According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word sushi first entered the English language in 1893, thanks to the book A Japanese Interior by Alice Mabel Bacon. (However, the word “bacon” did not enter the lexicon thanks to a book by Alice Mabel Sushi.) Oxford defines sushi as “a Japanese dish consisting of small balls or rolls of vinegar-flavoured cold rice served with a garnish of vegetables, egg, or raw seafood.” It’s interesting that the primary ingredient in sushi is the rice, not the fish. Sushi is not to be confused with sashimi, which are thin slices of raw fish, sans rice. (The word sashimi literally means “pierced flesh,” and entered the language in 1880.) I strongly recommend a trip to Sushi Thai on Phila Street to closely examine the difference between the two. In fact, I’ll meet you there in 10 minutes...
If the previous paragraph is making you a bit peckish, just wait until you see the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which the Saratoga Film Forum will be screening this Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a tiny restaurant located in a subway station in Tokyo’s Ginza district. A bit unprepossessing, and here in the States we would probably look askance at a sushi restaurant—or any restaurant—located in a subway station, but Sukiyabashi Jiro has been acclaimed as one of the best sushi restaurants in the world—if not the best—and owner and sushi chef Jiro Ono has been recognized by the Japanese government as a national treasure.
Sushi is a relatively recent culinary import to the United States, with the first sushi bars only cropping up in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo in the mid-1960s. The first is believed to be Kawafuku Restaurant, which opened in 1966. Originally catering to expatriate Japanese who were immigrating to the U.S. at the time, as well as traveling Japanese businessmen, a few intrepid Americans were intrigued by the idea of raw fish and the idea gradually began to spread, becoming somewhat popular by the latter half of the 1970s. The California roll—rice and raw fish and/or vegetables, although a traditional California roll featured avocado, wrapped in seaweed—was invented by a chef at LA’s Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in the mid-1970s, and it is the California roll-style that is commonly, though not entirely correctly, thought of as “sushi” today. The cuisine prospered in the 1980s and 1990s, with the number of sushi restaurants quintupling between 1988 and 1998.
(Historically speaking, sushi is not a centuries-old Japanese cuisine, either, as it dates only from 19th-century Edo which, as historians and crossword puzzlers know, was the original name of Tokyo.)
Along with the number of restaurants, the variety of sushi also increased, such that it was subject to much experimentation, to the extent that—like many ethnic foods in the U.S.—much American sushi is unrecognizable to the Japanese back home, and in fact American-style sushi has been exported back to
Japan. Apparently, in Tokyo, you can order a Nixon roll (insert own joke here).
Sushi chefs think of themselves as artists, and sushi and sashimi dishes are prepared with not only taste but also appearance in mind. And remember: only dip the fish, not the rice, in soy sauce. As for mixing wasabi into the soy sauce...once an insult, it is becoming acceptable, but still may be frowned upon. Oh, and never rub your chopsticks together to ostensibly remove splinters. (If you are interested in the past and present of sushi in America, I strongly recommend The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson.)
Keep all this in mind as you watch Jiro Ono at work—and don’t be surprised if you end up dreaming of sushi.