Wednesday, September 23, 2009

SushiFest - Part I: Take Me Home Tonight

If there is a single food item that Japan has widely contributed to world cuisine, it's sushi.  In fact, sushi is almost synonymous with Japanese cuisine. It takes years to become a master sushi chef.   I still remember when sushi was first gaining popularity on the mainland, and people kept going on about the raw fish.   Which was really really confusing to me, because sushi isn't necessarily raw fish.  Raw fish is sashimi, not sushi.    Although there are some forms of sushi that incorporate raw fish in it, by definition sushi is all about the vinegar rice. 

Sushi rice is that beautiful sticky plump, calrose rice cooked with a little vinegar, sugar, sake, and whatever else that varies from family to family.  It was originally conceived to preserve food, so that travellers could take it on the long walking journeys.  My greatest memory of this rice comes from my mom's best friend, Mrs. K.   Every New Year's Day, Mrs. K. would invite us over to celebrate at her house.  New Years is very big to the Japanese.  We would go over to her house and watch the Red and White song festival, and she would cook us a virtual Japanese feast.   Her nishime and namasu were, and to this day are, the best I have ever tasted.  But she was an absolute master of sushi rice.   It wasn't overpoweringly sour, just a hint of sweetness, but the rice flavor would come through, and the texture was so soft and warm and just sticky enough to hold together.  This was the really really old homestyle Japanese cooking, from an actual Japanese grandma!  

Back when I was little, sushi in Hawaii had nothing to do with raw fish.   In fact there were only 2 types of sushi, period.   There was cone sushi (known in Japan as inari sushi), which is the brown tofu pocket with sushi rice and bits of carrot stuffed into it (it has nothing to do those cone shaped handrolls you get today).  And there was maki sushi, which was one particular type of roll.   It had some shoyu tuna (can type, not fresh), some tamago (egg), some kampyo (that pickled brown gourd), sometimes some kamaboko (the red and white fishcake), and always a sprinkling of the red and white hana ebi (shrimp powder).   This was really the ONLY type of sushi we had around, and it was just about everywhere.  Anytime anyone would have a party, there would inevitably be a tray of this stuff.    It's not fair that California has a whole roll named after them.   If there were ever to be a definitive Hawaii roll, this would be it.  Ironically, while it was so completely pervasive in the past, I can hardly find this type of sushi anymore.   Of course, I've seen variations.   Everyone makes variations, some leave out this or that, some add things like cucumber or watercress.   But I can hardly find that exact roll anymore, especially with the red and green hana ebi powder, which was so distinctive of our type of sushi.   Don't worry, I'm still hunting for people that make it the old way.

Well, the past is past, and Hawaii has been practically inundated with every conceivable type of sushi there is now.   It comes in all qualities, from your basic take out, to some better sushi restaurants, to the really high end expensive stuff.  Since the high end stuff I usually only get for special occasions, let's talk about some basic take out sushi for now.   We've got tons of take out places around town.   For the most part, this is what I would consider "utility" sushi.   It's sushi in form, but not in quality.  The rice is prety plain and unflavorful sometimes, and when it gets cold, it can get hard.   The fish may or may not be that fresh, and certainly not that tasty.   It's the equivalent of running into McDonalds and getting your basic hamburger, instead of a steak house burger.  Cheap every day food.   I know that Kozo Sushi, is probably the most prominent of these places, but I try to look for something a little more unique.  The fish at Sushi Company (on McCully) is actually much fresher, but it is still no where near the quality you would get sitting down at a sushi bar in front of a true sushi chef.     When it comes to take out sushi, the one that I personally like the best, is Ninja Sushi.

O.L.T.D. Platter at Ninja Sushi

Ninja Sushi's fish, is probably the freshest you get out of a take-out sushi place.   Their rice is reasonably fresh as well.   Probably the best thing about them is all the different type of maki rolls they've got.   No they still don't have the classic old school Hawaii maki sushi.  But they've got a pretty good variety of the newer stuff; california roll, dragon roll, philadelphia roll, rainbow roll, etc.  They've also got some pretty neat variations of their own creation; the lion roll, the tiger roll, the superman roll, the osaka roll, etc.  Probably the best way to taste all of them is to get a platter and take it home.   My favorite of these, is the O.L.T.D. platter.  This one seems to have most of their more unique rolls, along with some fresh salmon and ahi nigiri. There are so many different flavors on this platter, basic rolls (like california or shrimp tempura), topped with unagi  or sashimi, and again topped with spicy or sweet sauces, and garnishes on top of that.   The combination of all of these flavors almost overwhelms your taste buds and is what sets these unique rolls apart.

Hawaii has come a long way from those old days with our one type of maki sushi.   We've been introduced to so many new varieties and flavors.  Yet, somehow I miss going to someone's party and seeing a tray of simple maki sushi.

1 comment:

  1. maybe i will have to try them again. the one time we got takeout there, the spicy tuna roll was made with canned tuna!