It’s not the taste. If the pieces of fish have been selected correctly –and if the itamae (板前), the cook, knows what he is doing he will have picked the tuna, the shrimps, the salmon, the squid, the octopus, the crab, the eel, the urchin or the roe very carefully in terms of taste, texture and color- if the rice, the really difficult ingredient and the one giving the dish its name, has been cooked as it should with the right amount of vinegar, salt, sugar and sake, if the nori, the seaweed used for wrapping (in the case of maki-zushi 巻き寿司) is at the same time crisp and soft and if the amount of wasabi is enough to give taste and a fleeting burn, the taste will be exquisite and it will truly fill you with the sensation that you are eating what is most important in this country: rice and fish, the food that has been sustaining the Japanese since they came to inhabit the almost seven thousand islands we today call “Japan”.
The problem is that outside Japan, the particular dish lost its character and was distorted to something for the most refined of palates, equal to foie gras or truffle mushrooms. And this wouldn’t have been a problem if with it hadn’t come the inevitable affectation on the part of the restaurant-goers and the, equally inevitable, transmutation of Western sushi-ya to high class restaurants with prices to match; that even though you have to go through all these and still end up eating a sushi that is substandard even compared to Tokyo’s automated “kaiten-sushi” eateries is the best example of “adding insult to the injury”. On the other hand maybe it was unavoidable: in most places all over the world, Japanese restaurants cater for just a tiny fraction of the population and the idea of raw fish with which sushi has been (erroneously) identified keeps most people at a distance.
And it is a shame since sushi is actually one of the earliest versions of what we call “healthy fast food” and it really is for everyone. In an Edo bristling with busy people the need for a combination of easy-to-find and highly nutritional ingredients (and there is nothing more easy-to-find in Japan than rice and fish) that could be prepared and consumed quickly was so pressing that it is a wonder why nobody thought earlier what Hanaya Yohei (華屋与兵衛, 1799-1858) thought in 1824: to put a piece of fish on a sizeable portion of rice (the original “Edo-mae/江戸前sushi was at least five times bigger than the ones we eat today) and serve it. The idea was soon adopted by everyone, passed to the stalls of street vendors, became a part of Japan’s gastronomical culture and remains popular until today; and if you happen to be at Tsukiji, the world’s biggest fish market between Ginza and the Sumida River, you can still find it in its most simple and authentic form.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.