Japanese Travels-Part 2-Where has all the Sushi Gone? July 2010

Nigiri Wall

Strolling along the streets of fine Kyoto makes you hungry. Everywhere you look a tiny vendor is offering some delicious morsel up for sale. The wafting scent of oden steaming away, the smoky charcoal from a sweet potato roaster, the distinctive broth scent of a ramen shop, the glimpse through a door of someone grilling a handful of skewered meats. As a city, their days revolve around eating and I am right there with them to make the most of it.


Kyoto cuisine is distinctive to their region. Japan as a whole are extremely regionalised in their eating habits and any mention of food will inevitably begin a debate about where you can get the best of what you are talking about. The passion with which people discuss something as simple as the best bowl of ramen in town can be a two hour long debate that may involve making a few calls to get a better sample group. Everyone has an opinion and that opinion can also be heavily based on where they grew up or where their parents were from. The regional pride one feels for their village or prefecture is immense and therefore no one’s favourite ramen wants to be something that is similar to that of another region. Distinct flavours or additions will make their ramen different and recognisable as their own and for me as a traveller and eating machine, that much more excited when I next sit down to a bowl of ramen just one city over to taste the marked differences in their broth, the consistency of noodle, the tasty additions they may have on offer at each tale.

What this means though for us as little old New Zealanders is that we have what I refer to as the food over view of a country. It is maybe the best bits all rolled into one or maybe it is just the most exciting and tasty parts? At any rate it tends to miss quite a big chunk of what the reality is of eating in another world.
In the case of Japanese food we seem to have grown an idea that Japan is awash with St Pierre’s stores all selling sushi and miso in little plastic containers. It is very similar to what we also consider to be Chinese food in New Zealand. The homogenised mass that pleases all palates is something I am not a fan of and have long bemoaned the fact that until very recently have we actually seen the regional differences of countries coming through into small restaurants in New Zealand. No longer is Chinese just Chinese but rather we have the choice of Shanghaiese, Cantonese, Yunan style, proper Schecuan. The vastness of China can certainly provide a wonderful array of dining treats that could last you many days of banqueting.

The same can be said for the Japanese and their cuisine and in fact anywhere you attempt to find the ‘real’ food of a country it should be celebrated as a true find. It is likely it will be the best food you eat and more than likely also the least expensive.  

The big question people always ask upon return from Japan seems to always be about the sushi and what the difference is between here and there. A fair enough question one would think as sushi pretty much epitomises the Japanese culture to a westerner.

The word sushi originally meant fermented fish. Over some mere 2000 years the meaning of the word altered and now we know it as the stuff we find in all most every food hall across the world and is basically vinegared rice with raw fish.
It seems when reading anything about sushi there are a number of different versions that tell the story of how sushi became sushi and certainly more importantly, how different styles emerged.

Kyoto is inland and due to some rather fascinating events over the course of Japanese history, fresh fish took a very long time to make its way to the streets of the geisha in Kyoto. (One of my favourites is the banning of the wheel for a period of time). Distance is a factor to freshness and the Japanese are perhaps the most finicky about freshness and quality than any other eaters in the world. Transportation was a massive factor in getting freshly caught fish from the coast back into Kyoto before the advent of the super fast and super efficient Japanese train that can do it in a mere 22 minutes. So they just didn’t. They gave it up in favour of other foods and even today in Kyoto the sushi of the area is differentiated as being known as Kyoto sushi as opposed to Edomae or Tokyo sushi.
Traditionally sushi shops were closed during the summer months due to the heat and lack of refrigeration to the keep the fish at a useable holding temperature. It took the great earthquake of 1923 to get Tokyo sushi really rolling in Kyoto as many traditional sushi shops moved from the devastation in Tokyo to Kyoto to set up shop in the old capital.


