Sushi has grown in popularity in the US and as with anything we have made it our own. We have created rolls, added sauces and catered it to our own tastes. What is typically offered here in the U.S. is a variation of what is known as Edo style sushi. Edo style is what is typical of sushi served in the Tokyo area. Over the past few years G and I have been learning more about traditional sushi and tried some more authentic preparations when we can. One of our more memorable experiences was at Sushi Yasuda in NYC. I recall being so impressed by the simplicity of the preparation but completely wowed by the quality of the fish. I imagined that is what one would experience in Japan and indeed it was!
As we planned our trip we decided that we had to tour the world’s largest wholesale fish market, Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, to understand the fish industry and business in Japan (to be honest, worldwide since so much fish is sold here!). We met out tour group bright and early at 4:30am and began following our wonderfully knowledgeable guide around the market. He showed us primarily the inner market, with the different areas for the different types of fish and auction areas. He explained to us that those that work in the market are complete specialists in their particular fish. For example, those that work with the salmon know exactly what they are looking for in freshness and quality and can estimate the price it will garner in action but are not aware of the tuna market. It was a whirlwind of activity with trucks and carts coming and going, people preparing the fish, representatives from auction houses and auctioneers evaluating the fish. The biggest treat was watching a Blue Fin tuna being divided up after auction. It was purchased by two auction houses so they were dividing it. They are huge creatures! It took three men and a samurai sword to quarter it!
After the tour, we enjoyed a sushi set meal at Sushi Daiwa in the outer market (top picture). It was a set meal for 3500 Yen (~ $40). We were given a sampling of all of the fresh fish that day. We tried raw prawn, eel, sea urchin, flounder, tuna, etc. It was all delicious (except the urchin which I cannot develop a taste for, it is a texture thing!) It was all very simple, just nigiri sushi and one simple tuna roll. The quality of the fish was incredible. In fact, it was the first time we tried raw prawn. It was so sweet and succulent! Everything was so fresh that you didn’t need anything else at all.
We also tried a nice sushi dinner one night. It happened to be a place right next to the hotel in the Ginza area of Tokyo. We just walked in and the sushi chef was kind enough to gesture us to sit at the bar. The sushi chef didn’t speak any English and we don’t speak any Japanse so we were given a menu with pictures of the various types of fish and we just pointed to what we wanted. We tried a few pieces of nigiri. Then G asked for ume-shiso maki (it wasn’t in the pictures on the menu), which is a maki roll made with Japanese plum paste and the shiso leaf. I think this request helped the sushi chef realize we weren’t complete novices! This is one of my favorite rolls; it has a nice sour and salty taste from the plum paste and a slight bitterness from the shiso leaf. It was really wonderful! From this point on he was a bit more enthusiastic and gave us some other things to try. There were two highlights from this sushi experience: the use of freshly grated wasabi and the tamago. The sushi chef was grating wasabi (see below), a root in the horseradish family, for every couple of pieces of sushi he made. I have never experienced such a sensation! The wasabi paste which is most often used is pungent but you can still feel it on the tongue. The fresh grated is also pungent but you really do not feel it on the tongue at all; it goes straight to the nasal passage! One of the initial pieces I had caught me so off guard that I had to hold on to G until the sensation had passed. Then noticing my pain the sushi chef offered us a couple of pieces of tamago to sooth the sting of the wasabi. Tamago is a Japanese omelette which is sweetened slightly with the use of mirin (some recipes also call for sugar) and it is rolled so that it has nice delicate layers. I have never liked any of the versions I have tried here in the U.S. They tend to be very sweet for my taste and very dense, which is exaggerated since it is served cold. But, the tamago at this restaurant was lovely! Just a touch of sweetness and so delicately layered you could almost feel the layers on your tongue. Again, the theme of the evening was the quality of the fish. Every piece of fish literally melted in your mouth!
We also wanted to try grocery store prepared sushi while we were in Japan to see how it compared to the other wonderful sushi we had. We were given a hint by another traveler in Kyoto that the department store near Kyoto Station marks down the prices of the sushi every evening at 6:30pm. So, one evening after a long day of sightseeing we picked up a few packages of discounted sushi for dinner. We picked up some simple tuna nigiri, some sashimi and some cucumber rolls. It was delicious! We also tried kaiten sushi, conveyor belt sushi or sushi-go-around, at Tokyo Station (see below). I love this concept! It is so easy. Everything you need is at your seat, green tea powder, hot water, soy sauce, chopsticks. You just watch the prepared sushi go by and select the ones you want. The plates are all color coded for price. So, you can easily budget your eating. For both the grocery store sushi and the kaiten sushi, the quality of the fish was impressive; it was as good as any of the sushi you would experience in most restaurants here in the U.S.
In our observation, the sushi in Japan is truly about the quality of the fish. Of course, at the nicer restaurant the quality was slightly better but the difference between the quick sushi shops and the nice restaurant was primarily in the packing of the rice and the variety of fish available. At the sit down restaurant we were able to try several different varieties of sushi which were not options at the grocery store or the conveyor belt. Regardless, in all cases the fish was delicious and very fresh! It is a testament to the fact that the Japanese truly take pride in their food (see point #1)!