Kanako's Kitchen

Fight the Sushi Monoculture

Posted in info by Kanako Noda on October 21, 2009

No Sushi“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!

makizushi 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!

kakinohazushiWhen 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!

chakinzushiChakin-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 chirashizushichirashi-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.


26 Responses

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  1. Kathryn Hill said, on October 21, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    Wonderful post! I’ve traveled in Japan & studied Japanese cooking, and I get tired of Westerners asking me, “What’s there to eat in Japan besides sushi?” PLENTY!

    I’m a food blogger for TheKitchn.com. We are not a Japanese food blog, but I sometimes write about it:



    Kathryn Hill
    San Francisco Editor, The Kitchn

    • kanako said, on October 22, 2009 at 9:00 am

      Hi Kathryn, your blog is very intresting. I’m surprised to read the article about salted cherry blossoms in English. Usually it is used for tea (you add hot water and serve).

  2. Sky said, on October 22, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Awesome post. I’ll admit I’m not the most educated on Japanese cuisine, (although this blog might help), although I blame the western culture I was brought up in :P. I can only imagine how crazy you get hearing about sushi all the time haha; especially your roommates.

    Chakin-zushi sounds like something I’d really like to try though. To bad you apparently can’t find it in the west/Canada very easily D:

    Take care,

    • kanako said, on October 22, 2009 at 8:44 am

      Hi Sky,
      Thank you for the comment. Once I tried to make Chakin-zushi at home, but… unfortunately it didn’t turn out as good as what you can get from a real sushi shop.

      Restaurant food is something you should have…in a restaurant!

      Don’t apologize about your western culture, by the way. One wonderful thing I have found here in Canada is – and I’m very serious about this – Hamburgers.

      Near my house I discovered a fantastic hamburger restaurant. This was not at all like McDonald’s, it was a real mom-and-pop burger shop, something I had never seen either in Japan or in Italy. Before that, I’d never appreciated a hamburger as a real artisan food, so I was really surprised. “This is a real hamburger”, I thought. It made me realize that in Canada they have their own Real Food: a simple, traditional meal anybody can afford and made really perfectly.

      I think every culture and country has something delicious to offer. I hate the idea that only “fancy” food is good. Nothing I cook is too fancy. Made with care and devotion, yes, but honest and down to earth.

  3. Drew said, on October 22, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Yes! I just stumbledupon your blog and it made me so happy. I must admit, I was once guilty of the same sushi stereotype, but after making a close Japanese friend in college he opened up my eyes, just as you’re doing. Good work, I’ll be checking in regularly. :]

    • kanako said, on October 22, 2009 at 4:08 pm

      Thank you. I’ll do my best!

  4. SaGe said, on October 22, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    cool. Sushi not for breakfast anymore 😛

  5. Caterina said, on October 22, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Great blog!! I found it thanks to your husband’s blog (CC).

    I’ll try to find time to cook some of these recipes, they all seem so yummy…

    One question: does Tempura also belongs to the Sushi monoculture? And what about Sashimi? Just wandering, mainly because I like it a lot more than sushi.

    If you ever come to Argentina you’ll be even more disappointed, makis and niguiris are exclusively made of salmon (not even tuna or shrimp!)

    Cheers and In bocca al’ lupo con questo blog 🙂

    • kanako said, on October 22, 2009 at 8:46 pm

      Hi Caterina, thank you for the comment and CREPI!
      Personally I prefer sashimi, too. But in the end sashimi outside Japan is only tuna and salmon, like sushi…
      Talking about tempura, my friend working at a Japanese restaurant was surprised how much Tempura is consumed in the West. She told me it was “astonishing” quantity. However I’ve never had Tempura at a restaurant outside Japan, so I can’t tell much about it…

  6. soysaucequeen said, on October 23, 2009 at 12:04 am

    I doubt Japanese people eat Sushi only for a few times (2 or 3) in a year.
    When I was in Japan(lived for 40 years), I was making it so often and can not count how many times…

    Tuna and Salmon, you can see how fresh it is, it is very important to know how old that fish is.
    You said that “again…”, I really do not understand it and do not agree from Japanese eyes.

    • kanako said, on October 23, 2009 at 10:23 am

      As I wrote, eating Sushi only for a few times a year was the case at my home when I was child. I’m sure it’s different from family to family.

      However I have an impression that sushi in general is more a holiday food: when you have guests or on festivals like hinamatsuri or setsubun. If you think about the Sacred-Profane dichotomy, this is for secred, (HARE in Japanese.)

      Today in Japan some people eat sushi whenever they want, but I think this is because people buy it’s junk-food-sushi, the kind you buy at the supermarket or conbini, or at very lousy sushi bars.

      In particular, I don’t know of anyone in Japan who makes nigiri-sushi at home. We eat nigiri at sushi shops, the exact opposite of home cooking.
      So I’m really surprised to be asked whether I make nigiri-sushi at home. It’s not a part of “home” cooking.

      My blog is very explicit: I write about HOME cooking.

