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Sushi Craze Is Alive and Well in US

Japanese chefs enjoy the food's popularity but lament limitations of seafood in the states

As you walk into Kotobukiya (the happy restaurant), you find that sushi is no longer exotic or extravagant food.

To the sounds of Japanese pop music, a Japanese chef in T-shirt and apron prepares sushi. Mostly American customers sitting in front of a glass counter filled with an assortment of raw fish - red-colored tuna, pinkish salmon, and shiny-skinned mackerel - order nigiri (a ball of rice capped by seafood) as easily as they might order a hamburger or pizza.

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Fresh sushi for an affordable price - 99 cents apiece for nigiri, for instance - is what makes Kotobukiya famous among locals and a large number of Japanese living in the Boston area.

Chef Masanobu Nishizawa says that Kotobukiya, in Cambridge, Mass., uses the same quality fish as other Japanese restaurants in the vicinity. Kotobukiya's sushi is twice as cheap as other Japanese restaurants because, he says, the small sushi bar has few overhead costs. The rent is low, and there are only three workers: Mr. Nishizawa, his assistant, and a waitress.

And the bar is always busy, serving more than 100 people a day, Mr. Nishizawa says.

``Sushi has definitely become popular,'' says Alison Arnett, a restaurant critic for the Boston Globe. ``You seem sophisticated if you eat fish because, for Americans who grew up with hamburgers, it's such a leap of faith to try something different.''

What is it about raw fish that appeals to Americans? Clark Wolf, a food consultant and restaurant owner in New York, says that as seafood becomes more popular, Americans are looking for new ways to eat it. ``Sushi is one of them,'' Mr. Wolf says. ``And sushi is not fishy. Because it's raw, you can tell whether the fish is fresh or not.'' If kept scrupulously fresh and prepared correctly, sushi is a light and clean food. For some people, it appeals as a solid source of protein.

Americans have a long way to go, however, before they become completely savvy about sushi.

Most Japanese restaurants in the United States purchase fish from wholesale markets owned by the Japanese instead of ordinary fish markets run by Americans.

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``It's because of the cultural difference,'' says a New York-based Japanese chef who has been making sushi in this country for 16 years. ``Even the fishermen treat fish differently,'' he says. ``When they catch fish, Japanese fishermen hold onto the neck and tail of fish to let the blood go out, so that the meat can remain fresh longer. Americans leave the fish as it is.

``I am practically addicted to it [sushi],'' says Susan Keegan, a weekly diner at Kotobukiya. ``I've tried all of them - from clam to abalone,'' she says.

Ms. Keegan even makes sushi at home. ``I learned how to make sushi from watching them [sushi chefs],'' she says. ``But I can't do it as well as they do it. What is the secret of keeping rice together? Mine falls apart.''

Chefs prepare sushi so deftly, they make it look easier than it is.

``To be a sushi chef takes from three to five years,'' says Masahiro Igarashi, a chef at Tatsukichi, an upscale Japanese restaurant in Boston.

A typical sushi chef begins his or her career by learning how to to prepare fish. The rice part comes later.

``When I started working at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo, I was not even allowed to touch rice,'' Mr. Igarashi says. ``Everyday for two years I washed dishes, cut vegetables, and scaled fish.''

Igarashi came to Boston to work at Tatsukichi nine years ago. He loves living in the US, but he is worried that his technique has been declining. ``Making sushi here isn't any good for my skill,'' he says.

He explains that in the US certain kinds of fish that are common in Japan are not available, such as kampachi, a white firm fish similar to yellowtail, and shako, or mantis shrimp.

Each fish is prepared differently, and without a certain fish, that preparation skill gets neglected and eventually can be forgotten.

Also while working in Tokyo, Igarashi would carve a slice of bamboo-leaf into the shape of a turtle and crane for display. At Tatsukichi, he uses plastic imitation leaves. ``Bamboo leaf is very expensive here. And I'm too busy to cut leaves,'' Igarashi says.

But ingredients aside, Igarashi's approach to sushimaking doesn't change from country to country.

``Japanese and Americans, they are the same customers, and I always make sushi with the same spirit,'' he says. ``I only think of making the best sushi for the customers.''

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