Despite its origins, “sushi has essentially become an American meal now,” says Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice. Now that plastic sushi trays are ubiquitous in Midwest supermarkets, it’s hard to argue the transformation.
Introduced to the American public in the late 60s, cured fish over rice was initially adopted by businessmen and celebrities in Los Angeles for its exotic cachet. Judging by the recent deluge of praise for Jiro Dreams of Sushi, that enthusiasm for the craft doesn’t seem to be waning.
Bastardized pin-wheel rolls aside, the disparity between sushi in Japan versus the United States has shrunk considerably. “The differences 30 years ago to what you could only find in Japan and in the U.S. have converged,” says Sasha Issenberg, author of The Sushi Economy. “Now there are places in Japan that see themselves as American-style sushi bars; and, of course, there are places in the U.S. that replicate traditional Japanese places. The lines are relaxing.”
But even with these blurring borders, there are fundamental aspects of the sushi experience in Japan that don’t easily translate on U.S. soil. “This idea of sushi only existing in a rarefied atmosphere owes to America’s stereotypes,” says Corson—caricatures that were initially perpetuated by Shogun and John Belushi SNL skits in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Counterintuitively, in Japan, sushi chefs play the role of a neighborhood bartender—both affable and interactive.
Our misguided longing for authenticity has perpetuated myths that continue to color our perception—from how sushi chefs are supposed to behave, to deep-seated fears about breaking sacred rules. “We think of these Japanese sushi [rituals] as impenetrable,” says Issenberg.
Here, the two sushi scholars break down the main differences between these sushi cultures, as well as the underlying principles behind them.
Sushi ‘Restaurants’ Are an Oxymoron in Japan.
Sushi is generally consumed at a bar as opposed to a restaurant, which doesn’t really exist so much in Japan. “When people in Japan eat sushi—which is far less than Americans at this point—it’s at a bar, where the expectation is that there’s a chef that’s going to interact with them and suggest the things that are in season,” says Corson. Interestingly, that means there’s less variety at a Japanese sushi bar than you see at an American one
“That concept is puzzling for Americans, even though it’s a more traditional approach to sushi. You don’t have so much of a sushi restaurant where you go and sit at a table and expect a menu to always have 25 things on it.” Corson says that in order to produce that sushi restaurant experience—which is what Americans are accustomed to—the quality of fish is almost by definition not going to be as good.
“In Japan, sushi bars are sushi bars, and you rarely get anything else [on the menu],” says Issenberg. “In the U.S., there are Japanese restaurants where you get cooked food and noodles, and sushi is one of items that is offered.” Cities like Tokyo, for instance, are composed of a network of small neighborhoods with single-themed eating establishments. “We don’t have that tradition so much here,” says Corson. (Photo: tokyofooddiary.com)
The Sushi Chef Stereotype Is Warped and Exaggerated.
Sushi chefs fit into a general cultural trend in Japan. “They’re masters of a profession, like calligraphers or craftsmen,” says Corson. That being said, the notion of how a sushi chef should behave in the United States is skewed. Yes, there’s an aspect of sushi that’s zen-like and stoic, admits Corson. But there’s also part of the tradition that is socially interactive. “Chefs in Japan are a mix of these qualities, but in practice they’re often like a friendly bartender,” says Corson. You point to the food, watch them prepare it, and speak to them over the bar. The larger historical arc—which debunks the idea of sushi as a purely solemn experience—is that in the 19th century, sushi started as a street snack, explains Issenberg. It only moved indoors in the 1930s when the government forced vendors indoors because they needed to move tanks through the streets of Tokyo.
Sushi bars in Japan are often boisterous places, says Issenberg. Chefs are specifically trained to interact with customers. “It’s not unlike an old-school barber—there’s respect and deference. But all the religious connotations that Americans project is simply a form of Orientalism,” he says. “The idea that somehow we need to be silent to appreciate these ‘fish temples’ is not only foolish, but it’s also fairly dishonest with the way Japanese interact with sushi.”
In America, you get the occasional sushi chef character like Nozawa, who earned the nickname “Sushi Nazi” for his uncompromising attitude. “His response to the cultural divide is to be theatrically annoyed by it,” says Corson. But Corson thinks there’s a missed opportunity based on this behavior. “With Nozawa, people felt like they were getting something authentic. But it’s a kind of masochistic warping of what sushi should be like. Chef are actually friendly and welcoming! It worked from a business standpoint, but it also perpetuated this false belief that a sushi chef is supposed to be this crazy ‘samurai-like’ character.”
On the flip side, it wasn’t always easy to translate the Japanese version for an American audience. Language barriers didn’t allow chefs to proceed with confidence, says Corson. “There was an assumption that Americans wouldn’t understand Japanese culture, and therefore it was not worth bothering to teach us. It’s been easier for Japanese chefs in America to fall back to a reserved, uncommunicative stance.”
Etiquette stems from actual logic, not irrational fears.
“I’ve spent so much time talking with sushi chefs in the United States who really want to display their traditional skill set, but people keep doing things that ruin it,” says Corson. He cites simple transgressions such as putting extra wasabi on the sushi, mixing wasabi into the soy sauce, or Americans’ belief that they must use chopsticks. All of these detract from the experience that the chef is trying to create. In other words, it’s not just etiquette for the sake of etiquette. “If you eat with your fingers, for example, chefs can pack the nigiri more loosely so it falls apart on your tongue. That way it mingles easily. Most sushi chefs in America are always having to pack it too tightly [to account for the fact that people use chopsticks].”
As soon as sushi chefs observe people applying extra wasabi on their sushi, they stop giving those customers the premium cuts. “They’ll switch to stuff they’re trying to get rid of, since the customer will not be able to taste the difference.”
In Japan, customers don’t mix wasabi in soy sauce for practical reasons. Wasabi is made up of a chemical which is a variation of mustard oil, says Corson, “and immersed in a water-based liquid such as soy sauce, it loses its spiciness. From a culinary point of view, you’re counteracting the very purpose of wasabi by putting it in soy sauce.” Corson adds that part of a sushi chef’s skill set is varying the amount of wasabi that they put in each piece of sushi according to the type of fish. They’re constantly calibrating.
“Americans have become irrationally convinced that they’re doing something wrong,” says Issenberg. “There’s a lot of folk wisdom along with the logic. You shouldn’t dip rice first because it will decompose, not because you’re disrespecting the ancestors of sushi. That gets conflated.”
Ordering in bulk degrades the sushi experience.
Americans tend to order everything at once, whereas in Japan you order piecemeal—which presents its own set of advantages. According to Corson, rice starts to dry out and fish starts to oxidize immediately after the chef puts it out. So when you order it all at once, the quality is already degrading.
The traditional way to eat sushi is to put yourself in the chef’s hands, says Corson. Generally the most rewarding way is to not use a menu at all. The chef will typically serve delicate, lighter things early, and heavier fattier fish later on, creating a balance. For this reason, “the sushi bar experience isn’t great for large groups,” says Issenberg.
“Not knowing what you’re going to get and having variety is not for everybody in the U.S.,” says Corson. “We’re used to being in charge as customers. In Japan, there’s more respect for the master of whatever trade to make the decision for you.”
The differences in ordering procedure also extends to timing. The sushi roll, which has become the mainstay of American sushi, is more of an afterthought, traditionally speaking. In Japan, it’s served at the end of a meal to make sure you’re full, says Corson. The rolls are usually nori, not inside-out, so you get this really nice contrast of textures. If you’re ordering it from a table, the seaweed has a greater chance of becoming soggy. “So you’re missing out on the whole point.” (Photo: saikosushi.com)
In Japan, sushi isn’t everyday sort of fare.
Issenberg says in Japan, sushi has has democratized somewhat in the last 40 years thanks to cheap, conveyor-belt sushi. But by and large it remains a special-occasion food. “The idea of eating it three times a week for lunch, like people do here, would be foreign to the Japanese.” There’s a distinction to be made between eating sushi and eating raw fish, which Japanese do at all sorts of meals—with tempura lunch or at izakayas. But going to a sushi bar and having nigiri is something that Japanese do far less frequently. “It’s similar to steakhouses in American culture. We eat a lot of beef and hamburgers and sausages, but steakhouses still remain something that people tend to do on their birthdays or for business meetings.” (Photo: deltadentalazblog.com)
There is a lack of diversity in terms of staff.
In Japan, says Issenberg, 100 percent of sushi chefs are men of Japanese ethnicity. “There is still a sense of order in the hiring and training of chefs there, including the traditional ladder of apprenticing. Gender is part of that.” In the U.S., the demand to open sushi bars complicates this picture, “such that there’s a constant relaxing of both the prerequisites (if you waited for 10 years of training to allow somebody to run a bar, you’d never be able to open a sushi bar is the U.S. because there’s not enough people coming up the pipeline), and relaxing of demographic expectations.” Here you see Korean, Chinese, and Mexicans becoming chefs. Issenberg says that in many parts of the U.S., the most refined sushi bars, however, are still being sustained by a Japanese clientele. “So there you’re unlikely to find a white woman hired to become a sushi chef, since diners bring with them a cultural expectation.” (Photo: Liz Barclay)
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