The Real Thing
Do you know what makes sushi special? You probably don’t, even if you love to eat it. And what you don’t know about sushi can change your life. That is what brings us here, standing outside one the oldest and most traditional sushi bars in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, the town where sushi was born in America.
As you step through the sliding door, a shout of irasshaimase! (the traditional Japanese greeting) leaps out at you from behind the counter where you see a wizened Japanese man preparing sushi for a group at the bar. He is the itamae, the sushi chef. The host seats you at the bar and takes your drink order. You notice that you have no menu and look around at other customers to see if they have one. Seeing none, you turn to a Japanese man in a business suit two seats down from you and ask him where the menus are. He smirks and says, “No need for menu. Just say omakase when the chef comes. Trust me.”
After handing the party at the end of the bar their order, the itame walks briskly to you and makes a short bow. “Your order, sir?” Feeling you have no other option, you say “omakase,” which you will later discover means, “I’ll leave it up to you.” The chef smiles and bows before flying into action. He begins slicing fish like a mad man, and in what seems like only a few seconds he places two pieces of nigiri on a small wooden plate in front of you. Simply put, nigiri are pieces of fish on top of small rectangles of rice. Though you have seen these before, the only sushi you have ever eaten were rolls stuffed with a conglomerate of ingredients. These plain looking pieces of fish and rice are underwhelming. But the truth is that nigiri is the original and most prized form of sushi in Japan. The fish and rice, the cuisine’s star components, have the stage to themselves.
Anything but plain, sushi connoisseurs consider the rice alone even more important than the fish when judging sushi’s quality. Sushi masters, like winemakers and coffee roasters, will combine different varieties and harvests to create new textures and flavors. The most serious itamaes pay top dollar to attain the highest grade rice, picked out of the over 2,000 varieties grown in Japan alone, for their qualities of firmness, plumpness, and stickiness. The rice is then cooked and mixed with the first of two sauces which are the cuisine’s hidden genius. The sauce stirred into the rice is made of rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. This gives the rice a light, tart flavor that accents the fish. Sushi chefs have spent hundreds of years perfecting the ratios of these three elements, and it is said that the most expert connoisseurs can identify the lineage of a sushi bar by a taste of their rice.
Tearing apart your pair of wooden chopsticks, you look around for your cup of soy sauce for dipping, and upon finding none, look questioningly to your new friend in the business suit. “Missing something?” His eyes laugh. “The itame takes care of the sauce. Trust him with the flavor.” It’s hard to imagine these plain little sushi being flavorful. The ones you eat are usually filled with multiple varieties of fish, imitation crab, spicy mayonnaise, cream cheese, avocado, and topped with teriyaki and other sugar-laden sauces. After dunking these in soy sauce and wasabi, it is impossible to taste the fish, which is exactly the point. As sushi grew in popularity in America, restaurants discovered that Americans who were new to the cuisine enjoyed these fatty, sweet ingredients. Taking advantage of a profit opportunity, chefs began mixing their poorest quality fish in spicy mayo and pairing them with numerous ingredients to drown the fish's flavor.
At a traditional sushi bar like this one, the itame’s goal is to highlight rather than cover up the fish as much as possible. One way he does this is through the subtle use of sushi’s second secret sauce: nikiri. It is made up of soy sauce, which spent the first 700 years of its existence as a delicacy out of public reach in Japan, mixed with two Japanese liquors and dashi, the base of miso soup. Sushi chefs customize this sauce into secret recipes which set them apart from one another. What they do with this sauce behind closed doors is of highest importance to their careers and one of the itame’s distinguishing marks of greatness. Upon completing the nine-step process of squeezing the fish onto the rice to make nigiri, the itame applies his nikiri onto the fish with a brush before handing it to his customer. Complex and delicately applied, nikiri adds the perfect accent of flavor.
Still feeling skeptical, you pick up the first nigiri with your chopsticks. Pink with a line of silver skin on its side, Saba (Mackerel) sushi is famed for its rich, savory flavors and subtle sweetness. The itame not only prepared it for you but was up at 4:30 this morning buying some of the nation’s highest quality Mackerel at the LA Fish Market. More than anyone else in the restaurant, he is grateful that you weren’t able to drown out its flavor in a bath of soy sauce.
You finally pop the sushi in your mouth and, for the first time in your life, taste pure, unadulterated sushi. You freeze, wide-eyed with the realization that your life has been irreversibly changed. Though lacking the creamy, sweet and savory addictiveness of the sushi rolls of your past, the rich flavors of fish and rice have opened a door into a place you cannot, in good conscience, leave. You cannot leave this place because you owe it to the rice and to the fish and to the chef and to God. They are simply better than any substitutes humans have manufactured. The rice and fish deserve to be loved, to be allowed to enrich human life. Japanese chefs spanning thousands of years deserve the fruit of their labor, to be honored for their creative genius. The God who made the fish and the grain and the chefs deserves the glory for it all. And no matter the price of the Mackerel or the skill and sacrifice of the chef, no cost is higher than to trade the rewards and satisfaction of the real thing for the counterfeit, self-indulgent substitutes that were once all you knew.
In the most extreme sense, it is a matter of life and death, first of the body, then of the soul. The nutrients of the uncontaminated fish and rice enliven the body, while the nuanced, artfully balanced flavors both stimulate and satisfy. They train the palate to discern depth and authenticity, to not be easily fooled by faux alternatives. The result is physical health, as well as a reverence for God’s creation and a humble awareness of dependence upon it for life. The sushi fabrications that have overwhelmed the American market and spread throughout the world achieve the opposite. They fatten the body, adding life-shortening stress to its functions, slowing the mind, dumbing the taste buds, and inducing a short-lived illusion of satisfaction. This not only steals life from the body but quenches an appetite for what is real and life giving.
Unconfined to eating sushi, this principle plays out in all art. Engulfed in autotuned, formulaic pop music, the public finds the work of someone like Mozart unpalatable. Even bands that start out making compelling music, like Coldplay, eventually change their sound to accommodate the public’s eroding tastes. Sitcom serials that provide easy laughs and quick reconciliations have replaced the grittiness and depth of the great film dramas. Porn and Fifty Shades of Grey are edging out actual relationships and romance. When life sucking fabrications such as these take over an artform, people learn to call what is evil good and what is good evil. It is the greatest of all deceptions. The result is that the public does not recognize the works of God nor have any sense of dependence on Him for life.
The message of sushi, however, is a hopeful one. Taste buds can change. As long as the soul remains in a person, there are latent appetites for authenticity, beauty, and excellence that can be revived. Just like your first taste of authentic nagiri awakened you to the treasures of the cuisine, so can the palate of the mind be transformed by steady acclimation to truly great music and literature and film and art of all varieties. Having once tasted and seen the good, something within ourselves refuses to settle for less than the real thing.