      I agree with you that it’s important to know how old the fish is. That’s why I avoid using raw fish in Montreal. The fish market here is really depressing. And I’m just not a fan of tuna and salmon. It’s a personal preference. I prefer mackerel, horse mackerel and flatfish for sushi. I love squid for sushi, but only when it’s still trasparent and not gummy white.

      Overall, my point is that Western people think that sushi is an everyday food in Japan. It isn’t; it’s special occasion food. Even Japanese people who love sushi and eat it more often than my family did would recognize that!

  7. kawaiisanosuke said, on October 23, 2009 at 2:13 am

    I’ll be honest, when i think Japan I think takoyaki but that’s just because I love takoyaki so much! *insert nervous giggle here*

  8. Kepler said, on October 23, 2009 at 10:55 am


    I suppose tempura is not as widespread as sushi abroad because it does take a lot of time to make it, in comparison.
    I have always found Japanese restaurants overpriced: the owners seem to think they are entitled to charge more in Brussels or the US in a Japanese restaurant for similarly expensive ingredients because…because…I don’t know, perhaps because Japan is very expensive, so they pretend to be “all Japanese”…and then they over above all those sushis in white clinical rooms.

    • kanako said, on October 23, 2009 at 12:42 pm

      I agree; Japanese restraunts are too expensive outside Japan, even though the ingredients are often imported. And I don’t think this is because “Japan is expensive”.
      In Japan usually you can be very satisfied with “1soup-1dish” lunch or dinner if you pay about $10. If you go to university cafeteria, maybe you pay the half and you’re full, even though the food might not be great. What I found at Japanese restaurants in Europe is that the food is often comparable to Japanese university cafeteria food, or worse. You often find not just Japanese food, but something pan-asian or mysterious japanese-like cooking.
      We’ve been also to hotel Okura in Amsterdam, the Guide Michelin starred restaurant. That was OK, but considering the quality, it was far too expensive. So we gave up looking for a Japanese restaurant in the West.
      Another great reason to cook Japanese food at home!

  9. Mitchi said, on October 24, 2009 at 4:06 am

    First off, I think your blog is wonderful. I’m one of those girls who grew up watching my mom cook fresh meals at home, and I’ve learned to love cooking myself.

    What disturbs me more than the sushi monoculture is the “raw fish” mentality — people here in America will 80% of the time mention raw fish If the word Sushi is spoken.

    That said, I happen to love sushi, but I prefer it when it’s not fish – like kampyo or tamago – but I will admit I like a good yellowtail.

    It’s kinda like how when someone mentions Ramen, most people think of the instant, 15 cents a packet stuff that college students live off of.

    Thanks for making such a wonderful blog, I really look forward to seeing more recipes, especially vegetable side dishes.

    • kanako said, on October 24, 2009 at 10:45 am

      Thank you for the comment.
      Ramen is another thing I can’t cook at home and I miss a lot… Anyawy there are a lot of variety of vegetable side dishes, so I’ll put them little by little.

  10. soysaucequeen said, on October 27, 2009 at 12:48 am

    子供のころから寿司日常的なものでしたし、月に2、3回ではありませんでした。 両親は裕福ではありませんでしたがそれは問題ではありません。

    アメリカ、カナダはもちろん日本のような魚がありませんが、それでも新鮮な魚を手に入れることは出来ますしそうそう高価なものでもありません。 アメリカ人、カナダ人がいつも寿司を食べている・・・と言うのはあっていると思います。


  11. kanako said, on October 27, 2009 at 11:32 am




  12. soysaucequeen said, on October 27, 2009 at 12:43 pm



    • kanako said, on October 27, 2009 at 1:34 pm



  13. Susan said, on February 15, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Kanako-san, I completely understand and appreciate the desire to share Japanese food to the masses. I enjoy sushi, but I love the home-made Japanese food I grew up with even more! My grandmother was Japanese. My soul food is a bowl of steamed rice, with a whipped mixture of raw egg and soy sauce poured over the top, or rice with fresh tofu, grated ginger and soy sauce, and grilled fish on the side. And, of course, rice balls. I look forward to trying out these recipes!

    • kanako said, on February 18, 2010 at 2:37 pm

      Hi Susan thank you for the comment!
      I also love the Tamago gohan, raw egg and soy sauce on top of the rice… yummy! This is the very Japanese breakfast, but many foreign people could be horrified…

  14. Callum said, on March 18, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    correct me if im wrong but isnt sushi japans main international food? as america has burgers, italy to pizza (or that cheese la-son-ya thing) England to fish & chips and indian curry. so you can see why someone with minimal education and/or someone addicted to manga/anime would believe japan’s one and only food to be sushi/riceballs.

    • Kanako said, on March 19, 2010 at 8:36 am

      Yes, you’re definitely right. That’s why I started this blog!

      One thing, though: I could easily survive eating only plain rice balls for a week, because rice is something like bread in France or potatoes in Germany.

      However I wouldn’t eat only sushi…never.

  15. Asami said, on May 13, 2010 at 7:03 am

    I know what you mean. I’m a Japanese living in Germany and whenever I meet new people and I say I’m from Japan they reply: Oh my god! I love Sushi.

  16. Fight the Sushi Monoculture | Kanako’s Kitchen

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