I love sushi, and I have done as long as I can remember. For a while I was content with supermarket sushi. During my first couple of years at university I had a ritual where I would lock myself in my room on a Saturday afternoon, and eat the biggest box I could lay my hands on. And ritual is the right word, too: it was all so very ritualised, including how I ate each piece. But then I made it myself.
For a while I geeked out on making my own sushi: It coincided with a time when I had a flat, replete with a kitchen and a flatmate who was enjoying sushi as much as I was. We would spend hours fanning and seasoning rice, moulding it in to sheets and spheres, spending small fortunes on the limited seafood our coastal town could offer. It really was a meagre offering, but we loved it all.
But then I scraped the rice off my hands and realised that I fucking hate making sushi. We had made trips to Edinburgh to get “real” sushi by then, and ours could not compare. Then a sushi restaurant opened in the city closest to my home, and I was fully hooked. The supermarket stuff felt as dry and mealy as sawdust; it felt tame, scared, ashamed of actually being sushi. It was time to move on.
I have now eaten so much sushi that I have almost entirely sickened myself. That took a lot of sushi.
Over the course of the last fifteen years I have dined well on sushi: I have gorged myself in local, family-run establishments; I have wallowed in a sea of chain-branded conveyor belts; I have spent entire train journeys with my head buried in a bento box, avoiding the conversations and intrusions of the people around me. Any opportunity to gobble a well-topped nigiri, or a well-stuffed futomaki.
And then I was done. I couldn’t face another bite. That’s the problem when you do finally get too much of a good thing. It wasn’t that I no longer liked sushi, or its components – I did and I do – it was that I could no longer get excited about the thought of the same menu offering the same things.
It has always seemed to me that sushi is viewed as incredibly outré by most of society, yet all of the choices on all of the menus seem to follow the same pattern. It’s seasoned rice, arranged in to an array of sheets or blocks, then either filled and rolled, or topped. There will often be some dried seaweed. I always like a dab of fiery wasabi (in fact just green painted horseradish) for fun.
From one ritual to another. And the latter brought with it tedium. While the rest of the world would look on with faint revulsion, I found myself bored. This is a shame, because sushi has been my go-to treat meal out for years. I took my mother for countless birthday and mother’s day sushi meals.
My in-laws cannot wrap their heads around the fact that my daughter loves sushi as much as I do. The problem is that they have in their minds the old-fashioned view of sushi: Raw fish. To so many people raw meat and fish are a certain path to digestive Armageddon. Except that that’s horseshit. Sushi grade fish has been frozen, in order to make it safe to eat. Why else could centuries of people in Japan not just survive, but actively flourish on their unique diet? Get your head screwed on right.
It’s the same mind-set which has made supermarket sushi revolve so heavily around roasted peppers and cooked prawns: the people who make and market sushi think that the people who might buy sushi are scared of sushi, and so it perpetuates. In fact, if they just made their rice a bit fluffier, and treated their fish a bit more appropriately, then people would be eating something good. No chance.
Sushi isn’t the only food to have come out of Japan. But it took sushi restaurants to show me that.
It took big bowls of noodles – something I had eaten, but deliberately cooked dry, since childhood – to get me hooked on ramen. I still cannot fathom the appeal of udon noodles, but their thinner cousins, sitting in a bath of miso-based broth, and topped with menma, some cooked meat and some leaves is my idea of a very good time. My partner prefers the drier, fried, teppan-yaki style. Each to their own, I suppose. I can cook both styles in the same pan now, so we can both eat well.
It took perfectly proportioned plates of pot stickers to get me hooked on gyoza. As with sushi, I had to move on to making these myself. A perfect Saturday evening was me preparing a filling while my partner prepared the dough. It rested while we put our daughter to bed. I rolled out the dough, and she filled the parcels. I fry-steam the dumplings, avoiding the flying fat, and then we sit down to gorge on dozens of the fat little parcels, filled with salmon, garlic and ginger. It was perfection.
Until I get an appropriate Japanese barbecue, I will not be making my own yakatori. They’re great.
Right now I’m thinking of dipping my toe back in to the world of sushi. There are so many little shops proliferating, each telling their own stories, and each offering their own new interpretations of not raw fish. A chain has sprung up in Jesmond – just a few stops on the Metro from the coast for me – and they have shown real imagination with their boxes of wonderful treats. They have expanded very well, and now have shops in places as far flung as Manchester and Sunderland. Lovely stuff.
There are also other restaurants opening up, eschewing the conveyor belt, and hallucinatory art of some of the major chains. They look like they might have actually visited Japan – unlike me – albeit an older, more sensible Japan than the bright lights of the youth-obsessed parts we see on film.
Conversely, the mass production of sushi has also allowed almost anyone with a counter to get in on the grab a bite gang. All of our local all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets offer platters of wizened old rice with inoffensive fillings, to allow the adventurous to take their first steps. I have mixed feelings.
I’m not about to start with supermarket sushi again. Life’s too short for that kind of disappointment.