September 28, 2008

Now People Want to Ruin Sushi

SO EARLIER THIS WEEK I was feeling a bit cranky and stressed. OK, I'm usually cranky and stressed, but this week was notably worse than normal and as such I decided to splurge on an enjoyable dinner out. There is a nice restaurant (Tokyo & Taipei) in Bedford that serves both Chinese and Japanese food, and so I ventured there for a very large meal consisting mostly of raw fish.

I decided to really splurge and in the end, I managed to spend $52 including tax and tip. In no way was this a justifiable expense but I was not in my normal phlegmatic dollars-and-cents mood. For this $52, I had a nice bowl of miso soup, the sushi and sashimi deluxe combination, and for good measure I added on a few sushi rolls I especially like -- a couple of ikura (salmon roe) rolls and tobiko (flying fish roe) rolls. Oh, and also tea and Diet Coke.

For those Loyal Rant Readers who find the idea of eating fish eggs offputting, I would encourage you to give it a try -- there is nothing that better conveys the feeling and sensation and essence of the sea than roe, whether it is real caviar* or a more humble substitute, such as salmon or pike or flying fish roe. Feeling the roe roll about and pop in your mouth is just pleasant and cheering. If that proves a bridge too far, go for sashimi -- which is exquisite in its toothy rawness and elegant simplicity. If even that seems a bit much, then go for sushi -- although I would recommend going for various types of nigirizushi, which is just raw fish on rice, rather than California rolls or some such. (California rolls might actually be a good introduction for people who have never had sushi, although my personal opinion is that if I wanted avocado, I would go out for Mexican).

Anyway, it was an excellent meal as always, although dining alone has its drawbacks. For instance, I was disheartened to find that my wa was slightly disturbed thanks to the decadent barbarians in a booth some distance away, who insisted on engaging in verbal combat with their poor waiter over their dinner order. Had I been with friends, I could have ignored this and focused on my compatriots with whom I was dining.

But I digress. For I have found my harmony disturbed yet again, thanks to well-meaning people who are busy determining whether sushi is bad. This is not to say bad as in bad for one's health, but rather bad for the environment, which in this day and age is the same thing as just bad overall.

Are they entirely off-base? Of course not. For instance, the glorious bluefin tuna is being overfished to the point where it is endangered. As such, it might be wise for sushi lovers to reduce their consumption of the stuff accordingly, lest they no longer have any bluefin tuna to enjoy. Besides, although worth every penny, the stuff is hideously expensive. (I do not believe the bluefin tuna will ever go extinct, just because the prices for the stuff will shoot even higher as the bluefin tuna population declines, and people will substitute other sushi they like as a result).

Still, part of me wonders why they are so upset. After all, according to no less than the San Jose Mercury News, one Palo Alto sushi restaurant told that newspaper that the California roll, the dragon roll (crab, avocado, and eel) and the rainbow roll (fish, crab, avocado), are the most popular choices on the menu. This almost certainly means most customers need to worry about nothing, because the faux sushi rolls these represent are invariably inexpensive and made with unspectacular ingredients.

Besides, what's good and bad often depends on where the fish is from, and that is not helpful at all. No sushi customer has any idea from whence their sushi fish originates, and I have to think it would be the height of bad manners to ask. You'd be insulting the restaurant by implying they are openly engaged in bad practices. I mean, can you imagine it?

CUSTOMER: Excuse me! I was wondering -- just where does this tuna come from?
SUSHI CHEF: I'm sorry, sir?
CUSTOMER: I was just wondering where the fish came from. I'm trying to be environmentally conscious, that's all.
SUSHI CHEF: Oh! Well, sir, let me ask. A moment.
SUSHI CHEF (in Japanese): Good God. Hey! Kenjiro! Mr Important Muckymuck Foreigner here wants to know where the tuna's from!
SECOND SUSHI CHEF (in Japanese): You have to be kidding me. Tell him it's from the ocean and see if that shuts him up.
SUSHI CHEF (in Japanese): That won't work, the Westerner has a ponytail.
SECOND SUSHI CHEF (in Japanese): Hmmm. Well, make something up then. Mr Takashimi did the buying today and it's not like these fish have labels.
SUSHI CHEF (in Japanese): Good call. Thank you!
SUSHI CHEF: My apologies, sir, but our head chef did the procurement, and he has retired for the evening. Might I interest you in something more to your liking? Perhaps the ebifuraimaki rolls?
CUSTOMER: Yeah, OK! That sounds great!
SECOND SUSHI CHEF (in Japanese): Good! We can unload that box of shrimp we got from Newark.

Personally, I think a campaign focused on working hand in hand with sushi restaurants would prove much more effective than trying to work on everyday customers. For one thing, working behind the scenes would undoubtedly get better and quicker results. Also, the restaurateurs obviously know their business better than anyone. Not only would they have far more clout than their customers, they could perhaps employ different marketing schemes based on their customers: one scheme aimed at typical Westerners going out for sushi, while another aimed at serving their core base of knowledgeable customers. For instance, sushi eateries could suggest "good" fish for Western customers who are concerned about the environment, while reassuring their regulars and other knowledgeable customers that the bluefin remains in stock.

* For the record, I have never had real caviar -- by which I mean the high-grade and impossibly-expensive grades of the stuff. Those are far, far too expensive for a poor writer to enjoy -- but based on how I like the less-pricey alternatives, I am sure I would love it. If any Loyal Rant Readers want to send me a tin of sevruga or something out of the goodness of their hearts, do send me an e-mail.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at September 28, 2008 11:11 PM | TrackBack
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