Sushi Grade- It’s A Bunch Of Rot

The one question I get asked at every sushi-making class is: “what is Sushi Grade fish?” It’s as inevitable as heartbreak. And it comes usually in response to my own question: “what are the first two words that come to mind when thinking about sushi?” The answer is, invariably: “fresh” and “raw”.  So I tease the students by meandering around the issue and speaking to the total sushi-eating experience in North America. And sushi-eating is full of rot. Literally.

Consider soy sauce. A by-product of the miso-making process, which is as low-tech as it gets when it comes to making rotten food a gastronomic enterprise. You mash cooked soybeans and steamed rice, throw in a bit of salt for seasoning, infest it with koji-kin (an enzyme-producing mold) and let it sit in a warm, dank room for weeks, and out comes miso. The black tar-like liquid oozing out at the end of the process is soy sauce. Sure, full of glutamate, which our body craves, but rot nonetheless. Bonito flakes, just to cite another example, and one of the few key ingredients making up Japan’s ubiquitous seafood broth, dashi,  is also a product of the koji-infested rotting process. And it is in everything we associate with eating sushi.

So, here is the truth about “Sushi Grade” fish: there is no such thing. Having said that, there are complexities, which will be discussed in another post. Suffice it to say for now that  a truly sushi grade tuna, for instance, would have to be hauled onto a boat, killed, cleaned and gutted, and its flesh carved up immediately for consumption, to be considered Sushi Grade. And good luck to your teeth and gums in your attempt to chomp down on it. You might as well chew on a Goodyear radial tire.   In truth, a fish becomes Sushi Grade depending on how long it has been dead. Each species of fish undergoes enzymatic breakdown at a different rate then every other. At Tsukiji market in Tokyo (and there is no less an authority), depending on how long each fish has undergone this process, they stick one of two stickers onto a fish for sale: “For Cooking” or “Sushi Grade”.

Timing is everything with dead fish. Decomposition adds to the flavor of fish just as it does to beef. For the latter, we call this process “aging”. Sushi Grade is determined by aging, too, but unlike beef, the longer you let it decompose, the more likely it will make you very sick.  In North America, Sushi Grade is as much a marketing gimmick, allowing fishmongers to reach deeper into your pocket, as it is based on a widespread confusion about what happens from ship to table- from dead to even more dead. Further obfuscating the issue is the type and size of fish, as well as if it is caught in freshwater or saltwater.

“So, Sang, what do I do if I want to serve sushi at home for my friends and family?” For now, purchase only fish the fishmonger- even the $12/hr part-time student standing behind a counter at Metro- knows the origins of. Then, make sure that this jives with what credible organizations like Seafood Watch  or Fish2Fork says is cool to eat, that by making fish purchases you will not be doing needless harm to the environment. Forget about the tags of “sushi grade” or “sashimi grade”. It means little at most fish counters. Or, at your own peril (and mine), buy mindlessly. It’s up to you. But if you are going to invite me to your sushi party and you can’t tell me where this “fresh” and “raw” fish is from, best you pass me the apron.

I will work the grill.

EAT MY SUSHI: The Singles Event Saturday June 18th

I receive emails all the time by gun-shy Casanovas who are unwilling to play footsies under the table unless there are enough damsels’ feet to play with. They’re statisticians, enjoy working the ratios. Generally, they prefer two to three female feet to each one of theirs. If they were not very good at math during school, they’re pretty good with numbers at a singles sushi-making class. And once they are satisfied with the odds, they pull out their Visa cards. If- and this happens more often than you can shake a chopstick at- I tell them that they waited too long, that all the seats are accounted for, that there is no more room, bribery is the next card they pull out.

“C’mon, we can work this out.”

“No. It’s too late.”

“Just give me a chance.”

“Sorry, you should have thought about it sooner.”

And, as it turns out, the more adamant I am about not giving in, the more fierce is their- how shall I say it?- ardor. Can it really be true of men (even when they are dealing with a heterosexual sushi instructor dude like me?): that every “no” is really a “yes” in disguise? That every “no” is really feigned protest, an obvious attempt at seduction? There is narcissism at work here, the kind that has the guy genuinely thinking “wait, this is NOT happening to me! This is me- The Dude.” They’re not getting the rose. So when they find themselves in a Bachelorette  episode, they’re pretty certain that the show is really about them. The roses are meant for them- all of the roses. The truth is really less cynical than accusations of narcissism: there is a genuine fear of not getting lucky. They put up (in this case, $50 for a dinner) and didn’t even land a coffee date. It’s a fear we all live with: “will I be liked?”; “will I be picked last on the losing team?”; “will she choose the uninteresting, but (only just) better looking guy over me?”.

The boys in my singles sushi-making classes are cool, interesting, pretty serious about finding The Right One. Most of them have been around the corner of the singles bar enough times to make most of us dizzy. They just don’t like playing footsies under the table unless the odds are in their favor.

Dudes, you better move quickly for the next event.  There are some beautiful feet under that table. And who knows, you might just find yourself in the right pair of shoes this time.

Sushi And The City

Sushi does not have a monopoly on beautiful men and women. Having worked in restaurants offering lighter, and more delicate, versions of classic French and Italian cuisines- cuisines almost always associated with romance- I have served food to my share of beautiful men and women. They came in all shapes and sizes, ages, sexual preferences, and socio-economic-cultural backgrounds. They were people who simply loved to eat good, healthy food. But, invariably, they liked to do this in the company of others.  It was only while peddling sushi that I began to notice a recurring trend: there was a growing number of that unduly stigmatized restaurant phenomenon – the solitary diner. They would often saunter in with a book tucked under their arm or, increasingly, earphones plugged into smartphones. Happy as abalone, and mostly women.

