Saturday, March 20, 2010

That's not sushi

It is amazing to see how the perception of sushi in the States have changed since I first arrived in the US in '83. Case in point:
The Breakfast Club. Molly Ringwald opens up her lunch and everyone is grossed out. I remember feeling a little bid sad about it when I saw the film. I was a junior in high school, my second year here, and feeling self conscious of my foreignness. Like any teen-ager, I was trying really hard to fit in and learn to speak like a native--I actually worked my ass off so that later in life I can turn a phrase like, "ass off" effortlessly.

Anyway, I felt like I came from a place where our food was only understood by wealthy jet setters. But if you recall, the 80's was where the Japanese culture was making its way into the pop culture of the US. Business men bowing and camera flashing tourists became a staple of comedy films, "Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto" was in the top chart, and while vaguely offended, I thought "well, at least people know who we are." Many of my friends were interested in trying sushi but still the notion of raw fish grossed them out a lot.

Fast forward to 2010, and living in Seattle especially, sushi has become everyday stuff, which is delightful. But here is the stuff. There is now a pile of sushi places that are just terrible. And by "terrible," I mean not at all authentic. I mean you won't find these "tempura roll" type of crap in a sushi shop in Tokyo. I mean people from Japan would frown upon them. I get snotty when my white friends suggest a sushi place and say, "it's really good." I have a series of questions like:

1. Is the chef Japanese?
2.Is the clientele Japanese (fastest way to see if an ethnic restaurant is authentic is to look at the clientele)?
3.How do they cut the fish?
4. How does the rice taste?

I ask these questions with much passion and slight bit of anger that by this point, most of my friends are sorry they said anything at all.

Sushi is a cuisine. Like anything traditional in Japan, to become a sushi chef is a LIFETIME commitment. Most people start young, like 18 or younger, and for the first several years, you sweep and wash dishes. You don't even get to look at the fish, let alone touch the knife for quite some time. There is an artistry in making sushi, from how perfectly you prepare the rice, how fresh the fish is, and the balance between the cut of the fish with the rice-long cut of fish over a small amount of rice is considered perfection. And yes, the whole point of sushi is to eat the fish raw, and no, you should never eat sushi that are cheap. So sushi making is not like flipping a burger. It's done with a lot of training, and with national pride. We take it seriously (OK so flipping burger may also cause some national pride and seriousness, but you know what I mean).

A side note: the kind of sushi that are served in America is also what we call "Edo mae zushi" which is only served in the Tokyo area. If you go to different parts of Japan, sushi is prepared very differently. Also a side note: conveyor belt sushi is indeed very authentic. Apparently there are more conveyor belt sushi shops than a regular shop in Japan. Last side note: we don't have any restaurants that combine sushi with other stuff, like teriyaki chicken. Sushi places just serve sushi, noodle places just serve noodles, and same for the tempura shops. Every place sticks to its expertise.

Back to my point. When my husband and I go to a sushi restaurant, we sit at the counter (OK, so this is not so true lately with the toddler, but if were alone, this is what we do). The right way to have it is to chat with the chef and order one fish at a time. You don't order from the menu, you ask them what's good that day and make your choice from there. It's even more decedent if you start with some sashimi, as you drink your beer, then launch into the sushi. You then later have soup, if you wish, possibly with some shell fish in it. Chefs get excited when we do this, because Americans (unless they are really savvy) don't do this--I think that they don't know to do it. I have been told by sushi chefs that I order like a pro and it's a joy to serve a costumer like me, which makes us both feel like hot shots. And naturally, it makes us snottier. It is somewhat evident that the chefs' souls are dying a little bit to make this massive sized rolls with five things crammed in them and I am happy to make them happy--because their happiness bring me good stuff to eat AND you often get bonus items, just for being Japanese.

But here is the flip side. I have an uncle who lives in Oakland. In fact, he is my only relative in the US. He's lived in the States since the 50's and has obviously observed these things much longer than I. He once told me that the measure of a successful Japanese restaurants in the US is how packed they are with Americans. Because they are eating the foods that is foreign to them and enjoying themselves and coming back. He says it is easy to go after the natives, but a really good business men would figure out ways to get people in who didn't know these foods existed. So really, who cares if its REALLY authentic? It's giving chefs the opportunity to work abroad, get to know the Americans, and hence the cultural exchange is being made.

I see his point. Who cares?! But I do. A little. Well, maybe a lot. But then how many kinds of ethnic foods am I eating and loving without really knowing how authentic they are? See? It's hard to be me.

Photo credit:,


  1. I am now extra super especially glad that I gave you a generic gift certificate for your birthday and not one for a specific sushi restaurant. And I want to go eat sushi with you sometime to learn how it's done. I was not a big fan the one time I tried it before, but I think I might have been in the wrong restaurant. And state. And decade.

  2. Kate and Joe want to be your next sushi pupils/dates. We would be happy to verse you the fine art of lefse in exchange!

  3. So what are your top authentic places in Seattle? I'm curious as to what is good. I've been to Tokyo twice now and have been afraid to go to a non-kaiten place because I was sure all the American sushi has led me incorrectly.

  4. Hi Cortney,

    Seattle has some excellent, authentic places. Kisaku in Green Lake area, I Love Sushi (despite its name) in South Lake Union, Shiro's in Bell Town, and Tengu in Northgae is a good kaiten (as opposed to some of the other kaiten in town). Those are all places my father also approves which is good and authentic.

  5. Wow! Wish I stumbled upon your blog last year. Visited Japan and I freaking loved it there. Speaking of sushi, I tried the one in Tsukiji market and it was awesome.


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