In a city where even supermarkets offer sushi, we try to make sense of our obsession
by Lora Zarubin / photographs by Victoria Pearson
illustration by Jameson Simpson
There is no town more sushi crazed than Los Angeles. But just what is it about raw fish that sends Angelenos into such a frenzy?
As a sushi devotee myself, I thought there wasn’t much more I could learn about experiencing the bite-size seafood morsels. Turns out I was wrong. True sushi mastery can actually be discovered through the most unexpected sources—like my acupuncturist.
Now, everyone has a favorite sushi bar: Nozawa, Matsuhisa, Sushi Sasabune, Mori Sushi, Sushi Park, the Hump. People always think theirs is the best, and passions run high. I am no different, I guess. My favorite place is Sushi Gen, on 2nd Street in Little Tokyo, owned by Toshiaki Toyoshima—aka Toyo-san—a true sushi master, who has been putting his spin on the delicacy for more than 42 years. He stands to the side of his sushi chefs and yells, “Irashai masai!”(“Welcome!”) at patrons as they enter, because, he says, the volume of his voice correlates with the freshness of his fish.
I recently strolled through a seafood market with Toyo-san and saw firsthand the high regard in which he is held. He commands the place, his fish waiting on trolleys for him to inspect, choose or reject.
When my acupuncturist first pointed me to Sushi Gen, he gave me a note to present to chef Kazu Shimizu, written in Japanese and folded into origami. Upon arrival, I was advised to sit right in front of Kazu. It was like being inducted into a secret society. My few instructions before entering this world were to trust Kazu, not to use too much soy sauce and, if I enjoyed my meal, to offer him a tip.
Kazu, as it turns out, is a sushi chef’s sushi chef. Like many professionals in his field, his head is shaved, symbolizing that he and his bar are impeccably clean. To add to the purity, he wears no chains, no rings, no watch.
Over the years, I’ve learned a few lessons sure to optimize the sushi-eating experience. For starters, get to the restaurant when it opens to ensure the fish is at its coldest—all the better to experience the vivid contrast between the chilly sushi and the rice, which should, according to Toyo-san, be body temperature. Sashimi should be eaten with chopsticks, sushi with your hands; soy sauce should be used sparingly; and when eating sushi, it’s the fish that should be dipped, not the rice. As for wasabi, purists either use very little or none at all. And the pickled ginger is meant to cleanse your palate between each course.
Now that I’ve been admitted to this special world, it is time to taste and savor Sushi Gen’s delicacies. Traditionally, it’s proper to start with sashimi, then move on to sushi, but the best choice may just be omakase—literally meaning “entrusted,” giving your palate over to the chef. Whether it’s halibut with a squeeze of yuzu, lemon and salt; fresh local uni served with a quail egg; mild red snapper; or delicate albacore, every piece Kazu serves is a revelation.
What are some ways to judge a sushi bar? One is the quality of the nori—the seaweed. It should melt in your mouth but stay crunchy. I experienced this delightful contradiction when Kazu made one of my favorite rolls, negi-toro-maki, chopping together tuna and scallions. His handrolls are like nori pillows. He makes standard rolls like California, but you are missing out if you don’t try one of his squid or spicy scallop rolls.
It has often occurred to me that many sushi novices make mistakes. “What’s the worst thing anyone has done in front of you at the sushi bar?” I ask Kazu. Turns out it is two things: first, when people take apart the sushi, dip the fish in a pool of soy sauce and then put it back together and eat it; and second, when they cut their sushi in pieces with their chopsticks. Connoisseurs all know chefs consider their food as art, and it should be eaten exactly as it is served.
As if sushi lovers need more incentive, it is, by almost any definition, health food—low in fat (with the exception of toro, or fatty tuna), high in protein, with only moderate amounts of carbohydrates. It’s also loaded with vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids. The vinegar in the rice has antibacterial properties thought to fight high blood pressure; wasabi is rich in vitamin C and stimulates saliva and digestive fluids; ginger has antibacterial powers and is known as a digestive aid; and nori packs protein, minerals and vitamins.
What about all the talk of mercury and sustainability? There is some overfishing, and while some fish are high in mercury, some are not. The information is out there for sushi lovers to make their decisions accordingly. I’ve spoken to some sushi lovers who have cut back and others who never will. When I speak to the sushi masters, they say moderation is their message.
Lots of sushi bars are experimenting with combinations of sashimi and sushi that push the limits of culinary creativity, but I prefer to partake of the traditional and let the quality do the talking. Sushi Gen is not a bossy, stressful place with rules you must abide by, like having to order omakase if you sit at the bar or getting kicked out if your cell phone rings while you are seated.
Sushi Gen—and Kazu—are about two things: being one with the fish and reveling in the experience of being transported into a gastronomic pleasure zone.