Ahhhh, Sushi…

I came  late to the world of sushi. Oh, I’d tried it once or twice back inthe 80s, when I first noticed people whispering about sushi. Sushi culture was dark and mysterious back then — like opium den culture.

Then I moved to Halifax in the late 1990s and starting mingling with Buddhists. Sushi was on the menu at almost every gathering, so it became a regular part of my diet.

I can’t say I love sushi. XUP Jr. loves sushi – it’s her favourite food. She’s even become a dab hand at making her own sushi. She can barely scramble eggs, but she can roll a mean maki. Of course, we don’t make the ones with fish at home – I don’t think I’d even know where to buy sushi-grade raw fish.

Back in 4th century BC in Southeast Asia, raw fish was salted and wrapped in rice to preserve it. Fish could be stored this way for months and when the 4th century BC Southeast Asians were ready to eat the fish, they’d unwrap it, eat the fish and throw away the rice away. (Maybe they recycled it, though – who knows…tossed it in the green bin where it would freeze and fester until spring)

Anyway, it wasn’t until the 8th century AD that this fish preserving method made its way to Japan. The Japanese decided it would be fun to eat the rice after unwrapping the fish, instead of just chucking it out. Then, much later, at the beginning of the 19th century when restaurants in Japan were mainly mobile food stalls, they figured out it would be a lot handier and tastier to keep the fish wrapped up in the rice and to then wrap the whole thing in some yummy seaweed. And so, voila, the whole Japanese “sushi” culture was born. (“Sushi,” by the way, translates into “vinegared rice” — nothing to do with fish.)

I have more of a yen for sushi in the summer. It just seems like a warm weather food to me. When I really feel like sushi, it’s more about the ritual of the experience than the food. I get full too fast to really get into the varieties and subtleties of the different flavours. I think most places have too many pieces in their maki[1] offerings and make them too big. The nigiri[2] also always seem to have way too much rice. I suppose I could just get sashimi[3]. It’s not too filling, but I can’t manage too much of that before the textures start to make me feel gaggy.

Sushi is a fun food, though

  • You get to eat with sticks
  • You get little piles and blobs and puddles of stuff with your food that you’re never entirely sure what to do with
  • You get to drink interesting things in tiny little cups

The Piles

I don’t like the weird pickled ginger you get in restaurants. It’s meant to be eaten between bits of sushi to cleanse your palate. Probably real pickled ginger or gari (made with rice vinegar and salt) would be nice, but the stuff you usually get is loaded with preservatives and chemicals and dye and I can’t get the taste out of my mouth for hours afterwards.

The Blobs

Did you know that the little blogs of green stuff you usually get in restaurants isn’t even real wasabi? Wasabi available at Japanese restaurants around here or in grocery stores is just horseradish with green food colouring.

Real wasabi is very difficult to cultivate and has only been successfully grown in a few places outside of Japan. Oregon and Vancouver are two of these places.

As a result, fresh wasabi can go for almost $100 per pound. The machinations of the whole wasabi industry could rate a blog post all on its own. There’s big money in sushi-related stuff these days and you can bet lots of people are trying to cash in.

For instance, 20 years ago Bluefin tuna was used mainly for cat food and was dirt cheap. Since the international sushi explosion, Bluefin tuna has been so overfished that its population has decreased by over 80% and is being sold wholesale for $100 – $200 per pound.  For the sake of the species, I would suggest we stop ordering this in sushi restaurants.

The Puddles

Another thing that can greatly enhance or detract from a sushi experience is a good quality soy sauce. Japanese traditional shoyu[4] is recommended.

The Drinks

We shouldn’t forget the accompanying beverage. I know you’re thinking sake[5] is just the thing to top off a great Japanese meal. However, they tell me that since saki is rice-based it’s not a good accompaniment for any rice dish. Green tea is the recommended drink for a sushi feast.

I love the green tea some Japanese restaurants serve. Why can I never find green tea like that to make at home? I sometimes ask the restaurants what kind of tea they serve and where they get it, but I always get a vague, non-committal response.

