingers to pick it up—all of them! In fact, chopsticks are probably the worst possible tool for this task. You’d be better off with a shovel. If you insist on eating nigiri with chopsticks, as in the picture above, the chef has to squeeze the rice together extra tight so it won’t break apart. To a sushi gourmand, such tightly-packed rice is a travesty.
Sadly, therefore, most Americans have never eaten a proper nigiri, because most chefs pack the sushi so tight that it’s like biting into a piece of Play Doh—and they do that because they think that we think that we’re supposed to use chopsticks. What a waste!
So next time you’re sitting at a good sushi bar, you can try asking the chef to pack the sushi more loosely, and explain that you’re planning to eat with your fingers. Indeed, when the staff at a good sushi bar sees that you’re eating with your fingers, they may even provide a damp towel or small wet cloth folded into a point, so you can wipe your fingers clean between different types of fish.
A final note, though: sushi aficionados do use chopsticks when eating sashimi—the slices of raw fish without rice.
A reader of The Story of Sushi wrote in to ask whether I could recommend a place to eat sushi in Chicago. After reading my book, this person had started to wonder whether their local sushi joint was up to snuff.
I receive these sorts of comments a lot. After reading the book people realize what they’re missing when they settle for their usual, run-of-the-mill sushi experience.
Unfortunately, the tragedy of sushi in America today is that despite there being sushi restaurants everywhere—in the book I report at least 150 in Chicago alone—it’s still often very hard to find a truly authentic and fulfilling sushi experience. Many sushi chefs don’t expect Americans to be able to appreciate the real deal, so it can very difficult to convince them to treat you as they would a customer from Japan.
That’s exactly why I offer the Sushi Concierge service. Since I speak Japanese, and take the time to build a rapport with the chefs I work with over our shared love of sushi tradition, I’m able to act as a middleman between them and the American diners I bring in, fast-tracking my customers so they get the real deal right away, and providing context and cultural background so the real deal makes sense to the American palate.
There’s a problem with all this, though. People who’ve attended one of my Sushi Concierge dinners frequently complain that I have ruined sushi for them—by which they mean the average sushi they used to be so happy to eat. Once you’ve had an authentic sushi dinner, it’s hard to go back!
But that’s part of my teaching, too. I encourage people to eat sushi less often, but when they do eat sushi, eat better, more authentic sushi. It’s worth it.
I wish I could clone myself, and usher people through Sushi Concierge dinners in Chicago and every other American city, too.
For now, if you don’t live in New York or Washington D.C., I encourage you to pick up a copy of The Story of Sushi, arm yourself with the knowledge inside, and then start shopping around for a chef you like. It can take time and patience.
As for Chicago, I generally don’t make recommendations for specific sushi restaurants—here’s why.
A sushi lover in New York just asked me: “What do you think of Yama on Irving place? My roommates are addicted, and I think it’s good, but just wondering the thoughts of a real critic! :)”
Here’s the thing—I never recommend sushi restaurants. And here’s why:
I sometimes make references to specific sushi restaurants, but having spent a lot of time hanging around with people in the sushi industry, often seeing things that average customers don’t, it’s become clear to me that when it comes to getting an authentic sushi experience, what matters much more than going to the “right” restaurant is cultivating a relationship with a sushi chef over time. As you get to know the chef, and keep visiting him (or her) again and again, you can convince that chef to start opening up his full repertoire of traditional skills and ingredients to you. After a while you’ll never look at the menu and you’ll be eating like a Japanese person.
And the Americans sitting next to you at the sushi bar will be like, “Hey, that’s not on the menu—how did you get that?”
So instead of recommending specific restaurants, I recommend that you shop around, always sitting at the sushi bar, until you find a chef who likes to chat and is open to educating you. Then keep going back.
That said, there’s certainly a case to be made for avoiding certain sushi restaurants. Like maybe the one pictured above?
Illustration by Craig Phillips for The Atlantic.
A nice surprise reading the Times with breakfast this morning and discovering that the Week in Review section featured an excerpt from my article in the June issue of the Atlantic on how American sushi chefs are helping to bring the cuisine back to its Japanese roots.
There are many things we Westerners don’t know about eating sushi, chief among them the fact that plain old soy sauce is actually not a very good match for most raw fish. Indeed, at a really good sushi bar, it’s often best not to use soy sauce at all.
As I explained at a Sushi Concierge dinner last night, that’s because a top-notch chef will season each piece of sushi for you as he makes it, using special sauces and garnishes that he’s created to match the subtle flavors of the different ingredients. In Japan, many high-level chefs will do this as a matter of course; in the U.S., you may have to ask, or shop around until you find a chef who’s willing to go to the trouble.
One of the primary types of special sauces that sushi chefs prepare is called nikiri. Last fall a food writer in Washington D.C. named Tim Carman read about nikiri in my book The Story of Sushi and asked me to accompany him to a sushi bar to get the real deal. Check out his very interesting report on nikiri here.
P.S. If you want to try making your own nikiri, I describe how to do it here. It takes some work, but it’s a far more interesting taste experience than plain old soy sauce.