Is the Sushi You're Eating Really Sushi?
Western Sushi and the Osakan Tradition
Well this is the start of what hopefully will be a successful food tirade from a young aspiring Canadian chef. I thought however, why not start off my "Vocal" food profile with mine and millions of others' favourite food, sushi.
Ahhh,h sushi. Everybody's favourite new food trend, be it health advocates preaching its healthy properties or earning a place on the most hardcore food blogger's websites, sushi is truly a dish that is to be enjoyed by many. But is that six piece Tempura with a twelve piece Maki order of Spicy Salmon and Spicy Mayo topped with crunchy Tempura bits, sweet Unagi sauce and curly fried onions really sushi? Well, the answer is yes and no. Aside from the trepidation most people have when they think of sushi as mainly raw fish, most Westerners like myself (until about age 12) think that sushi is just that. Sushi to Westerner's is spicy salmon, Tempura, imitation crab, beef Teriyaki, chicken Teriyaki, and a whole manner of other ingredients rolled with rice and nori. These Americanized rolls come topped with a variety of sweet, spicy, and salty sauces and other pleasantries such as caviar, more fish, avocado, crispy Tempura flakes and other tasty enjoyable options. However, I am here to clean up the misconception held by many Westerners about sushi and what sushi really is.
Sushi is derived from an ancient Osakan dish which consisted of raw fish lying on top of rice in order to prevent the fish from spoiling. Upon consumption, the rice would be discarded and the fish would be eaten. However, 700 years later or so around the year 1400, this changed to include both the rice and fish being eaten. By 1650, vinegared rice and fresh fish (not fermented) was being eaten together as a snack. Around 1810, the gift known as nigiri was introduced, and sushi was now being hand pressed and sold. Sashimi would soon be used as a topping on sushi, and roughly 140 years later, the post-WW2 occupation of Japan by American forces led by General Douglas MacArthur were in search of a greasy food.
Eighteen years later, California rolls and otoro-type sushi began popping up all over North America, quickly becoming a staple food to eat for the rich and famous, until it became better known to the masses. This is where it was accepted by some with open arms and others with a quick gag followed by a napkin stuffed with chewed up rice, seaweed, and fish being tossed in to the nearest trash.
However, sushi is loved by many millions of people all over the world, but is the sushi you're eating really sushi? Is that Tempura and crab stuffed spicy mayo topped sushi roll really traditional sushi? Well, in a traditional Japanese, sense, no. Traditional Japanese sushi is simple and elegant, yet a complex art in and of itself. Where a matter of seconds can result in the declining quality of a dish, the only ingredients present are perfectly cooked rice, a beautifully aged slice of fish, a dash of Wasabi (real wasabi, not that play-doh stuff from the mall) and a brush stroke of Nikiri sauce. Also, the attitude in most Japanese sushi restaurants differs from that of most American sushi restaurants. There is a certain structure to eating sushi. Your chopsticks must be placed horizontally when not in use, very limited soy sauce should be put on your sushi, and the sushi must be eaten immediately. However, despite the massive differences, both are considered amazing by millions worldwide, be it traditional or be it much less traditional.
Either way, both are enjoyed by millions around the world, but for you Canadians and Americans and Brits who love chowing down on spicy crab and Las Vegas rolls, give some nigiri a shot sometime. I’m sure if you truly appreciate the art of sushi, you’ll find pleasure in a simple piece of salted fish over perfectly cooked rice just as much as you would in your "go to" eight-piece Maki roll.