Last week I met Karen Pinchin whose fascinating book about tuna, Kings of Their Own Ocean, will be published in July. We began discussing the origins of sushi in America, which reminded me of a talk I gave at Worlds of Flavor in 2010. There are far more scholarly articles on the subject - but I think you might find this interesting.
Incidentally, the Mr. Tsuji I reference is president of the Tsuji Culinary Academy in Osaka, and co-author (with his father) of Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. (MFK Fisher wrote the first introduction to the original book; I wrote the introduction when it was reprinted 25 years later.)
Mr. Tsuji gave us the history of Japanese food in its native land; I want to tell you a different side of the story. This is a capsule history of Japanese food in America.
Most foreign cuisines landed in America with immigrants: longing for a taste of home they inevitably set up restaurants for themselves in this strange new place. That is how the first Chinese dishes were introduced to America, how we learned about Mexican and Salvadoran food, the way German and Italian restaurants came into the culture. This was how most of us also discovered the cooking of Thailand and Viet Nam.
But that is not how Japanese food was introduced to America.
The first reference I can find to Japanese food in America is a 1914 article about Bohemian San Francisco in which the writer, Clarence Edwards, is treated to raw fish for the very first time. One would think he would find it unpalatable, but to his surprise he found the bream-like fish, “most delicious, delicate, and with a flavor of raw oysters.”
But he was an anomaly. For a very long time, when you said Japanese food to an American the immediate response was “sukiyaki.” The first restaurants were not aimed at a Japanese clientele – they were intended to serve a curious, thrill-seeking audience. A 1939 book reviewing restaurants in New York speaks of the “theatrical nature of Japanese cuisine,” pointing out that, “Japanese cooking is a derivative of the Chinese…. It does have, however, some original features of its own, especially in regard to suki-yaki.” Among the hundreds of restaurants another New York critic of that period reviewed in his book, exactly two were Japanese. The highlight of this review is an aside: “At one time you could great real saki wine here if you were known. That was during Prohibition. I doubt it now.”
Japanese restaurants were a novelty, they were relegated to big cities, and they essentially stuck to sukiyaki. This view of Japanese food did not change until after the war when Americans began traveling to Japan on business.
There they were treated to formal banquets, multi-course Kaiseki affairs that mostly baffled them. But many also experienced simpler Japanese meals, and a few enjoyed sushi so much that a few Japanese investors were inspired to open sushi restaurants in America. These were high-end places, intended for an elite. When Gourmet Magazine wrote about sushi in the mid-fifties the article was called Song of Sushi, and it contained a single recipe – for fugu sashimi.
Nevertheless, for a very long time most American critics remained remarkably obtuse about Japanese food. In the 1977 edition of Seymour Britchky’s Restaurants of New York, Japanese food is relegated to “unusual cuisines,” and he makes comments that would clearly embarrass him now, were he alive to read his own words. (“You will like Japanese eel if you like smoked, rubbery jellied salt.”) As late at 1982, the NY edition of Gault Millau described a Japanese restaurant as a place where “businessmen seem to be using it as a kind of mini-health farm, taking a punishing break between bouts of self-indulgences. Certainly there are few signs of rapture on their faces as they toy with a seaweed salad. Maybe there’s a bit of the Emperor’s New Clothes attached to Japanese cuisine; it would take a brave man to actually admit that he finds his pickled fluke fin revolting.”
Mimi Sheraton did much better, but even she was a little nervous about the more authentic dishes. Describing a “chef’s choice” dinner at Kitcho (which she awarded 3 stars), she described “a parade of dishes of such rarified and astonishing visual beauty that seeing them was almost nourishment enough.” The meal included raw fish, a rare caviar, marinated mushrooms no larger than a raisin. But she warned, “I would recommend this only for advanced aficionados of Japanese food, and especially of raw fish; for the rest, the standard menu will prove more familiarly satisfying.”