Sushi Ottawa

Ottawa is not renown for its sushi restaurants, but there are a few that aren’t bad: Wasabi is pretty good. Gengi has been sketchy. I’ve been there at lunch when it wasn’t good at all, but have been other times when it was really good. Also, they closed for a while and then re-opened so I don’t know what’s going on there.

XUP Jr. also likes to go to the all-you-can-eat places like Sushi-Kan or Yummy Sushi. I’m not a fan. They have too much weird filler stuff on the menu like sushi pizza and large chunks of deep-fried starch.

I recently joined an Ottawa-based Facebook group called The Sushi Whores, so I’m guessing they’ll have some good recommendations.

Sushi and You

What’s the sushi situation in your life?

[1] Sushi rolled around fish and/or other ingredients, usually with nori seaweed on the outside or inside.

[2] Fish or other ingredients laid over clumps of sushi

[3] Thin slices of raw fish, no rice

[4] Made with soybeans, roasted wheat, sea salt, and koji (Aspergillus oryzae), mold spores that when exposed to moisture begin growing giving rise to unique enzymes that create the fermentation process.

[5] A brew made from rice. Contrary to popular belief, sake is not a wine – not made by fermenting the natural sugars in the rice – but more of a beer where the grain’s starch is converted to sugar. It does, however, have the higher alcohol content of wine – often as high as 20% undiluted.  And, while most sake can be served either warm and cold, higher quality sake is always served cold.


46 responses to “Ahhhh, Sushi…

  1. We do a LOT of sushi, DD and PG and I. Mostly DD. She grew up eating it and loving it, whereas PG and I came to it later as adults, like you. It just wasn’t around much before the 1980’s, even here in Vancouver. Funny – I don’t particularly enjoy seafood in general, but I do like maki. Nigiri is okay, but I don’t like sashimi. If ever I mistakenly get sashimi on my plate, DD or PG gets it.

  2. Champagne goes very well with sushi. We have that every now and then.

    I didn’t eat much sushi until my mid-20’s or so, and even then I wasn’t very adventurous. Of course, since meeting my husband I’ve had a whole lot more sushi, in restaurants and at his mom and dad’s house. The sushi his parents serve is a more traditional rustic kind of sushi than you would find in restaurants (or at least not in most North American restaurants). It’s yummy, but different.

    When I was pregnant with my second child I had a major aversion to sushi. I didn’t eat the raw fish, of course, but even the vegetarian version turned my stomach. Watching other people eat sushi was rough, too. It probably took a good year after Jamie’s birth till I was able to enjoy sushi like I used to.

    I thought I heard that there’s a T&T supermarket in Ottawa now. I’m sure you’d be able to find green tea there that’s like what you have in restaurants.

  3. I’m a big sushi fan myself (also joined The Sushi Whores) and I’ll admit to being addicted to the all you can eat thing… but I also like traditional sushi places. Truly an art form.

    Thanks for such an in-depth and intelligent look at sushi! 🙂

  4. I love the stuff and I finally got my significant other to try the vegetarian variety and she digs it now as well. Living this far inland I don’t trust the raw fish variety so we stick with the vegetarian kind and the kinds that use a bit of cooked fish. At the beach I try to find some real raw fish sushi though.

  5. All of my friends and even my husband consider me a caveman on this subject. I do not want to try sushi, go into a place where it is served or even look at it. I don’t even like to look at pictures of it. I accidentally saw a tray of it in the grocery store once and it almost made me sick. I can’t really explain it. Maybe it’s A) I’m not really a fish fan and B) I am not a rice fan. To me, seafood is all about crustaceans. And rice is only good if it is fully loaded and flavored with stuff (like Cajun dirty rice). I’d rather eat cardboard than plain white rice. I’ve had a million people tell me I should try sushi but I really really do not want to. You guys, instead of giving me a hard time should just say, “Hey! More for me!”

  6. Believe it or not, the small town of Splat Creek used to have decent sushi. An Asian couple (dont’ think they were Japanese, though) made some pretty decent stuff. It was a side business to their video store.

    Unfortunately, they moved, and now the nearest “real” sushi place is the “Big City”, 2 hours away.


    Best place I ever went was Vancouver, 10 years ago. It was all-you-can-eat, for $25. But it wasn’t the cheap stuff. This was a high-class restaurant, and it was GOOD (with lots of protein (sashimi), not the starch filler).