They cleverly though did find a way to create a type of sushi that fitted their needs. Using cured fish or fish that did not spoil as quickly meant they could still enjoy fish but in quite a different way to their Tokyo friends.
The list is rather endless once you start investigating the varieties…..
Sabazushi is a form of Kyoto sushi and is made from pickled mackerel on sushi rice. The pickling or curing of the mackerel means it can keep a little longer-up to 3 days-but it also alters the texture of the fish itself creating quite an interplay of textures so different than the Edomae sushi we are use to. The sabazushi is formed into along roll and then wrapped in kelp. Kelp also works as a preservative for the rice keeping it moist and also encased for easy travel.
Hamo sushi uses grilled eel which is topped with a sweet soy glaze so the whole lot is cooked rather than the expected raw version.  
Shapes can play an important role also and Teamri sushi is formed into a ball which holds cured fish or vegetables inside. It is believed that this may have been one of the earliest forms of sushi and that the rice itself was merely a vehicle to get the fish from point to point. Almost like a lunch box you could say.
Kaki No ha Sushi is known more in the Nara region which is not far from Kyoto and is the same box sushi that is seen in Osaka but uses cured fish wrapped in persimmon leaves. The leaves have antibacterial properties which helps keep the fish fresher. The leaves are sometimes salted also the aid the process.
Bamboo leaves are also used in the same way as they to have similar antibacterial qualities.
Shima sushi is also referred to as island sushi and comes from the Izu islands not too far from Tokyo itself. They have a unique style that uses raw fish but all the sashimi is immersed in soy sauce infused with togarashi peppers. They also use mustard rather than wasabi to serve along side their sushi.
Inari sushi uses the delicately cooked soft tofu pockets and each pocket is filled with sushi rice.   
Vegetables play an important role in sushi in Kyoto as well as other plants so you have fantastic textural sushi rolls that are immense in the unique flavours of pickled and preserved local vegetables.

Sabazushi Restuarant Kyoto

The photo above show one restuarant that has been in Kyoto for over 300 years run by the same family. The specialise in Sabazushi but also make other traditional items that are some of the finest sushi I have ever eaten. The floor of the restuarant was paved with river stones that had been freshly washed just before they opened and the walls were lined with panels of wood apparently taken from barges that once made the journey up and down the river just metres away. A total organic experience you felt as if you were sitting in a forest or a river bed being handed hand crafted foods on beautifully hand painted very rustic platters. I am very thankful to Michael of Kyoto foodie.com for introducing us to this incredible experience.

Sabazushi Restuarant Kyoto

Each day a beautiful display is made in the window of the resturant and the lunch trade is incredible. As we waited for Michael to arrive they cleared almost all of this out in less than 10 minutes. You can see the Sabazushi rolls in the white paper looking more like a beautifully wrapped present than your lunch. The Inari pockets (tofu pockets) can just be seen to the right of the frame.

Sabazushi rolls Kyoto

We then went on to see Sabazushi all over Kyoto. This photo was taken at a 'foodhall' type market that sold everything from vegetables to sake and pizza.

1970’s saw the rise of Japanese restaurants outside of their home country and naturally like all food transitions some changes had to take place so that the oddity that was sushi would be gradually accepted. The invention of the California roll was a high point in fusion cuisine and bought the flavours of Japan into reach from those who were too scared to try it in its traditional manner.
Salmon was not a traditional raw ingredient due to the parasites that particularly like the flesh of salmon and even in Japan the Ainu people of Northern Japan would freeze salmon in the snow for a few days to kill off any parasites before they ate it. Raw salmon is a rather new addition to menus and certainly one that New Zealanders seem to be the most accepting of.

The rise of the roll is surely got to be a good thing outside of Japan. If it makes even a few people try something more exotic than the 70’s California creation then that is a success in itself. The appreciation that there is more to Japanese cuisine than raw fish and seaweed has still to be recognised by many but we can chip away at that much the same as there is more to Chinese food than chicken black bean from the local takeaways.

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