I love going out to a great sushi-ya and sitting down to a nice, appealing meal. Served properly, sushi is art as well as sustenance, and often each piece can take conversation in an interesting direction, even without the aid of sake. sushi offers insight into the skills of the itamae, and the individual who chose the particular fish for the restaurant. It also speaks wonders about the importance of ritual and presentation in eastern cultures.
So why does every market seem to sell sushi these days? Basically, it’s a fad. I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense, I’m actually happy it has caught on so well, but it really does smell of one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve grabbed a salmon maki from Whole Foods for lunch, or a California roll on the way home to snack on before dinner (Shhhhhh! Don’t tell my wife). But if you think about it, the prevalence of sushi is a good thing. Regard about how it came to be.
Way, way back in history, sushi was a pre-prepared (and preserved) food. It was essentially raw fish that had been enclosed in rice and left under a rock in an anaerobic environment to “ferment.” After a predetermined period of time had elapsed, the fish was eaten (and I imagine was quite pungent) and the rice thrown away. Centuries later, vinegar was added to the rice (to enhance the preservative qualities) and eventually the rice was eaten as well when the “ferment” had finished. Eventually, the seasoned rice became the “bed” of nigiri-zushi and fresh raw fish was placed on top and the resulting product was sold from stalls for folks on the go. Not that long ago, it became restaurant food. *
Sushi is the ultimate fast food. The artisans who create each piece can whip out a roll in no time at all. It seems disrespectful to say that they can slap a piece of fish on a bed of rice before you can blink, But it’s true. And often it looks and tastes great. And what’s better, it is actually good for you. Give my body a choice of stopping by McDonald’s on the way home or snacking on a spicy tuna roll and I think you know which it would prefer. Sure, the roll is a bit more expensive than a burger, but we’re still only talking a few dollars so I don’t buy that argument. Sushi as a quick meal or snack is good for you; it’s as simple as that, unlike many other options. Sushi can be not so much “fast food” as “quick food.”
So what is sushi? To me, it can be quick snack or robust dining experience. Like anything, it has evolved, and evolved well. For me, the spread of sushi into more public outlets allows me the “quick fix” that I often crave. I still enjoy going out for a more elegant experience and to appreciate the presentation and skill of the itamae (and conversation with him/her if I’m sitting at the sushi bar). I see no reason why sushi can’t have it both ways, especially if you think that it was more casual fare for most of its history. With sushi, you can pack the mystique of the dish into a take-out container and still know you are eating something unique. As “fast food” it is not dumbed-down. Sushi stands up to the label and dashes it. So when I need a quick bite I’ll have my fish raw, please, and leave the fish and chips for someone else.
The Sushi Guy.
* This is a brutally condensed version of the history of sushi and should be seen as such. It’s history is much more convoluted and interesting than this brief writing can convey.
I have always been fascinated by the creation and culture of different foods, particularly sushi and sashimi in the modern era of Japanese cuisine. I am a classically trained chef and sushi connoisseur, also having operated a food service company and enjoy investigating and experimenting with food around the world.