    I totally pigged out…I’m sure they lost money on me.

    But I enjoyed it so much the manager seemed genuinely pleased. He kept personally coming to my table and suggesting items I try…

  7. i may have to go into hiding. i’ve been throwing the ginger ON my sushi, thinking it a compliment to sushi, rather than a palate cleanser

    i stick to veggie sushie (except when in chicago). the best place (in my opinion) is actually a take away place in the market, can’t remember what is called. always fresh and reasonably priced.

  8. Pinklea – Ya, I’m sure you have no problem finding excellent sushi in Vancouver. I’ve heard you’re totally spoiled for choice and that you would gag at the stuff they feed us inland. I even noticed a difference between the sushi options in Halifax and here. I can eat a wee bit of sashimi — but not an entire meal of it.

    Mary Lynn – I’d be really interested to know how your husband’s parents make sushi and the differences between their traditional sushi and the restaurant sushi. The T&T supermarket is very scary. I’ve been once and I did buy a whole bunch of green tea. It’s still not the same.

    Chris – The Sushi Whores look like they have a lot of fun judging from their FB photo albums. I don’t know that I’ll be going to any of their events, but I’m interested in their reviews and seeing what they think of the various places they try. I think sushi is best eaten in an environment like that where you get to try pretty much everything on the menu because of how large the group is.

    Dr. Monkey – Now that she likes the veggie sushi, you can ease her into some fishy sushi. I started with veggie, too and then moved into stuff like California Rolls and other rolls that combine fish with vegetables. My favourite fishy one is still the snapper. It’s briny but has a nice texture.

    Geewits – Yay! More sushi for me!! No one here is going to force you to eat sushi. Like I said, I’m not in love with it myself. I enjoy it sometimes, but I could certainly live without it. Do you like other Japanese food, like maybe teryaki chicken? Or tempura?

    Friar – Well, I’m gobsmacked. I never expected you to be a sushi fan. Next you’ll be telling me you love quiche, too!! But, lucky you to have had the Vancouver sushi experience. I’ve never been to Vancouver, but I’ve heard amazing things about the sushi. Of course they have a huge Japanese population and are practically next door to Japan, so it’s not a big surprise. Where do you like to go in Ottawa? I keep thinking there’s some wonderful, secret sushi place here I don’t know about yet. You could also make your own if you’re a big fan. It’s not difficult — the challenge is getting the right fish.

    Meanie – There’s an entire encyclopedia of sushi etiquette that I don’t think you have to worry too much about following. If you like your ginger on the sushi, then by golly, eat it on the sushi. I know which place you mean in the market and I guess it’s a step up from supermarket sushi, but not what I would call great. Maybe we’ll have to have a BWB event at a really good sushi joint some time??

  9. I’m very new to sushi — so far I’ve only had the supermarket kind (I know, horrors!). It’s tasty, though. People around these parts RAVE about the Sushi Kanata. Apparently it has been listed as one of the top sushi restaurants in Canada. Someday I’ll check it out and let you know!

  10. @XUP

    It shouldn’t be suprising that I like sushi.. I like the raw fish aspect of it, which appeals to my Meatatarian tendencies. I don’t mind the veggie accompaniment (rice, avacoado, etc), As long as it comes with some animal protein.

    When I’m in the Big City, I often visit the East End, so I usally go to Sushi-Kan on Innes Road.

    It’s okay…like you said, there’s a lot of starchy filler, but it’s not bad if you stick to the good stuff. I’m partial to the sashimi. I can eat a few dozen slices of that stuff.

    PS. As for quiche, I’ll eat it if it’s put in front of me (After all, it has eggs and cheese). But I wont’ go out of my way to eat it on my own.

  11. My Dad is Nisei (second generation Japanese) I grew up having sushi that my aunts made and it is simple, always rolled and rustic. I love it. I do not like the raw stuff which makes me a bit of a freak since the rest of my family does. We move here from TO. I agree the sushi here in Ottawa is…not good. In order to satisfy my cravings I now make sushi “salad” at home and make the rice (it’s so easy) and mix in toasted broken nori bits, and add all the ingredients I like in a bowl and top with thinly sliced Japanese pickles. It is delicious, but not pretty. I get my Japanese tea from TO but will try to source it out here for you. The reason Japanese tea tastes different and yummy (according to my aunts) is that it has popcorn in it…that is the nutty/earthy flavour that makes it different. I just joined the FB fan page too, thanks. Great post!

  12. Lynn is right – Sushi Kanata is the best sushi you can get in Ottawa for a good price. We go before going to the movies all the time. I’m a big sashimi fan (doesn’t fill me up like maki so I can eat more!) and their Kanata Sashimi is full of variety and it’s so fresh (of course, it would be much more fresh if we lived on water, but relatively speaking, it’s yum!)

    The tea usually has toasted rice in it, which is what makes it taste different. I’ve bought several kinds now in Chinatown. I believe it’s called Gen Mai Cha?

  13. Lynn – Sushi Kanata is the same owners as Sushi Kan. I’m not impressed by them. From what I’ve been hearing from people too shy to comment is that Ichibei on Bank Street downtown is the most authentic. Apparently the Japanese Embassy takes Japanese visitors there for meals. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s definitely next on my list now.

    Friar – But no steak knife is involved? And no pools of blood to dab your baked potato in?? Sushi Kan is not a real sushi place in my opinion. It’s a fast-food sushi joint. Next time you’re in town try Ichibei as I mentioned to Lynn above. It’s reported to be the most authentic. Genji gets good reviews, too though it’s not consistent.

    MM – I hope either you or Mary Lynn will let me know what traditional, rustic sushi is exactly. Have you tried Ichibei? See my comments to Lynn above. And, popcorn in tea? How does that work? I can totally see that though from the taste. Hmmm

    Meagan – Really? Sushi Kanata? It’s the same owners as Sushi Kan, right? I’m having trouble getting past that. Have YOU tried Ichibei? (see comment to Lynn). I will have a look for the tea you mention. Thanks

  14. I can take it or leave it. It’s definitely not on my list of favourites. Though I do love California rolls and vegetarian “sushi”.

  15. I developed a raw vegan sushi recipe for a raw foodie friend … it’s very yummy. It’s made with soaked wild rice.

  16. I call it rustic because it is simple and always the same…dare I say “peasant” food. Lots of pickles and roots – gobo, daikon ginger etc. My aunts always make the same things…age-sushi (we call them rice sacks, fried tofu stuffed with sushi rice) and simple rolls like futo-maki with egg, crab & veggies. Avocado and mayo in sushi is considered a sin in their books. Maguro, donburi , tempura and a dish that I call chow mein (a short dry noodle dish) are the staples. Simple, but delicious. I will try the Ichibei restaurant. Thank you for the suggestion. p.s. I live in Kanata and do not like Sushi Kanata. Megan is right though, people rave about it.

  17. Totoya on Dalhousie is my favourite sushi place in Ottawa … it’s reasonably priced and the quality is pretty good. Their tuna sashimi is excellent as is their red-bean ice cream.

    It’s funny, I used to love sushi. As of late, I seem to be going through a period of disinterest with it. Perhaps I’m spoiled living in Vancouver?

  18. I LOVE sushi. I could probably eat it every day for the rest of my life and feel perfectly content. When you come to Seattle some day, I’ll take you to Umi, my favorite sushi restaurant. DELICIOUS!

  19. Really. Sushi Kanata. I’ve had sushi at several Ottawa restaurants (Wasabi, MHK [both locations], Hockey Sushi, 1000 Sushi Islands, Go for Sushi, the list goes on…) and I have never had the experience be as consistent as it is at Sushi Kanata. It is on part with other non-coastal sushi restaurants (like the plethora on Bloor in Toronto). I haven’t been to Ichibei though, and would gladly try it out.

    Not being able to get over the whole owner thing is a bit like saying that Milestones can’t make a good steak because it’s owned by the same company as Harveys.

    Fact is, we don’t live in a coastal area, so the sushi isn’t going to compare to that in Vancouver, or Seattle, or Japan (!) It’s likely that most of the sushi restaurants in Ottawa have the same (or similar) supplier(s) though, because they aren’t getting their fish from the Ottawa River. We can only expect it to be as good as the distance it had to travel to get here.

  20. Jazz – Ya, that’s kind of how I feel. There are times when it seems like just the thing for that particular meal and other times when I could think of a lot of other things I’d rather be eating.

    Woodsy – Will you be sharing the recipe on your blog or in private some time??

    MM – I like roots. Pickles in small quantities. My daughter loves those tofu pockets full of rice. I thought age meant fish flakes or something?? There’s an apetizer called age tofu, but it’s cubes of deep fried tofu in a sauce with fish flakes on top. Some waiter somewhere once told us the fish flakes were the “age”. Also, re: Kanata Sushi – it’s funny sometimes what people rave about that other people don’t like at all. Kinki downtown keeps getting voted best sushi in that annual Best of Ottawa thing and I find the whole place horrid. If you get to Ichibei before I do, let me know what you think.

    Quack – I thought Toyota was pretty good, too. Then one day we went in for lunch and they were cleaning the floors — at 12:30…with bleach. I appreciate cleanliness as much, if not more than the next guy, but the smell of the bleach totally put me off any thoughts of lunch and I figured they should have done their cleaning in the morning or something. It wasn’t even like they were just cleaning up a spill or something – they were doing the whole restaurant. I haven’t been back since.

    Linsey – When you say you’ll “take me” does that mean you’re paying? Because if you’re paying I might get on a bus or something this weekend and head over. I imagine the Seattle sushi options are a lot like Vancouver. Are there a lot of Japanese people in Seattle, too?

    Meagan – Okay. I didn’t mean to imply that we should be on par with coastal sushi places. And yes, I realize the fish comes from the same sources. I don’t know that distance makes a huge difference. I think it has to do with how you treat the products once they arrive. Anybody can be taught to roll up some fish, rice and veg, but not everyone can be a true Itamae. Just like with any other restaurant, I’m sure there are a lot of people preparing food in Japanese restaurants who are not trained professionals. For a lot of dishes it doesn’t matter much and like I said, with a little practice sushi isn’t that difficult to make. BUT to make it really, really well take skill and training. And you can definitely tell the difference in the end product. Probably Ottawa isn’t very attractive to a lot of Itamaes.

  21. I make a delicious teriyaki grilled chicken. Here’s the awful truth: In the early 80’s I sold pest control contracts and inspected a lot of kitchens. The most popular Japanese restaurant in Fort Worth at the time had the nastiest kitchen I had ever seen. It turned me off big time to Japanese restaurants and I have never been to one because of that, except one time. I had to go to THAT restauarant for a friend’s birthday party. I did not eat.

  22. Oh I certainly think the distance matters! The fresher the fish, the better the sushi! (Of course, if you’re not getting maki with raw fish in it, then it makes little difference.) But we have the unfortunate reality of getting our sushi-grade fish frozen first because of the distance it travels to get here.

  23. The sushi situation in my life is pretty good, actually.

    I fondly recall my last visit to a local sushi restaurant. It was Festivus and the occasion was made all that more festive by the charming company and sparkling conversation of a certain young lady. I had a lovely time and I hope she did too. My trusty Japanese sidekick, Atsuko, gave this particular restaurant a qualified “thumbs up” so I was pretty confident in recommending it when choosing a place for our traditional Festivus dinner.

    I am a relative newbie when it comes to Japanese cuisine but so far, my experiences have been quite positive. As coincidence would have it, I am going to another Japanese restaurant in a nearby city to get together with some friends. Last time I was there, it was my son who recommended it to me. Not as good as Atsuko’s recommendation but not bad.

  24. I ADORE Sushi, but honestly, it isn’t very good in Ottawa. I could eat my weight in it in Toronto though.

    I get around the no good sushi (and I do get good sushi – tiny handrolled pieces) once a month or so at the farmer’s market here in Wolfville) by bringing home a suitcase full of asian sauces and goodies like the vinegar powder and real sushi rice and shoyu when we go to Ottawa, then I make up a sushi salad – pickled veggies, cucumber bites, pomegranate seeds, avocado bites, rice, nori torn into bits, lots of vinegar, a tiny bit of ginger (home pickled) and if possible the freshest fish Papa Pan can score. YUM

    Raw foodies are really into raw vegan versions of sushi. I love their concept of it too.

  25. Being half-Japanese and growing up in Los Angeles, I’ve eaten sushi all my life. For me it’s nothing exotic – especially here, where there are sushi bars all over the place, from cheap fast food sushi restaurants to super-expensive elite sushi bars. We even have a sushi truck, though I’ve never tried it.

    But I definitely know a lot of people who have never tried sushi, or are frightened of the idea of it – I always try to introduce them to some of the less scary maki sushi.

    This is an excellent post, especially for those who have never tried sushi. Great explanation of everything you generally consume along with a sushi meal. 🙂

  26. Feed a man Sushi and he will eat for a day, teach a man to make Sushi and he will die of mercury poison within three years: (it was about fish, I stole it from some where and….well…there you have it.)

  27. The tea you’re looking for is definitely Genmai Cha (it’s green tea with roasted brown rice). I’m looking at the box now. It tastes the same to me as the super yummy stuff I’ve had in sushi places.

    I got it somewhere on Somerset, probably the Kowloon.

  28. While in China, I asked one of our hosts why their tea tastes far superior to ours. The answer I got was that the water we use is too hot and scalds the leaves to such a degree that much of the taste is lost. They boil the water and let it cool for about a minute to bring the temperature down about 10 degrees.

  29. I had no idea that it wasn’t real wasabi. I learn something new every day.

    One year, I made vegetarian sushi for appetizers at a pot luck and I was pretty pleased with the way they turned out. They were quite easy, really, and I didn’t use a mat – just some waxed paper.

  30. I had sushi in Osaka and it was much more expensive than any sushi I had when living in Canada. To me the taste was about the same as well.

  31. I never stopped to think about whether there were a lot of Japanese people in Seattle. I guess so? Anyhow, yes, I meant I would pay. See how generous I am. So you should stop giving me a hard time all the time, always.

    Also, when I was in Japan for several months many years back, I don’t think I had sushi even once. I did have a lot of noodles, though.

  32. Geewits – I think anyone who has every worked in, near or around the restaurant business has horror stories of restaurant kitchens to tell. It’s amazing really that more people don’t get sick from eating out.

    Meagan – You’re right. I think Ottawa gets a shipment twice a week. So even if the fish could be kept on ice during the flight here, it would need to be frozen to last 3 or 4 days. And if there is no fresh fish, I imagine the professional sushi chefs would not be interested.

    Julia – I know. I was really bummed out about the fake-sabi, too. And they are easy to make. We’ve even learned how to make the inside-out ones with a little plastic wrap.

    Sean – That’s good to know. Where in Canada did you have sushi? Surely not Winnipeg?

    Linsey – Aww. You’re sweet. From now on I will only say loving, gushy things to you. When/if you get to the point of being nauseated by my comments, let me know and I’ll revert back to my mean self.

  33. I LOVE sushi. The favourite restaurant in our family is a sushi place and the kids always eat and behave well when we go. We go once a month but I wish we could afford to go once a week!

    Incidently, I can eat ALOT of sushi, I am more of a sashimi kind of gal though.

  34. Sean – What’s Winnipeg sushi like?

    Betsy – Cool. It’s nice when you can introduce a lot of different kinds of foods to your kids when they’re young. Do your kids eat the raw fish sushi, too? And the wasabi?

    MM – I’ll have to look for it.

  35. Linsey – I haven’t even started yet, dearie

    Sean – Oh, how careless of you. I can remember meals I ate 15 years ago if they were special in some way. But nevermind

    Leah – Thank you. Did it make you want to run out and have some sushi? I’ve had a hankering for sushi ever since I wrote it.

  36. Pingback: DEL’s DIY Sushi « Sydney'sKitchen

  37. Hey everyone! Just want to wish a very Merry Christmas to everyone. Does anyone know if the spring semester
    start date has been changed for the year 2012 for Vermont?????? Anybody from the area?????

    Just too busy with

    authentic research paper at the moment but want to go skiiing so bad!!!! Who else wants to go skiing for Christmas???