Thursday, October 20, 2005

Confessions of a Sushi Princess

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.

Here's why:

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?

PS:
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.

PS2:
I hope Joy thinks the title of this post is OK - it's actually Paris Hilton-inspired - nothing literary here...

12 comments:

Jason Truesdell said...

I actually think there's a fair amount of mediocre dishes being made by Japanese chefs, even in Japan. But this has several causes: lowered expectations because of the omnipresence of convenience foods, cost pressures, the fact that not every chef is equally talented, and so on.

Personally, I tend to skip Japanese restaurants in the US because the Japanese chefs who come here to make "traditional" Japanese fare are often not that skilled, and because of that, they choose to cater to the whims of their customers rather than an overriding concern for quality.

Usually I produce better Japanese food myself, even if I occasionally use atypical ingredients. Understanding of the roles of ingredients, palate education, and a sensibility for the right taste can be developed.

To me the one thing that distinguishes people who "get" Japanese food or not, native or not, is an appreciation for "sappari"-ness. Many Americans wonder what's missing from a dish, and think the answer is "everything", then they produce heavily seasoned things that are overreactions to blandness. Japanese chefs usually trust the ingredients to do most of the work, and just wake them up with simple cooking and seasoning techniques. A country-side soba restaurant that only serves one or two options of soba preparation can be a sublime dining experience.

I think that every chef will imprint their cultural background and personal idiosyncrasies on their food. But it is possible for non-natives to get it right. Some of the Italian food I've had in Japan beat hands down Italian-run restaurants I've visited in Germany, for example.

The Papa Bear said...

I tend to agree with you, especially if authentic tasting food is what you're after.

People who haven't been trained or been exposed what is considered to be authentic for long periods of time often allow their background to change the flavor. The result is often "exotic" and surprisingly frequently good, but not at all authentic - I think they don't quite understand the spirit of the food.

This reminds me of one time when someone served me goi cuon with a piece of tomato in it! Interesting...

ilva said...

So what am I to say? Swedish living in Italy with a food blog dealing with Italian cuisine? Where does that leave me?? I honestly don't think that I cook worse Italian food than any Italian. I respect the culinary tradition a lot and I am quite horrified by the so called Italian dishes I often find for example in Sweden. I have a quite orthodox view on how to cook, it's not that i'm against innovation or creativity but don't use a name that belongs to a specific dish just because one ingredient happens to be the same and so on. I think that the clue to authentic cooking lies in respect and knowledge of the culinary tradition the recipe comes from!

Alice said...

Jason,

I totally agree with you that thhe number of mediocre chefs in Japan is astronomical. You can't count on any old restaurant to give you good food, and many places that are worth dining at require some sort of recommendation or referral from a long time customer to get served appropriately.

And there is so much more to Japanese food than the appreciation for the 'sappari' (lightness in flavor) - why else would the country produce so many izakayas with their wonderfully powerful dishes? The key is in variation - a combination, an experience as a whole during the dining process - that makes a Japanese meal so wonderful. That's why even at home, most family meals consist of many small plates!

My experience with non-natives cooking izakaya style food is much better than with sushi. My favorite kushiyaki cook in the Bay Area is Mexican! I think sushi in particular is difficult because it sounds so simple - slap on some raw fish onto vinegar rice and call it sushi! But the thing is, it's so much more complicated than that...

Papa,

What do you mean?! My Vietnamese Autumn Rolls weren't authentic?! Ha!

Ilva,

I absolutely agree with both you and Jason that with respectful understanding of what each ingredient is doing in the dish - either intellectually through analysis or culturally through experience - is what makes authentic cuisine authentic. And yes, it is more than possible for non-natives to cultivate a better understanding than the natives because non-natives have an active interest in understanding the dish intellectually. But that's exactly the problem with sushi in the US! It's so simple and easy in concept that not everyone takes the time to really understand the multi-dimensional aspect of sushi! There is much, much more to eat than a slice of raw fish on rice, but those subtle nuances aren't always apprarent, and the mistakes as those listed in my post are all to prevalent... I hope I didn't offend you with my post - it is more about sushi than about a general comment on whether non-natives can make native dishes. Heck, I cook Vietnamese food all the time, and I swear my Vietnamese sauces are often better than what I get at the Vietnamese restaurants!

ilva said...

Of course you didn't offend me!! How could you?! I do understand what you mean but as I said, I think it's possible to cook as good as a native if you try to think and taste at the same time! I am actually much better at cooking Italian traditional dishes thatn Swedish ones...sad but true!

jd said...

De gustis non est disputandum.

As others have pointed out, even "native" chefs are often bad. And on top of that, there is a huge variety of what might be considered "authentic". It is impossible to define what is an "authentic" miso soup for example.

