As I was preparing for this week's review of two American-style sushi restaurants, I called up Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi. In his book, Corson discusses sushi's origins as a method of pickling fish in fermented rice, its evolution into a common street food in Tokyo, and its interpretation in the United States. Turns out, the history of sushi in America is more complicated than the standard narrative involving immigration and bastardization.
SFoodie: One thing that struck me, reading your book, was that sushi in Japan is hardly a static thing.
Corson: Yeah. That was one of the things I wanted to get at with the history sections. There is no one type of traditional sushi. There is a style ― nigiri ― associated with Tokyo sushi, but the history of it has indeed been one of constant evolution.
The other thing I found interesting was the American influence on Japanese sushi during the postwar occupation period.
Probably the most influential thing was that the Americans instituted new health codes that made it impossible to have the old-fashioned sushi stall on the street corner, which had been the norm through the late 1800s and early 1900s. The street stands did a lot of pickling and salting of ingredients. It wasn't necessarily unsafe, but the occupation authorities had stricter sanitation laws, which pushed the sushi stands off the street. The move indoors led to sushi becoming a higher-end cuisine.
Did the American health codes also help lighten up sushi?
Well, that was because of technology as well as the inadvertent regulatory influence that the U.S. had. As refrigeration became widespread, there was more emphasis placed on fresh fish rather than pickled fish. I don't know if "lighter" is quite the word. Actually, the Western influence also caused a shift in the Japanese diet toward the eating of more red meat and fattier foods. That shift paved the way for the tuna boom and o-toro.
What are some of the characteristics of American rolls that you don't see in Japan?
Well, there is the question of the importation of American-style sushi back to Japan, so it's not that you don't see those types of sushi there. However, unless you go to an old-fashioned sushi bar and only get plain nigiri, everything we eat now is Americanized.
The key characteristic is our emphasis on rolls ― they're an afterthought in Tokyo sushi. Then the construction is inside out ― the nori's on the inside, right around the filling, while the rice is on the outside. And then you've got the practice of laying other things on top of the roll, and all those sauces, condiments, and seasonings. It's ironic: From a traditional point of view, the whole point of eating a roll is to enjoy the crispiness of the seaweed paper, so a roll has to be made very quickly and simply, with not many ingredients, and eaten right away.
So Japanese places have adopted American-style rolls?
They've expanded on it in hilarious and wonderful ways. The "creative sushi" trend is almost 10 years old. In Tokyo you'll see smoked duck nigiri, tempura-fried rolls, or miniature brie and croissant nigiri. There was even a place in Tokyo called Positive Deli that would serve American-style sushi with a side of French fries.
Well, that seems fair. What's the status of sustainability concerns in Japan when it comes to sushi fish?
Globally, the sushi industry is way behind the curve. I personally don't know of any sustainable-sushi restaurants like Tataki [and Tataki South] in Japan. There's resistance to that in Japan for reasons that have both to do with tradition and financial concerns. Try telling a Japanese person that tuna is not a traditional sushi ingredient and they get mad.
Have you seen anything like a sushirrito in New York? [I point Corson to the website, where he checks out the photos.]
This is interesting ― these things are closer to authentic sushi than most American rolls. They're a variation on futomaki, which is a roll with nori on the outside and a bunch of ingredients inside.
Futomaki is a picnic snack. It's usually sliced, but I have a picture somewhere of a Japanese businessman eating a giant futomaki as if it were a burrito.