West Eats East
Who imagined sushi would become almost a staple of J-eating here in our land? My dear professor at school, a world renowned cheese authority, commented it was a barbarian delicacy of a smelly fish with cooked rice marinated with vinegar, requiring not much culinary skills to make. It was early 1970s, still not in a distant memory. He referred to our diet as meat and cheese along with just a little bit of warm vegetable and a lot of potatoes. No rice, no soy sauce, not much fish-seafood, and no fresh vegetables for most of our people then. Once or twice in my school years he came to a J-restaurant where I worked at night and asked me what to order. Sukiyaki was my choice because it was a kind of meat dish. I urged a chef to add more beef in the place of tofu and veggies. He did not leave a good tip afterward. It was also the time that I started dancing when I spotted soy sauce in a supermarket of a small college town in western NY state. Sushi was beyond anyone’s imagination then.
I still wonder why Americans have started eating such an unconventional, too foreign stuff as sushi. I guess it must be a matter of timing to match our desire for health and longevity as well as ventures for fish-seafood or diverse from meat. People appeared to anticipate some of the desire to be fulfilled by sushi. Besides, sushi was exotic, fancy and not so bad in taste, even though at first bite required some sort of courage, not exactly like swallowing with eyes closed. Rice is good for filling the stomach with less calorie than meat or dairy products. Fish brings good protein and fatty acids. There are three probable concerns. First, bare hands in sushi making, which is occasionally pointed out by local health offices. In my food safety inspection experience at sushi restaurants as a food microbiologist, sushi business people are very concerned with it by taking every preventive measure like washing hands thoroughly, using sanitized cloths for cleaning chopping board, cutting knife, kitchen chopsticks, etc. Sushi would be safe as far as these basic, sanitary measures are seriously practiced. Sushi making is nothing different from other culinary preparations. And, I understand the use of disposable kitchen gloves may be reasonable in some cases because of handling of uncooked, raw fish-seafood. Second, occasional reports of mercury or heavy metal contents of fish or seafood. A carnivore, tuna for an example, positions high as a predator in the marine food chain, which means, tuna possibly accumulates residual chemicals or heavy metals from lower food chain creatures. It is nothing to do with tuna per se but an environmental matter in the ocean. Currently mercury levels are not critically over the threshold values to cause a threat, particularly to pregnant women or children. I hope it goes this way forever. Food safety is a matter of quantity. If you eat tuna three times a day for years, it would be your problem as a predator. Third, resources of fish-seafood. In addition to international treaties of fishing to regulate catches, aqua farming may be a solution of the supply, I hope.
Sushi has evolved from preservation of fish in our early eating. Leftover fresh water fish or shellfish at the beach easier to catch than fish in the ocean in old days was stored with salt for later eating. In such preservation, fermentation progressed mostly by lactic acid bacteria, preventing spoilage at lowered acidic conditions. No rice was used in the beginning but later added for stimulating fermentation. Preserved fish, called sushi at that time, was for eating precious fish protein. Such a sushi smelled awful like Limburger cheese or sufu fermented tofu but was prized as a delicacy or treat. Then a revolution took place in the early 19th century by adding vinegar acetic acid to rice instead of waiting for acid forming in fermentation. This change from lactic to acetic acid made sushi more easy to make, more palatable to taste and more popular to enjoy. Then many kinds came out with ingredients available, fresh fish-seafood and vegetables, for seasonal or special occasions. Sushi was and still is for special occasions but not daily meals. Traditional Nigiri, rolled small, creative here and large Futomaki there, Chirasi a bowl of sushi rice covered with fish-seafood, Gomoku mainly cooked vegetables, eggs and pressed trout Oshi sushi are champions of the J-food which everybody loves. Here it came by J-immigrants. We transformed it into our taste and forms for our fancy, special occasion, one of the most beloved Oriental foods. Evolution, revolution and diversion, sushi has gone through. Further diversion will proceed by using meat, smoked salmon-trout, egg, dairy products and cooked veggies, sea-veggies, fruits from local supplies, with hints from the originals in Japan. Kobe beef sushi, Spam sushi, and eggplant sushi with miso vinegar sauce, are already in sushi markets. A large rolled, art sushi is creatively fantastic in the same appearance of the inside figures of flowers, cherry blossom, Mt. Fuji, snowman, Giant Panda, or Halloween pumpkin at every cut. Try to make it. The originals or creative ones, that is your choice. Sushi can be a good vehicle to drive omnivorous eating further both in taste and business.