Food, like language, changes and adapts over time. Sushi is a good example of this. How much of how it is defined, prepared and served has changed over the last century? My Father-in-law (someone very much concerned with food) noted that it was much different than when he was younger.

Indeed, existance of the huge variety of different styles even among Japanese food are evidence of innovation and adaptation rather than adherence to a "tradition".

The best that can be done is to respect the tradition and work with the principles, but "authenticity" is something for historians to argue over.

All that said, I agree in part. Knowing what the food is supposed to be like is essential to recreating it. The chef's nationality has nothing to do with it except that it has a correlation with their familiarity. The excellent French pastries I've had in Japan are proof of this.

umetaro said...

I believe non-natives (like myself) could learn how to make Japanese food properly. It's mostly a cultural barrier that prevents the majority of folk from getting things right. I've talked to some itamae who said it took them at least three years to learn how to make rice properly. Most nihonjin I've met don't see anything wrong with that, but the majority of non-japanese think that's insane.

Jason Truesdell said...

One of my friends in Wakayama, who really never seems to stop eating, eats very small portions of everything. For her, after 6 bites, anything starts to get boring.

For me, "sappari" doesn't translate well to English; I think "refreshing" is closer than "light flavor", which I think of as "usuguchi". But even heavier or stronger-tasting dishes are usually seasoned in a much more restrained fashion than in the US, and for me, this ability to create "sappari" flavors that are still memorable is the dividing line between average and good Japanese chefs. I still make some stronger-flavored Japanese dishes, but I also usually make about 5 different things for a small Japanese meal. I tend to have some simmered dish (nimono), some soup (suimono or misoshiru), some ohitashi, tsukemono, some protein-conscious dish (I'm vegetarian, alas) like hiya-yakko, and rice, then, depending on what I'm up to, maybe one or two additional items... maybe some kimpira or a grilled dish, or if I'm feeling like a bit of luxury, some agemono, though that's rare.

American restaurants tend to ruin most cuisines by distorting portion sizes. I can't easily eat in Italian restaurants anymore because even at better ones, the pasta servings are usually too big to enjoy anything else, and the servers sometimes get visibly irritated when you only order one dish for every two people. (Hey, it's not my fault, I just don't want leftovers).

Personally, I don't eat sushi except on rare occasions, like when somebody invites me to his favorite little place just off Ginza or something. But I think I'd enjoy Japanese restaurants in the U.S. more if they were doing more rustic foods; sushi is decidedly urban, originating near the docks of Tokyo/Edo, and was originally fermented as a way to preserve the fish rather than vinegared.

I'm usually more excited by the stuff that peoples' grandmothers make or that ryokan make than what I find in restaurants, but I do like to visit izakaya or little soba places... small servings are what make such basic, simple foods so enjoyable.

I love renkon butter, agedashi-doufu, or other izakaya fare, but if someone served me a huge plate of any Japanese food I'd find it tedious fairly quickly. This sense of scale is tremendously misunderstood in the U.S., both by customers and by chefs.

Alice said...

Ooooh, I love this interaction! I think this is the best conversation I've had on the comments section - I guess it pays to have a little controversy here and there! These conversations have been very informative and fun, guys!

Ilva,

I'm so glad! I was a little bit worried for a bit there! Upon further reflection and from the comments I've gotten, I think my conclusion is that natives tend to 'get' the flavors more easily, partly because they grew up with it, while non-natives generate the same quality through conscious effort and academic understanding. What I see is that all to often, non-native chefs, especially sushi chefs, don't take the time or effort to really understand each step of the way, thereby resulting in sub-par products at the end. The same is definitely true for native chefs too, and any chef who don't spend the time to really understand each aspect of the cuisine can't produce a genuine product, native or not.

JD,

I highlighted my comment in the original article where I state that Japanese (native) chefs often do not live up to my standards for an authentic sushi dinner. And yes, there are many Japanese restaurants with Japanese chefs that I will not bother spending my hard-earned $.

I think authenticity can be designated as whether the meal replicates the experience one can have in Japan. For example, NO Japanese restaurant that is worth a dime will serve miso soup by itself as an appetizer. I think it's fair to say that a ethnic restaurant that promises to serve food from a specific country try to replicate the experience to the best of its limits given the constraints of its non-native location. If not, they should bill themselves as a Japanese-fusion restaurant, which is totally fine by me. Actually, some of my favorite non-sushi restaurants are Japanese-fusion restaurants and they make this clear in the Japanese descriptions on the menu and such. I really respect those restaurants that clearly state what kind of food they serve!

