A Taste of History
Nineteenth century trade did little to expedite the Japanese dining appeal outside the island of Japan. The first Japanese restaurant in the western hemisphere was located in San Francisco in 1887. Soon thereafter, Los Angeles became the center of Japanese food culture in North America. This culminated in a quarter of businesses, markets and approximately 40 restaurants known as Little Tokyo located in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
The twentieth century accumulation of influences on Japan and its modernization saw many revolutions. The manner in which food was produced and consumed in Japan was altered dramatically in the economic boom of the 1960’s. Prior to this time, Japanese restaurants tended to be near butchers and vegetable markets where large accumulations of immigrants would be found in cultures like Brazil, Argentina and Hawaii.
It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that Japanese restaurants started appealing in large numbers to the non-Japanese customers. This may have been aided by the ecology movements of the 1960’s as well as the global diffusion of many ethnic cuisines. Soon thereafter, dieticians and others began touting the low-fat, low-cholesterol Japanese-style diet as an extremely healthy alternative to many other popular cuisines. This fashion of Japanese dining of the early 1970’s, with sushi at its forefront, was flourishing first in our native California and soon thereafter as it spread to larger cities in the United States and to Europe.
It can be safe to say that without our California roots and enthusiasm for Japanese dining this popular fare would never have reached its world wide prominence.
Cooking on an Iron Skillet
Teppan-Yaki, which means literally “cooked on iron skillet” is the most popular of cuisine presentations in western culture, including here in the United States. Fresh slices of marbled beef, hibachi chicken, lobster, scallops, calamari, shrimp, vegetables, fried rice and dozens of other offerings are individually prepared and cooked right in front of you by a skilled artisan, a teppan chef. This method of cooking food on a large hot iron plate in front of customers began in relative recent times. The presentation is as important as all other aspects. The cutting, slicing as well as the addition of seasonings against a backdrop of flying spatulas underscore the performance and delicious taste. Its origin may be linked to the southern seaport town of Kobe. Fresh items were placed behind a glass case and customers chose what they wanted and the chef would cook it in view of the hungry patrons.
The first teppan-yaki restaurant in the United States, known then as Hibachi Steak, was opened in 1964 in New York City. Today teppan-yaki restaurants dot the map of the United States and Canada as well as Europe.
The Art of the Meal
The most famous Japanese dish outside of Japan, and one of the most popular dishes among the Japanese themselves, is sushi. First off, it would important to know that the origin of sushi is not Japanese. What has become a Japanese culinary art with delicious flavor and colorful form, actually evolved from very meager beginnings. Sushi was introduced into Japan in the 7th century from China. People in the orient began making sushi to preserve fish with vinegar and rice. This fermentation existed as there was no refrigeration. Eventually, the Japanese modified this to allow the rice to be eaten at the same time the sushi was consumed.
The most common forms of advanced sushi are: Nigiri -Sushi (hand shaped sushi), Oshi-Sushi (pressed sushi), Maki-Sushi (rolled sushi), Ume-Sushi (larger quantity), Chirashi-sushi (scattered sashimi over rice), Tekka-Don (Tuna dominated sushi in a bowl with rice) and Matsu-Sushi (largest quantity sushi). The changes are not entirely in form or preparation as much as they are in the ingredients, size and the atmosphere where it is served. These adventurous and tasty creations can be found in the most elegant of settings and in the sushi bar of Edo-Ya.
When one speaks about the quality of sushi mostly it is in reference to its freshness. For most of the highly successful restaurants such as Edo-Ya, the fish used in sushi is of the highest quality and freshness. At least three times a week this fresh seafood is delivered to Edo-Ya from ports near and far. In any typical week more than 1,000 pounds of fish will be served.
The best way to determine the freshness of sushi is by its color. The most highly sought after restaurants will display their sushi in a showcase format. Looking for vibrant colors in pink tuna, orange salmon and opalescent halibut is a good measuring tool of who is serving the finest and freshest.
Sushi Fish and Items
The more popular items found in sushi bars include the following dozen items: Tuna, cooked shrimp, salmon, halibut, albacore, yellow tail, striped bass, snapper, octopus, mackerel, crab and egg omelet.
Sushi is designed to be finger food and can be eaten as appetizers, snacks or a full meal. Sushi mostly involves raw seawater fish but also includes cooked varieties such as shrimp or octopus. Fresh water fishes are generally not used, yet salmon is an extremely popular exception.
What Constitutes Sushi
Sushi is prepared and served generally in one of three fashions:
1. A thinly sliced rectangle shaped portion referred to as sashimi.
2. As prepared in the most traditional fashion of being placed on a small 2 inch bed of sticky rice that has been chilled in light rice vinegar. And,
3. As served in sushi roll. The fish or other items, which generally includes cucumbers, sea sprouts, asparagus, avocado or other vegetables are wrapped in rice. This inner cluster is then enveloped in various fashions with fresh seaweed and garnished with either sesame seeds, tiny fish roe, parsley or anything else a favored chef may use to finish the look.
Keep in mind, however, that sushi means “seasoned rice” and sashimi means “sliced raw fish.”
Most all sushi is eaten in a similar fashion in that a corner is dipped in a shallow bowl that generally contains soy sauce and a small amount of wasabi. Wasabi is the green pasty substance that is derived from horse radish. It is more highly blended by Americans than Japanese who generally apply it only to Sashimi. Gari, a lightly pickled ginger slice is eaten in between sushi morsels as a way to cleanse the pallet.
Popularity & Local Awards
In Fresno, there are over 40 Japanese styled restaurant or fast food establishments that offer sushi. In addition, there are two to three dozen grocery stores that also package sushi in some form. In the spring of 2004, Edo-Ya was honored by the California Restaurant Association in the category of “Best Sushi” in the central San Joaquin Valley. The year previous Edo-Ya was voted “Best Asian Restaurant”.
Its Health Benefits
Sushi is low in fat, cholesterol and sodium. A typical setting of 7 to 9 pieces contain about 300-450 calories. The fish in sushi provides an excellent source protein and can be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Vegetables are a great source of vitamins. Seaweed is rich in iodine and rice provides complex carbohydrates.