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Dec 27, 2010 12:24 PM

What is REAL sushi?


I live in the GTA and have been to numerous all you can eat sushi restaurants.
I've been to Sushi on 7, Yang's, Syogun, and all those generic AYCE places.
I've tried sushi made by an authentic Japanese restaurant from Konichiwa on Baldwin.
They taste no different.
How would authentic sushi taste like?
Would real authentic sushi "blow me out of my mind because it is so delicious"?
Are there any restaurants in Toronto that serve "authentic sushi"?

  1. athentic is not a synonym for unique, tasty, different, or better.

    "real" sushi is a rice preparation.

    1. I can't speak to Toronto, but let me address this with an eye towards differentiation and an understanding of what makes great sushi great.

      The rice is all-important. Can you tell the difference between a top-grade koshihikari and the run of the mill cal-rose? Just eatin them plain, side by side, will give you an idea of what real rice flavor is all about. The texture of the short grain koshihikari is very different from the medium grade calrose - the better sushi is made with the short grain rice.

      Can you tell when you're eating a piece of yellowfin tuna vs. bigeye or honmaguro? This is a sure sign of quality. Places that serve yellowfin as maguro are places that will serve salmon - neither are very authentic or real.

      Do the Itamaes boast of their specials for the day - are they interesting ingredients, like maybe abalone or geoduck? Do you sit at the bar and talk to the Itamaes - find out where they've worked, talk to them about where and how they source their fish - talk to them about baisubol - anything interesting? This is the fun of sushi, not filling out the little form and sitting at a table, waiting for service.

      There's a lot more to this - I think you've taken a great step by asking the questions - most people who "love sushi" simply don't bother to ask so they get fed junk, and they never know it!

      5 Replies
      1. re: applehome

        I am glad to have this discussion started too, and will welcome any information. I don't believe I've ever had sublime sushi, but love it just the same. I need some inspiration please!

        1. re: coll

          Just to highlight and reiterate - I agree with AlanBarnes (except for the futomaki, of which I've had incredible "stained glass" type large ones with many more than 4 ingredients) - but I do feel that the best way to get into sushi is to sit and talk to the Itamae as he prepares and serves you. They love to talk about their work and its such a good way to learn. If you're at a place that doesn't let you talk or where they do not want to talk, you need to move on - find places with friendly and well trained Itamaes that are proud of their work and training.

          As we've discussed a million times before, I disagree with Caroline that you need to make your own sushi to appreciate it. Having the experience of making the rice properly isn't a bad thing - and it does give you a certain perspective. But the type of intense training it takes to select the right fish and wield the right tools to cut it properly isn't something that most people come across at home. Making makizushi from simple ingredients (like tsukemono - pickles) and butsugiri (sloppily cut fish) is fine - this is along the lines that Sam Fujisaka and I used to discuss - but that's quite a different kettle of fish from the experience of going to a sushi-ya.

          I say stick to having great conversations with Itamaes as the most interesting and assured path towards having more intense sushi experiences.

          1. re: applehome

            Thanks, that's something I never would have thought of myself!

            1. re: applehome

              Would you at least agree that arming yourself with knowledge gained from well respected authors on the subject before throwing yourself into the arms of any old "itamae" who comes down the pike is a reasonable course of action? The problem today is that sushi has been so popularized that there is a small select group of good sushi bars out there among a vast sea of mediocre to bad ones. How does one arm himself against "itamaes" who serve you certain nigiri from a ready-made tray in a refrigerator? NO! I'm not kidding. Been there and left ASAP without making a scene Modern sushi has much in common with popcorn. It's for the masses. Without educating yourself AND your palate, you risk paying for a whole lot of lessons from hacks. I truly believe there is much to be said for starting with the basics -- well prepared rice, reasonable but flavorful toppings, some real wasabe and maybe a few brands of top shoyu, as well as some top grade nori you toast yourself and teaching yourself and our palate how to discriminate. If nothing else (and there is much to be learned this way), it will help you appreciate an itamae's work, as well as arm yourself with the ability to discern good from not so good. I fully believe in arming myself with as much well researched knowledge as possible before sitting at the knee of a "guru" of unclear credentials. And it is not necessary to only have sushi made with ridiculously expensive fish hovering on the edge of becoming endangered. A diet composed only of super premium ingredients reduces them to mundane because you have nothing to make them shine. Others may not agree with me, but this approach always serves me well. On the other hand, if the OP has the means to begin his quest to appreciate and discern "real" sushi at the knee of Masaharu Morimoto, go for it, Dude! If you're looking for a guest to take along with you, I'm available! '-)

