Dietribes: Fun Facts about Sushi

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Sushi is a fairly new phenomenon in the United States. I have quite a few relatives who have never in their lives ventured to a sushi joint and enjoyed the wonderful experience of raw fish and rice. Though a big fan of it myself (as a person who even occasionally boils up seaweed for a snack), there's a lot I still don't know about the history and art of sushi. So let's dive in, shall we?

"¢ Edomae-sushi was first brought to the United States from Tokyo in the early 1960s. While looking for Japanese products to sell in the US, executives from Mutual Trading Company instead brought back an entire culinary experience, which they kicked off in Los Angeles. In the way America must make things its own, the California Roll was soon born. It was originally created to substitute for a maki roll made with toro (fatty tuna). Because the fish was seasonal, the thought was to create a roll that had the similar texture and flavor as toro when the fish was out of season.

zen-of-fish.jpg"¢ From Trevor Corson's book The Zen of Fish, "Sushi began as a way of preserving old fish. Rice farmers in Southeast Asia would pack fish in jars with cooked rice to preserve it. The fermented result tasted more like stinky cheese than like fresh hamachi; the Japanese, in adopting the strategy, gradually shortened the fermentation time, developing a fresher style of sushi that still relied on fermented rice for its distinctive sour taste."

"¢ Still, Some hungry soul got tired of waiting for his sushi to ferment. What we now think of as sushi — Edo-mae nigiri — was invented as fast food for laborers, served by outdoor vendors from small carts. Soy sauce was offered, probably to mimic the fermented fish taste of the earlier style. (For more, read this.)

"¢ Regarding that little bamboo leaf, "the bamboo leaf was a sign of freshness, conveying the message that sushi is perishable and should be eaten before the bamboo leaf dries out." I don't think that counts for the plastic ones included in the Publix containers, although, "the leaves prevented the flavors from contaminating each other and added a mild antibacterial function. The green pieces of decorative plastic that are still served with takeout sushi are a carryover from these early practices. Some brands of plastic are even coated with antibacterial chemicals." (From The Zen of Fish.)

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"¢ Making sushi is no easy feat—traditional sushi chefs undergo years of training. However, there are other options with the California Sushi Academy, including an intensive 12-week sushi chef course, which consists of 250 in-class hours plus 100 internship hours.

"¢ Still, there is a great disparity among sushi chefs. According to this incredible podcast from NPR, "Most of Japan's more than 30,000 sushi restaurants still refuse to hire women, and many men refuse to eat sushi that a woman has prepared. Men often believe that women have a higher body temperature and other physiological differences that make them unsuitable to prepare something as delicate as sushi."

"¢ On a different note, for $300/hr you can hire a model to act as a human sushi plate. There's something vaguely cannibalistic about this, but I would have still considered it as a side job while I was in college.

"¢ If you're like me, this post has made you crave some serious sushi. Here are some great tips and etiquette regarding sushi, and how to brave that intimidating sushi bar (I admit I am one who often lacks courage and simply sits at a table.) Also, a look at the menus of 50 major sushi places around the U.S., and where they get their fish. Plus, hints on how to spot good sushi versus the bad.

OK fellow Flossers, I would love to know of any suggestions about making your own sushi, the best places to learn, or even any sushi stories you have to share (like the first time you tried wasabi ... for me, I thought my brain had exploded). Although I'm keeping mum on any tales regarding me, copious amounts of sushi, and several rounds of sake bombs.

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

"˜Dietribes' appears every Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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May 7, 2008 - 11:15am
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