As far as I can tell the American critic who best appreciated Japanese food was San Franciscan RB Read, whose Underground Gourmet contains the most intelligent writing on Japanese restaurants that I could turn up in the sixties.
“San Francisco’s Japanese restaurants are one of the city’s most beguiling cultural amenities,” he wrote. “Here we have more of them than any city outside Japan, in greater variety and the most excellent. It is even claimed (by Japanese-Americans, sometimes by Japanese nationals themselves) that ours are superior to the homeland restaurants, and in a way this may be true. The preparation and service of food in Japan – public as well as private – is so set about with ritual that by comparison the dietary laws of Orthodox Jewry seem like minimal ground rules for licensing a Roman holiday. Here only the spirit of that intricate rigmarole obtains; it shows as a fastidiousness, an exquisiteness, a purity,
The singular appeal of our Japanese places is that all of them originated as strictly ethnic restaurants for a solely ethnic trade, and continue to serve an uncompromising menu in uncompromising style. This pattern, established in SF has been carried through by Nisei following the diaspora effected by their shameful incarceration during WWII.
You do not enter a Japanese restaurant on a halfway basis. American dishes are not offered; your bowl of misoshiru is put before you without a spoon. The waitresses are incomparably polite and competent, but incapable of guiding you. You’re supposed to tell them.”
He went on to admit that he loved Japanese food. And that his concern was “to open the richness of lovely food and custom to those who have hung back out of pure bafflement.”
Read was clearly ahead of his time. But an enormous change was coming thanks to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. (It is still the principal law governing marine fisheries.)
Until the mid-seventies most fishing boats set out to sea for weeks at a time, throwing the fish into holding pens in the bottom of their ships, and returning to shore only when they were full. That meant that “fresh” fish was often weeks old when it landed at the docks – and it still had to change many hands before it found its way to the plate.
Little wonder that Americans were suspicious of fish. But the new law offered fishermen lavish tax breaks to invest in a new generation of high-tech fishing boats equipped with onboard facilities that allowed them to instantly clean, refrigerate or freeze the fish. For the first time fishmongers could offer what we now call “sushi-grade fish.”
There was a huge unintended down-side to this: these sophisticated boats have decimated our oceans and threatened many species with extinction. But that’s a different story.
There was another equally important innovation around the same time: the advent of what one chef has called Cuisine de FedEx. Overnight shipping meant that fish caught today in Japan could be served in Los Angeles tomorrow. For a cuisine based on pristine fish, these innovations constituted a major revolution.
And the revolution continues. Industrial sushi, made by machines appeared just as supermarkets were being threatened by the giant prepared foods movement. Portable, pretty, low-fat, ready to eat… it has quickly become a supermarket staple. The sushification of America is complete.
The sushi effect has been equally revolutionary in high-end restaurants. Next week Eric Ripert, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Bouley discuss the many ways Japan has influenced their ideas about food. (From a 2010 article.)
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Curious about my own early approach to sushi, I unearthed this 1990 article about one of my favorite sushi bars. (Sadly, Sushi Imai in Los Angeles is no longer in business.)
LOVE and FISHES
There are less than a dozen seats in this small sushi bar. When the couple walks in, none of them is occupied.
The man breathes in the sweet, sharp, sugar and vinegar smell of the sushi bar. He bows, slightly, to the chef. “Imai-san” he says, softly. He pulls out a seat and folds himself into it, taking the paper off the chopsticks and rubbing the sticks together in what is clearly an old ritual. “Ah,” he says, “it’s good to be here again. I wish I could afford to eat here more often.”
The chef grins at the two. “For you,” he says, pointing to the woman, “sushi.” He points to the man, “and for you, sashimi.” The woman shakes her head, a vigorous no. Under her breath she says, “He always gives you the sashimi. And it’s always better than what he gives me. Today I’m insisting on sashimi.” The chef nods and begins to select fish from the case.
There is a comfortable silence; the woman breaks it. “Remember,” she says, “the first time you brought me to visit Imai?”