Taking the time to learn all intricacies of the cuisine does seem to be the major obstacle for non-native chefs, just as Umetaro says.

Umetaro,

You raise an excellent point. Yes, that time commitment to become what the Japanese consider to be a really proficient sushi chef might be the hurdle here when it comes to my experience with sushi chefs.

Jason,

I hope you are feeling better and sleeping better!

I didn't realize you were a vegetarian - it must not be easy to find veggie sushi in Japan! I can only think of a few rolls that would be vegetarian... I tried being a vegetarian in Japan for a year. It was HAAAAARD! My friend was a vegan and she basically ate salad everywhere we went out to eat...

Your dinner sounds delicious! And your friend is Wakayama is totally right-on. My favorite izakaya here lost its standing as a favorite because the serving sizes got too big - I got too sick of every dish by the end of each dish that I didn't want to come back anymore! To eat a little bit of everything is a much more pleasurable way to eat than to eat a lot of few things.

I totally agree with you that the small bites of different flavors, temperatures, and textures make for a very exciting dining experience!
Being a lush, I tend to like counter-seated foods where I can eat and drink for hours on end over more home-style cooking places that serve grandma's (or mom's) dishes. I sure love those yakitori joints in Japan!

Anonymous said...

Alice...you should know by now that Americans will never accept that other country is number one, even though it maybe with their own food.

Either way, in my opinion, with enough money, you can have authentic experience anywhere in the world for whatever food.

Arik said...

Ok. I think this topic has been beaten to death, but I still have a couple cents in change. I think this all really has to do with this whole idea of authenticity. I do lean toward this idea of nativity as a major source of authenticity. However, it appears that quality and authenticity does not always drive capitalistic endeavors. Here is a story which may be of interest to you. My family has moved to this new development in Antioch California, and we've been at this residence for about 3 years now. The house is new and the neighborhood is new. So what is the issue? Antioch is starved for eateries. People commute, come home, and have nothing good to eat; accept for a selection of your finest fast food joints - KFC, In and Out, Samurai Express, and Panda Express. Then one day we find our very first Chinese sit down restaurant - Hidden Dragon. Oooh exotic! We decided to go for my Dad's birthday. I was craving steamed bass, salt and pepper crab, deep fried tofu. A glance at the menu revealed that we were at a fancy Panda Express. However, we were to pay double for a selection of orange chicken, sweet and sour pork, and mongolian beef. Oh, but wait that was not the end of it. I looked at our settings and notice there were no chopsticks. No fucking chopsticks! I had to ask for them. I laughed as I called the waitress over because it was so rediculous to me. It seems we live in an area so assimiliated that to offer an "authentic" Chinese dining experience with chopsticks was not adaptive. An Asian friend of mine had argued with me about how unadaptive and inefficent chopsticks were. I said, well you need forks and knives because of the way food is served in Western cultures. When you dine in Chinese restaurants, the food is prepared so that you can handle it with chopsticks. A skilled chopstick user can pick up a single fish bone. The tools should fit the food served yeah? This makes the total dining experience authentic. Cultures have evolved the way they do for what I believe are good functional reasons.
Any way, to conclude, please consider the following. Authentic foods have in themselves been adapted and refined by cultural intermixing. However, this fusion is certainly a delecate process. As much as food can evolve, the offspring need to carry a trait characteristic of the original in order to be "authentic" - like how all BMWs must have that liver shaped front grill to be a "real" BMW. Unfortunately, I might also have to add that this experience of authenticity may be culturally exclusive. I know that a certain Chinese restuarant is not "authentic" because I know what it is to dine Chinese style. This style has been passed on to me from generations. As far as Antiochans are concern, Hidden Dragon is as authentic as it can get in the far east bay. The forks were just a nuance. I mean these people grew up on Mr. Chaus and Panda Express common sites in our most luxurious malls. My question now is: Are these adaptations an attempt at guiding the inexperienced into this new dining world or are we simply selling out?

Alice said...

Arik,

You swore on my PG blog...

Anyway, yes, I totally know what you mean!!! It's a fine line. I know how some people start in Sushido with non-fish rolls and eventually move up into more advanced things. In that sense, the non-fish rolls are playing an important part in the whole scheme of introducing otherwise-put-off audiences to the world of sushi. But then, if that's all they think is sushi, the true nature of sushi is lost...

So, are the Panda Expresses all over the country providing easy access to Chinese food or is it clouding everyone's impression of the wonderful cuisine that the Chinese have cultivated over the last 5000 yrs? If one has never had xiolongpao full of soup, fresh lobster sampan-style, Peking Duck, dried abalone, or shark fin soup, can one really give the proper assessment of what Chinese food really is?

This is up for debate for sure...