Fight the Sushi Monoculture
“So you’re from Japan and you love to cook?…we have to make sushi some time!”
You can’t imagine how many times I’ve heard this in the five years since I moved to the West. I think my words must get distorted somehow as they travel through the air, because when I say “Japanese food” people invariably hear “sushi”.
“One day,” I told my husband, “I want to start a Japanese food blog. I’m going to cram it full of recipes, and I won’t put any sushi in it at all!”
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with sushi. It’s great to sit at the counter in a quiet, artisanal sushi bar just near the sea, watching the taisho craft each morsel by hand.
The problem isn’t sushi, the problem is the sushi monoculture in the West: the automatic identification of Japanese cuisine with sushi and only sushi.
And to be more specific, the problem is the nigiri-sushi and maki-sushi monoculture: this strange conviction people in the west seem to have that Japanese people eat sushi rolls and balls of flavored rice topped with raw salmon or tuna every single day.
It’s just wrong!
Growing up, we had maki-sushi at home maybe two or three times a year, and one of those was on Setsubun holiday dinner, which is a traditional time to eat maki-sushi. Nigiri-sushi? Maybe twice a year. Maybe less.
Part of it is that I grew up in Shiga, which is an in-land prefecture. My mother is from Kitakyushu, a coastal area in the South: she loves fish, but only when it’s very fresh. She was never satisfied with the much less fresh fish you could get in our area, so she avoided eating it raw.
One alternative was to go to a fancy sushi restaurant in Kyoto, but for five of us that got very expensive. The other alternative is conveyor belt sushi, which is quite common in Japan and quite cheap, but the quality is much lower. My mom was far too much of a fish-snob to even think of taking me to such a place, though. In fact, the first time I tried the sushi-go-round was when I was 19 and had gone off to university! I enjoyed it, but all told I’ve been to this kind of place only about 5 or 6 times in my entire life. And one of these was in London.
Growing up, we usually only had nigiri-sushi when we went to visit my grandparents in Kyushu, and they took us to a very fancy sushi-ya where they knew the chef well. It was wonderful, but it was clearly Special Occasion food.
For all these reasons, sushi never really felt like “something from home” to me, especially nigiri-sushi and maki-sushi. Which is one big part of the reason why westerners’ fixation with sushi bothers me so much.
Then there’s the fact that the Monoculture applies within sushi as well. When people in the West refer to sushi they’re usually only thinking about nigiri-sushi and rolls. And even within nigiri sushi,westerners are monocultural about it: 90% of the time, nigiri outside Japan is topped with either salmon or tuna.
This drives me crazy. It’s not just that sushi isn’t the best thing to eat in Japan, it’s that nigiri-sushi and maki-sushi are not the best ways to eat sushi, and that salmon and tuna nigiri are not the best way to eat nigiri!
When I eat sushi in Japan, I usually go for kakinoha-zushi, which is a regional specialty from Nara: sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves. The leaves soak through to the rice, giving it a particular, deep flavor. It’s great! But even though I must have seen several hundred sushi places in Europe and Canada, I’ve never once seen kakinoha-zushi abroad!
Chakin-zushi is another favorite: sushi wrapped in a very thin layer of omelette. Chakin-zushi is one of the most elegant and delicate forms of sushi, I think. But try finding it outside Japan! 9 times out of 10, it’s too much trouble for Western sushi places to make it.
And as for raw salmon and tuna, I just don’t like them that much! Give me sea bream. Give me mackerel, horse mackerel, ark shell, or sea urchin. But salmon and tuna? Again?!
It’s only depressing.
The monoculture runs deep in the West. When I lived in Italy, I was determined to show my roommates that there was more to Japanese food than they realized. Since they insisted they wanted to eat sushi (sigh), I decided to throw them a curveball. Instead of the nigiri or maki that they were expecting, I made them chirashi-zushi: a large bowl of flavored rice topped with various things. Later that night, I found myself arguing with my Israeli roommate who angrily informed me that what I had made them was not real sushi!
My conclusion is that the Sushi Monoculture outside Japan is totally out of control.
This blog is not going to go along with it. There are ten million places you can have sushi these days…it’s hard to walk three blocks in Montreal without running into one of them. If you want sushi, go there.
If you want real Japanese home cooking that’s healthy, practical and good for you, come here.