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.
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:
Sushi is all about mold.
Not kidding. That’s the appetizing fact that Sang Kim shares with us as we get started at a sushi-making class. Despite my pathological fear of mold (stemming from an allergy to penicillin and a monsoon-like summer spent living in a basement apartment in Parkdale), there is no way I am going to be convinced to not love sushi – or miss this class. Can’t pass up on the opportunity to learn from Master Sushi Chef, Shin Aoyama, and Sang Kim, a genuine, charismatic man with a passion for good food and good people.
When it comes to the history of sushi, Sang knows his stuff. He gives us a fascinating talk on the why’s, where’s, and how’s behind sushi rice and nori, and how important they are to what we consider sushi today. Quality sushi is really all about the quality of the rice. (Freshest fish possible is a given. If you can’t provide that for your customers, just shut your doors.) And let’s not forget about the mold – it’s what makes sushi delicious. Better to ask Sang himself about the intricacies of this than for me to go into detail – as I spent most of my time trying not to think about that part and focus on making maki. I don’t exactly excel at work involving fine detail and sharp motor skills. Considering it takes about a decade to become a master sushi chef like Shin Aoyama, I’m resigned to the fact that I am going to produce some pretty ugly maki rolls.
Though nigiri sushi is the original form of sushi, today we will focus on makimonos – which has become the go-to sushi of North Americans. Sang talks us through the details of the three types of maki rolls we will make– hosomaki (usually a single ingredient roll with nori on the outside), uramaki (the “inside-out roll” with nori on the inside and rice on the outside), and temaki (the cone-shaped hand rolls). Our hosomaki features salmon, our uramaki with spicy maguro tuna, and our temaki includes unagi and cucumber. Shin shows us how to make each roll twice, and his movements are subtle and effortlessly precise – each time creating a flawless product. After each demo, it’s time to get sticky and roll our own.
So to speak…