“Yes,” says the man. “It was 1969. It was your first visit to Los Angeles. You kept complaining about the heat.”
“And then you dragged us down to Tokyo Kaikan and made us wait and wait until there were seats on Imai’s side of the sushi bar. We thought you were nuts. And then the bill was so high we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough money left to get home the next day. But I didn’t care; I thought it was just about the most delicious food I’d ever eaten.”
“This is the most delicious,” he says, spearing a bit of clear, unctuous tuna with his chopsticks and following it with a thin slice of translucent halibut. “Have you tasted this clam?” The woman is just picking up the large, red-tinged mollusk. She puts it in her mouth and closes her eyes, chewing sensuously. “It tastes a bit like oysters,” she says dreamily.
Now the chef is slicing squid into strips and putting them into a bowl with a bit of sesame seed, some quail egg, a little bit of chile. He hands them each a bowl, smiles and starts to chop again.
Another bowl. It is Spanish mackerel, diced and mixed with ginger, cucumbers, a bit of shiso and some secret of the chef’s. The two are eating, almost in silence, when a large man walks in, pinky rings flashing on his fingers, and plunks himself down at the counter. “You know how to make California roll?” he demands. The chef, stone-faced, shakes his head. “It’s easy,” the man says, “I’ll show you.” The chef is unmoved. “I don’t make that,” he says quietly, “Go someplace else.” The large man looks bewildered, shrugs, and leaves. The chef smiles triumphantly; once again his principles have not been violated.
“Sushi now,” he says to the two, handing them each sweet, soft slices of yellowtail on little pads of rice. It is followed by another fish that neither can describe. “From Japan,” says the chef. “A kind of herring. I pickle myself.”
Now he is selecting sea urchin from its wooden tray, carefully choosing the buttery little rounds. As he hands them over he says, “You know, I am going to have to leave for a while. This building is going to be earthquake-proofed and I am moving out in April for a year.”
“Where will you go?” asks the man alarmed.
“Oh,” says the chef, “I’ll be around. You’ll find me.”
Every year Nancy Silverton, Laurie Ochoa and I take an intimate group on an eating odyssey in Europe. This year Alec Lobrano joins us as we explore Marseilles and the French Riviera, the two most exciting place to eat in France right now.
I think this is our best trip yet. It includes great walks, terrific art and fantastic food from 3-star establishments (Le Petit Nice) to the little places where locals hang out. The journey ends with a meal at my favorite restaurant in the world, Mirazur in Menton.
These trips are enormous fun, and along the way we’ve formed lasting friendships. This year I hope you’ll join us.
For more information, click here.
While we’re talking sushi…. I flew to Toronto last week and when my plane landed I went straight from the airport to a 9:30 reservation at Yasu Sushi. To my surprise - and I have to admit horror - I discovered I was the only one at the small sushi bar.
“Are you sure?” I said to the chef. “I don’t want to keep you here just for me.”
He - and his lovely assistants - all insisted I stay.
I’m so glad I did. The meal was long, old school and pretty perfect. The sake pairing was excellent and extremely generous. The rice was especially fine. And each piece of fish was pristine.
My favorite flavors included the firefly squid above; their season is very short - about 6 weeks - which makes these delicious little mollusks a particular treat. (If you want to try them at home, you can buy them here.)
this lovely composition of tuna tartare, uni, and shiso flowers…
And this umami-rich marinated mackerel….
It was a wonderful meal - and a perfect reminder of why we all love sushi.
Great scene-setting. It was almost like I was there with you. Now that you mention it, I was.
I was fortunate to live in Okinawa, Korea and Japan over a two year period. The three kinds of foods that seemed to dominate the cuisines were seaweed, fish and rice. The rice was a revelation -a different variety and quality from what passes for rice in the United States. Asian varieties of short grain white rice have real flavor and moderate stickiness. Here's a good article on buying Japanese rice which demonstrates the importance of rice in the culture: