Three months ago, I was travelling around Japan, the land of dreams to me (and a whole lot of other Westerners, it seems), and my enthusiastic foodie self found much to revel in: I don’t think I ate the same thing twice when I was there, as everything was so overwhelmingly tasty, and different, that I felt I had to try everything that came my way. In Japan, most restaurants are divided by “genre” so to speak, and so there are sushi restaurants, restaurants specializing in deep-fried pork cutlets (tonkatsu), others in ramen (noodle soups), then in yakitori (grilled skewers), okonomiyaki (sort of pancake-looking – but oh so much more than pancakes!!), and so on. So it is quite easy to identify the different types of foods available, and with this abundance before me, I somehow was not too interested in having much sushi – I love it, but I always thought, “I can always have sushi nearly everywhere in Europe now, it is no big deal”. And yet, and yet, there is something unique about having sushi in Japan, freshly served to you by an actual Japanese sushi chef, who —no matter how many Western tourists come to his restaurant every week— still looks at you in awe and admiration for showing an extreme delight of the senses while swallowing chunks of raw fish.
In The Makioka Sisters (published 1943-48), a novel set in Japan in the early years of WWII, and revolving around the Makioka family’s attempts at finding a husband for the third Makioka girl, Yukiko, there are various scenes set at the dinner table, whether at home or in restaurants, which often work as a backdrop for discussing the various marital strategies regarding Yukiko’s 見合い miai (literally ‘see and meet’, i.e. ‘matchmaking’). With the novel’s historical context in WWII, Tanizaki offers us a great insight into the Japan of the early WWII, its already changing customs, and its interactions with Westerners, especially Germans and Russians. This at times takes an almost humorous twist as the Japanese give some reflections on the Westerners’ tastes and customs. Now a most common food in the West, in the 1958 English translation of The Makioka Sisters (original title: Sasameyuki, 細雪, ‘light snow’) the editors felt the need to add a footnote at the first occurrence of the word sushi, describing it as ‘balls of vinegared rice, highly seasoned and usually topped with strips of raw or cooked fish’ (292). Westerners would not have been accustomed to eating raw fish at the time: in one particular scene in the book, Tanizaki explains how they would prefer white fish over red one (such as tuna and bonito). ‘The red seems to bother foreigners. […] It must not look very appetizing, […] a lump of raw, red fish on top of the dead-white rice.’ (295). What I imagine would bother Westerners the most at the time was being reminded of the rawness of the fish by its colour red, almost like blood: it is indeed funny to think how times have changed now, as the most widely consumed types of sushi in the West these days involve salmon and tuna, both not white-fleshed fish.
What would have appeared even more remarkable to Westerners at the time (and still is to us, nowadays!) is the踊り食い odorigui, consumption of live seafood while it is still moving, or of moving animal parts: in The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki describes quite in detail the event (indeed, an event) of “dancing sushi” —
“Eat it up, young lady, eat it up.” The old man was impatient. Yukiko had not touched the sushi before her.
“But the thing is still moving.” It was always a trial for Yukiko to have to eat as fast as the others. She liked the “dancing sushi” of which the old man was so proud, the prawns that were still moving when they were set out to be eaten; she liked it as well as the sea bream. But she wanted at least to wait until it had stopped moving.
“That is what makes it good.”
“Go ahead and eat it. Are you afraid it will haunt you?” (295)
Yukiko, the character around whom the whole novel revolves, is as usual undecided, or at least unclear about how to express her feelings openly: she does enjoy the taste of dancing sushi, but she wants to be able to enjoy it at her own pace; similarly, throughout the novel, hers is a display of resistance against marriage, but rather against marriage at her family’s conditions.
At any rate, fear not, readers! This summer the Literary Kitchen will not offer you the surely extraordinary yet extremely disturbing feeling of something dying between your teeth but will only show you how to make some dead-easy sushi which will suit both those resistant to raw fish and also vegetarians. A big thank-you goes to my Japanese friend Momo, who taught me how to make some simple sushi recipes with cooked fish (when you can’t get nice raw one!), while she was living in Durham.
To prepare the vinegared rice (酢飯, sumeshi):
300g sushi rice
500ml cold water
3 tbsp rice vinegar
2 ½ tbsp sugar
2 tsp salt
For the sushi (散らし寿司chirashizushi, “scattered sushi”, 巻き寿司makizushi, “rolled sushi”, 握り寿司 nigirizushi, “hand-modelled sushi”, etc.)
Use whatever you like really! I used smoked salmon and avocado, but you can use whatever else you like, especially raw/cooked fish, seafood, omelettes, tofu, seafood sticks, and vegetables. What I made here is known as maki sushi, and it is rolled with a nori seaweed. It made 3 rolls.
- Firstly, prepare the vinegared rice. Bear in mind this is a simplified method, made with simple kitchen tools, which we all have at home, and not what a sushi master would do in a restaurant! But I prepared this sushi with Momo once and it’ll do the trick for us. Wash the rice well in cold water, and rinse until the water is clear.
- Place the rice in a large, non-stick saucepan, pour cold water on it, and boil on a high heat.
- When the water is boiling, turn the heat down to medium and continue simmering for another 5 minutes.
- Lower the heat to the minimum, and let it boil slowly until it absorbs all water (10 to 15 minutes).
- The rice has now almost finished cooking: take the lid off, lay a clean, dry towel onto the saucepan and close again with the lid on top, and let it stand for 15 minutes, and this will finish off the cooking.
- While the rice is cooking, start preparing the vinegar seasoning for the rice. Make sure you use another, smaller, non-stick pan and slowly warm up the rice vinegar together with sugar and salt, continuously stirring and without letting it start boiling. When this is done (it will only take a couple of minutes), leave it aside to cool.
- Rinse a wooden bowl (I used a china one in lack of a wooden one) and pour the cooked rice in the bowl and spread it out with a wooden spatula onto the bowl.
- Gradually add the vinegar seasoning to the rice and stir, while cooling down the rice temperature with a fan. (It would be great if you could have someone else helping you do this!)
- The rice should look shiny by the end of this process (10 minutes).
- Once your rice is all cool and cooked, spread some rice evenly onto the nori seaweed (placed on a sushi mat – a quite essential, cheap sushi tool!) with your hands. NB. Make sure you leave about 2cm free from rice, and wet that with a little water.
- Place the salmon and avocado strips in the middle of your rice, and then roll it with the sushi mat so that it is a well-shaped roll.
- Wet a sharp knife with water and cut the roll in thin slices. It is ready to eat! (And don’t forget to add soy sauce, ginger and wasabi to your liking!)
Tanizaki, Jun’ichirō. The Makioka Sisters. London: Vintage, 2000.
Zschock, Day and Barbas, Kerren. The Little Black Book of Sushi. Bologna: Astræa, 2007.