Because I am having some trouble focusing on work today, we started talking about whether non-natives can make authentic dishes. Colleen thinks non-Australians can make Australian food just fine, and Shan says her favorite Chinese cookbook is written by an American. Jutta and I are on the other side of the camp, saying that native people who grew up with the food know the subtle flavors best to produce the just-right results.
This all started out because of my announcement that I generally don't eat at sushi places with non-Japanese chefs. It's not that I think there's some sort of genetic requirement to prepare sushi, but my experience has been that if you want good sushi and are paying top dollars for it, a small-scale Japanese restaurant is the only way I can justify the price point.
1. There is such a thing as the perfect rice-to-fish ratio in sushi. If you exceed one or the other, all you taste is rice or fish, not that perfect melting of the two in your mouth. Many non-Japanese places (or even Japanese places, for that matter) get the ratio all wrong by either putting a giant piece of fish on it under the name of generosity or packing too much rice to keep the cost lower.
2. There is a sequence for which sushi can be enjoyed best. I don't want the massive strength of toro or hamachi as the first piece during a sushi dinner!!! All the subtleties of the more delicately flavored snapper and halibut will be lost if my tongue is coated by the fatty ones first! Same goes for any fish with ginger and onions on top - like aji, sanma, etc. I LOVE those hikari-mono (shiny fish), but please, hold them until after the delicate ones!
3. Ditto with cooked dishes. I see nothing wrong with mingling cooked dishes from the kitchen during a sushi meal, but the timing is delicate. I don't want to start my dinner with deep-fried pork skewers when I am there to eat some sushi! Timing is key. A deep-fried pork skewer around the ~75% finished point is perfectly timed, perfectly presented to break the monotony.
4. Miso soup is not a starter! This is one of my biggest pet peeves. Why, oh why, do Japanese restaurants serve miso soup as a starter?! Miso soup and rice is supposed to be a FINALE! The final dish! The last of the last! It's supposed to be enjoyed at the end to conclude the meal and finish you off! Why the heck would I want to destroy my appetite and my taste buds with a strong bowl of soup with enough umami to exhaust my tongue at the beginning of the meal?!
I can go on and on, but now I am starting to sound less constructive and more whiny, so I'll just stop here. I guess I should clarify my point, though, and say that there are tons of Japanese sushi chefs who do not meet my sushi standards for the $80+ per person price point. To complicate the matters more, there are also Japanese sushi chefs that, unless you let them know you want it traditional, will try to accommodate the Western ways, which in their minds, is to overload you with fat, salt, and as much umami as their establishment can pack. Subtleties that build up in a slow crescendo to a powerful finish with a bang, my friends, is what makes sushi so pleasurable.
Do you think I am a snob?
At the same time, I am a deep lover of the California roll and other funky rolls on occasions. However, I rate these as a totally different experience, especially since they charge only a fraction of the cost of the real nigiri-style sushi.
I hope Joy thinks the title of this post is OK - it's actually Paris Hilton-inspired - nothing literary here...