Monday, January 14, 2008

Sushi doesn't travel.

One of the good things living in Tokyo brings into life is the experience at fine sushi restaurants. Sushi might have transformed itself into one of the more fashionable food items in various parts of the world, becoming part of the staple diet first for the connoisseurs, and then for the general populace. Dan Ruderman, one of my former colleagues at the Horace Barlow laboratory in Cambridge U.K., used to boast that the best sushi in the world was to be found in California.

However, the essence of the best of sushi does not travel well. That remains surprisingly true in today's globalized world. In a sense, the heart of sushi has not moved even an inch. To enjoy the authenticity, simple purity, and get immersed in the sensual bliss, you simply have to travel to Tokyo. Needless to say, you have to know where to visit. In addition you need to know certain unspoken rules, what to appreciate, and observe the essential customs to make the miracle happen.

A proper "sushiya" is not even a "restaurant" in the western sense. For a starter, in many established places there is no menu or price lists. You simply sit down at the counter, and the culinary ritual starts without the nuisance of an order. In an "omakase", the "oyaji" (chef) of the sushiya would set before you various nigiri sushis, one after one, with a minimalist explanation of what they are.

Various specimen of "neta" (fish to be taken care of through miscellaneous tradition honored steps and then artfully sliced to finally become the toppings on rice) have been purchased in the market with the greatest care imaginable. It is an art of procurement requiring many years of training to master. For example, in order to secure the best maguro (tuna) which is arguably the king of sushi neta, a working knowledge encompassing a wide range of sushi phenomenology is necessary: The pros and cons of various fishing methods (angling, trolling, trawling) in affecting the final quality of meat, the seasonal changes of availability in various parts of the ocean around Japan and the rest of the world, the strength and weakness of each fish port, the anatomy of the fish body ("akami", "chutoro", "otoro", and other rarely encountered parts). On top of all that, the chef must have the skill to prepare the culinary jewels from the sea to obtain the best results.

It is the whole culture of sushi in its dedication to the finest details of procuring and preparing the neta that is so hard to travel. As the result of the mutually nurturing relationship between the oyaji and the customers over many years, the atmosphere in a excellent sushiya approaches that of a monastery, a similarity in contraction where the incessant pursuit of sensual pleasure ultimately culminates in a stoic and almost forbidding ritual of spiritual endeavor.

In sushi restaurants in California or New York, one may be able to enjoy good nigiri sushis and brand new rolls (accompanied by avocado or otherwise). but the serene air of the best Tokyo sushiya has simply not arrived. The difficulties involved are similar to the ones encountered when trying to remake Kurosawa in a western context. Like the swift and glittering swordwork of a master samurai, the core of sushi does not travel.

(Sukiyabashi Jiro, which recently received three stars in the Michelin Guides, making Mr. Jiro Ono the world's oldest three-star chef at 82 years, is one of the most honored sushiyas in Tokyo)