Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sushi: 100 yen or 100 dollars?


That one word was enough to bring me to Japan. It is a global food, an international delight, known for its simplicity and its freshness, but I must say:

 I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

Sushi is a different beast in Japan. To begin with, there are no sushi rolls. They just don’t do that here. Sushi means rice with vinegar, fish and a touch of wasabi. They look at California rolls and cream cheese with the same disdain you’ll feel for pizza with shrimp, corn and mayonnaise (yeah let me know when you try it). I have been served something wrapped in seaweed paper, sure, but it was masticated fish parts and rice, nothing more, no cucumbers, no jalapeno slices, and gods no mayonnaise. Get over the mayonnaise.

And don’t worry! You won’t miss all that crap designed to hide the quality of the fish. Sushi is omnipresent and hard to avoid in japan. It’s as ubiquitous as beef in Texas, and served in as many ways.
Mountain woman excited about massive tuna

Now, a disclaimer, I don’t live on the coast. In fact, I probably live as far away from the coast as possible, up in the mountains in the center of Honshu, the main island. Yet I am still closer to the coast than I was in Austin, and while I’ve had better in Tokyo, if you come to Takayama, the sushi is worth trying.

 There are many levels sushi.
At the bottom of the list is the stuff from the grocery store. The packs of six or eight pieces of seafood on rice is good for the price (think dollar burger at your favorite corporation) but the novelty wears off quickly. The tuna’s not the greatest, the salmon’s not the freshest, and they tend to lump a few too many pieces of mollusk in there for my taste.

Chicken, radish sprouts, miso soup, edamame, rice and
of course, tuna. Slice it yourself and its still good sashimi.
The best thing about the grocery store in Takayama is when they buy a tuna or two from the coast and haul it up for us mountain-folk. When the tuna appears, madness descends on the grocery store. Old ladies jostle for position in line, old men outbid eachother on who gets to take home the enormous fish head. If there is a whole tuna fish at the grocery store, you buy a cut because—even with inferior knife skills—you can prepare the most delicious fish you’ll ever eat at home. For about ten dollars, you can get a piece of lean red meat, the most popular of all cuts. Though if you’re feeling lavish, get the orange stuff from the same fish. It’s fatty and wonderful, and a bargain considering all you have to do is put it on vinegared rice with a touch of wasabi to make it as good anything from a restaurant.

Next up is train sushi. These restaurants literally parade pieces of sushi past your nose on a conveyer belt. Take all you want! They’ll count the plates when you leave. There are of course, varying degrees of quality at these places. I would avoid the restaurants that advertise ‘everything for 100 yen’ and go to the more upscale places that charge 2 or 300 yen for a piece of fish on rice (I know, big spender). The conveyer belt places are a great first stop for sushi because you can try all the weird stuff you’ve never seen in the states without a chef watching to see if your palette is refined enough to handle it (trust me, it’s not). I’ve tried baby squids, fish organs, a variety of fish eggs, raw shrimp, raw crab claw, raw scallop, as well as a handful of unidentifiable fish (my favorite is the purple one). Be sure to try the weird stuff in the beginning of the meal, otherwise you’ll be left with the taste of raw crab claw on your tongue.

Above that is the fancy restaurants with display cases of their favorite creatures chopped to pieces. While expensive, I’ve never been disappointed at one of these places, even in my mountain village. Though I’ve learned there is a difference between fine sushi in the mountains and fine sushi in Tokyo. When my friends from America came to visit we went to the best sushi restaurant in Takayama one day, and a fantastic sushi restaurant in Tokyo the next. Both were delicious, but the difference is clear. Here in Takayama, the fish was at the forefront of the meal. They served big slabs of whatever they’d had trucked in that morning, tuna, salmon, eel, and of course, the local specialty, Hida beef. The emphasis was undoubtedly on the quality of the fish, which was far fresher and richer than anything I’ve had in Austin, and I know, freshness is not the mark of great sushi, but I live in the mountains OK? Cut me some slack, the sushi chef in Tokyo sure didn’t.

In Tokyo, sushi masters can make even this mass of
revolting tentacles delicious!  

In Tokyo, the emphasis was on the interplay between the fish and the rice. Sushi is supposed to be about the rice, and Yazuda certainly followed this rule. His rice had fantastic texture and a subtle vinegar flavor that accented the fresh seafood marvelously. He didn’t focus on serving great hulking slabs of fish, instead he’d pair a piece of shrimp with just the right amount of course salt, or add a pinch of lemon to some creature I’d never heard of and bring tears to my eyes. He chastised my palette at first (a nice way of saying he talked a lot of shit) but I grunted at the appropriate bites so he left me alone.

As a Texan, I’d say the difference is like good steak versus good brisket. Steak is undoubtedly about the meat. You see the meat, you chew the meat, you swallow the meat, and damnit its good. Brisket though, is less about the meat and more about the entire sensory experience. The meat is still there, of course, but there’s also spices and smoke and fantastic texture, perhaps even a touch of sauce. Expensive sushi is like the finest brisket, it’s a labor of love that transforms the fish into something beyond fish, something transcendentally delicious that still somehow is unmistakably simple and familiar.
But, that being said, there’s still a conveyer belt place in town I haven’t been too… and sometimes there’s nothing better than a burger.

No comments:

Post a Comment