I have a theory for why Japanese restaurants seem to draw a disproportionate number of loners: the sushi bar. The experience is similar in spirit with the bar at your local watering hole. The fish in the glass fridge feels like the selection of beers on tap and the sushi chef is as present as the bartender behind the counter. However, here in Toronto, there isn’t the kind of banter across the sushi bar that you would get at a pub. There are reasons for this, not the least of which is the obvious language barrier. With so many sushi chefs being recent arrivals to Canada, they don’t always have the dexterity in English to carry on a protracted conversation. They work in silence most of the time, reading and executing the orders coming up on their printer just as you yourself are reading (Madame Bovary) and executing (I will never have a three-year affair with a dude called Rodolphe behind my husband’s back) the orders of your own life. Furthermore, a shared sushi bar etiquette is lacking here. A Korean sushi chef responds differently to a guest then a Japanese or Chinese one does. Part of it is about the nuances of cultural difference, but most of it is due to the rituals around eating sushi in public places in a city like Toronto. It is very unlike, for instance, public displays of sushi etiquette in Tokyo, Seoul or Shanghai.

In my sushi making classes, 75% of the participants are women…and single. Most of them arrive either by themselves or with other single women. I know they are single because they tell me so. My last sushi making class, on Saturday May 14th, was no different. Mostly single women with other single women, looking to have some fun while learning a thing or two about one of their favorite cuisines. Between Jaime and Nicole; Tara and Samantha; Terri and Wing, only one of them had a “significant other” who was a man, and she didn’t bother bringing him along. Jaime Hackett, a young half Korean and Irish single professional, shared an insight that seemed to express a vital truth about the lack of male participation in my classes.

“I would rather do something fun with a girlfriend,” she said, “then go and drink beer at a bar watching UFC with a boy I’m dating. Chances are, he wouldn’t be interested in making sushi with me.”

It points to that soft spot in heterosexual relationship issues, even in this day and age, where men and women still play out their roles in the ancient rituals of gender .

“It’s a macho thing,” she said, laughing. “He doesn’t want to appear like some domesticated animal.”

The beautiful women of The Broken Heel Diaries were also in attendance that night, brought along by Jess Sanchez, BHD’s kind and formidable executive editor and communications director. Jess wrote up a lovely piece about the event, with some amazing photos: The Broken Heel Diaries. I didn’t have a chance to ask Jess, Andrea, Elyse, Safra or Maram if they had male partners in their lives and, if so, why they didn’t bring them along, but my sense was that, if they did, they were just as happy to leave them at the bar, watching sports. I assumed that it was just a “girls night out”. The fact that they work together may have also played a role: they wanted some extra-curricular bonding time.

Even still, the fact of the matter was that they were all women.

A perception, important more to women then men- and mostly right- is that Japanese cuisine, especially sushi, is not only good for you, but also keeps you slim. My personal experience corroborates this perception. In all my dealings with Japanese people, here and abroad, I have never met an obese Japanese woman. The only “fat” people are Sumo wrestlers- all men- who deliberately stuff themselves with thousands of good calories a day to transform the fat in their bodies into titanic slabs of immovable muscle. (There are, of course, like all the other cultures that truly pride themselves for their culinary offerings, some exceptions to the rule.) There seems to be an intuitive understanding of this over on this side of the pond. Hence, so many young people enjoy eating sushi because they understand one of the fundamental principles about living in a big and cosmopolitan city, where appearance is just as important as substance: if food is fashion, most young people prefer Calvin Klein over Christian Lacroix: lighter, more natural, lacking pretense, and with a desire to exhibit more flesh than textile. Most men, myself included, well, we’re too busy watching UFC and eating 5lbs of chicken wings, with sauce-stained over-sized sweatshirts, to think about these matters.

Sushi Making Fundraiser For The Japanese

On March 11, 2011 the worst earthquake and tsunami in modern Japanese history devastated the Tohoku region of Japan. With 14, 000 dead and tens of thousands more still missing, the scale of this tragedy numbs the mind and silences the heart. Furthermore, the partial meltdown of the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima gave rise to serious (if not apocalyptic) discussions around the world about radioactive contaminated food stocks, including fish. Within days, a group of prominent writers, artists, performers, social activists met at the home of Joy Kogawa, the renowned Japanese-Canadian writer, and immediately formed a collective to raise funds and offer support to Japanese victims in the wake of the events of March 11.

I was one of its founding members and co-chair of the collective, Toronto To Japan, whose main event, Hope Blossoms at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday April 21st, featured some of this country’s top literary, cultural and musical icons, including Adrienne Clarkson, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, David Suzuki, Jim Cuddy and Bob Wiseman, Metric and many more. Here is the stunning animation designed by Studio Blackwell:

As one of many ancillary events for Toronto To Japan, I devoted two sushi-making fundraisers for the cause. Proceeds were directed to the Japanese Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and Second Harvest, relief agencies that rapidly mobilized in affected areas immediately following the disaster. The sold-out classes on April 2nd and the 16th of almost one hundred participants at Liberty Noodle spoke to the generosity of spirit of the people of Toronto. As one of the biggest sushi-loving communities anywhere in the world, Toronto rallied to the side of the great and resilient people of Japan. I was deeply moved by this testament of solidarity. Below is a short video message of love to the Japanese during those two sessions, filmed by artist Mony Zakour:

The events finished with lively discussions about radioactive contamination of fish stocks, especially iodine-131 which drained into the ocean from the reactors at Daiichi. An open-minded group of children and their parents, couples, and environmentalists asked pertinent questions and spoke of their concerns and fears about consuming sushi. The result was a positive and informative discussion around the environment, sustainable sushi and personal health. As an added bonus, every one of them had a grand ole time, while doing their part to spread the love and raise the hopes of the Japanese people.

Only one word comes to mind thinking of these participants: