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April 2, 2006

Memoirs of a Sushiphile

Filed under: Fish,Japanese Food,Mr. Henry,Sushi — Mr. Henry @ 9:59 am

In quick succession sometime early in the 90’s, as if impelled by a master plan, Manhattan streetscapes began to display sushi houses on every other block.ShalomSushi.jpg

What only the truly initiated noticed, however, and here you are fortunate to be reading the reportage of Mr. Henry, an old Japan hand, was that most of these new houses were not under the management of Japanese persons. Indeed this fact was proven when shouting expressions in his increasingly fluent Japanese to the wait staff elicited only silent, baleful stares, responses that could not be explained by reliance on hackneyed clichés of oriental inscrutability.

No, clearly these persons of Asian extraction were participating in an elaborate masquerade not of their own liking. These were Chinese and Koreans, most of them fresh arrivals to America, and their dreams of striking out boldly in the land of opportunity had gone terribly, terribly awry.

It is no secret to you, Mr. Henry hopes, that the Chinese and Korean nations loathe the Japanese, and there are sound, historical, grudge-bearing, vengeful reasons for such enmities. How odd, therefore, to see ancient hatreds so quickly buried in the quest for gainful employment. How much more odd it was to see those enmities buried with regard to food, that most intensely personal and immutable of identity markers.

In the 90’s most of our sushi chefs, however, remained of Japanese ancestry principally because entrance into the ancient, venerated guild and training in its special knowledge requires years of grunt work and an uncle in the business, precisely the same hurdles facing an aspiring electrician or plumber in the greater New York area. Notwithstanding this cultural and, yes, racial legacy, however, strange things began happening to the fish. Slices began to get bigger.

A piece of sushi should be a one-bite experience. The incisors do not participate. The entire edible object, glistening with fresh omega-3’s and not dripping with excessive shoyu and wasabi (dip a corner — don’t dredge the thing, please, please, please) is placed as far back in the mouth as the fingers – yes, the fingers – will allow. Use your chopsticks to grab a pickle or a slice of ginger but the true sushi-meister uses two or at most three fingers of the right hand only.

Did sushi originated as an accompaniment to drink, the heavenly eastern equivalent of the beer nut or the pretzel? Who knows? Mr. Henry is not here to render decisive opinions on the arcana of Japanese culinary history, and if he were to do so he would probably incite hate mail from frustrated, underpaid academics.

Sushi is, you will admit, a predictable experience. It cannot suffer from uneven charcoal broiling. It is either sublime or else for hygienic reasons you should not be ingesting it.


  1. i so applaud this posting. the chinese and korean owned and run sushi houses is something i’ve noticed and wondered why no one ever bothered to point out as being something…weird (sorry, it’s monday morning and my vocabulary is still asleep) precisely because of the history you cited. i’ve also noticed differences in places that are japanese owned versus chinese and korean owned, much simpler in tastes, much smaller, but i think, more authentic to the way it’s supposed to be. you are right, sushi (and all japanese food) is taken very seriously in japan and there is definitely an art behind it. also, thanks for pointing out that sushi is not be eaten with chopsticks!!!!

    Comment by pc — April 3, 2006 @ 8:59 am

  2. Real sushi may be predictable, but “California rolls” most certainly are not. I once made the mistake of buying such from my college dining service. The krab or whatever was used in them was horrifying. But perhaps it was just stupid of me to try to buy “sushi” from a college dining service.

    Comment by JaneC — April 3, 2006 @ 12:16 pm

  3. Finally – I never eat sushi with chopsticks!

    Comment by Phyllis — April 3, 2006 @ 12:54 pm

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