This afternoon I had lunch with friends at the Japanese restaurant that recently opened. I was good and didn’t order the fifty dollars worth of sushi I could easily put away. Instead I ordered a bento that included a California roll and tuna sashimi so I could ease my craving. We’ll be going back to taste more of the menu.
As usual, the food and Japanese decor reminded me of my childhood in Okinawa. My family frequented the sushi bar, where $50 covered all four of us. At times I can’t believe the prices here in North America, $5.25 for eel instead of $2.00. But then I have to remember that the ingredients aren’t local and although getting more common, sushi is still considered exotic. It’s also a delectable edible art and the process of making sushi is an art in itself.
Buddhism and Shinto run through most aspects of Japanese life, culture, and architecture. Sushi too is simple, pure, and balanced. It’s often too beautiful to eat, almost. It may look simple, but that is because it is meant to look that way. The essence is shown without the frills, thus its purity. As with Yin and Yang, one flavor should not overpower the other, but help create a balance. These characteristics can also be seen, or tasted as the case may be, in other Japanese cuisine.
The rice is a blank canvas on which to draw color, flavor, aroma, and texture. Before it can be used, a canvas needs to be stretched and prepared so rice vinegar is added and the rice fanned until cool. Rice generally makes up 80% of sushi so its preparation is crucial. Then may the other ingredients, all selected and prepared carefully, be added and the sushi shaped into a ball or a roll or something else entirely. Making sushi can be more difficult and time consuming than it looks.
Thought is given to the layout of sushi to make it look not only appealing, but balanced as well. This is true even for a plate of 100 pieces. A dish’s color and material are also thought of. Blue and white china or red and black lacquer are probably used the most. Shinto is a very nature-oriented religion so wood and bamboo are commonly used as well. Display is obviously up to the artist. Chopsticks, which were originally wooden, are also deeply rooted in Shinto. This afternoon, the red of the tuna and green leaf garnish was a nice contrast against the shredded daikon and white china on which it lay.
In Japan to become a licensed sushi chef is a long and arduous process. The first three years, he learns how to choose and prepare fish. Then he learns how to form rice balls with damp cloth and later soybean scraps. Rice is too important to be wasted in Japan, even for learning purposes. Upon his seventh year, he may be able to serve a few customers and take the national test to become a sushi cook. After ten years the apprentice may be deemed good enough to serve his own customers and become a sushiya, or sushi chef.
One doesn’t need national recognition to make sushi, though Japanese women will often apologize for theirs being homemade. Try your hand at it. You may find it fun creating this edible art that came to Japan in eighth century BC. Sushi is great to bring to parties and I might just do that for an upcoming soiree. Kampaii! Cheers!