              1. re: Caroline1

                "Would you at least agree that arming yourself with knowledge gained from well respected authors on the subject before throwing yourself into the arms of any old "itamae" who comes down the pike is a reasonable course of action?"

                Yes, I would. But the difference between reading Tsuji for details on recipes and methods as vs. reading the Zen of Fish by Corson is huge. For the uninitiated, I'd recommend the Zen of Fish approach - to get the overlay of the Sushi "industry" including its cultural and historical impact - not to say that there isn't plenty of personal impact told in the stories. The personal understanding of flavor, texture, the basic differentiation between what is good and bad, traditional and Americanized (!!!) - that understanding develops over time and experience.

                One doesn't have to go to a Morimoto to have a great sushi experience - it's the real joy of discovery of a wonderful chef that isn't a Morimoto (in terms of fame and standing) that personally keeps me in the hunt.

        2. I'm not going to make this a long involved reply, but for openers "all you can eat" and "sushi" do not belong in the same sentence. Sushi should be eaten within minutes of preparation, especially if it involves nori. The best way to learn about sushi is to teach yourself to make it well, make sure the books you use are knowledgeable and authentic, and don't get hung up on all of the hype and "in" bull. You're on the right track when you question things. Good luck!

          1 Reply
          1. re: Caroline1

            Though that freshness bit applies mainly to Nigirizushi. The oldest form used fish fermented in rice.

            Chirashizushi is a form that can be prepared and eaten in large quantities.

            Is Kaiten-zushi un-real because there is no face-to-face dealing with the chef?

            The OP asks: Would real authentic sushi "blow me out of my mind because it is so delicious"?

            I suspect not, unless the OP has the refined taste of an Iron Chef (Japan) judge! :) Seasoning of high quality sushi might actually be more subtle, focusing on things like the freshness of the fish, perfection in the cutting, presentation, balance of textures, adherence to tradition, and symbolism.

          2. It's all "real" sushi; the question is whether it's any good. And except for the plastic models, it's all "authentic"; the question is whether it's traditional Edomae (Tokyo-style), which is regarded by many as the epitome of the sushi chef's art.

            IMO, rolls that have more than about four ingredients aren't good sushi. Ditto with nigiri that are formed by a machine. Or anything covered with mayonnaise, Sriracha sauce, or combinations thereof. I'm willing to concede that that's a matter of opinion, but it's indisputable that none of those things is traditional, either.

            Good traditional sushi won't blow your mind unless you're paying attention. It's simple and subtle. And although I know nothing about the restaurant you mention, if you think it tastes the same as what you've gotten from an AYCE joint, there's a decent chance you aren't attuned to those subtleties.

            If you want to learn more about good sushi, you need to find a local place with a traditionally-trained itamae and spend some time there. Sit at the counter, ask stupid questions, allow the chef to choose dishes for you, buy the guy a drink, discuss what you like about the food he serves you, keep an open mind, and pay attention. Do this a few times a month for several months. You'll start to get it.

            Then again, there's no reason you (or anybody else) should become a sushi aficionado. It takes quite a bit of time and money, and inevitably leads to disappointment once you can tell the difference between the good stuff and the dreck that is so much more common. So ask yourself whether this is a hobby / interest / obsession you want to pursue. If so, there's surely a way to do so in your city. If not, please feel free to just make fun of the sushi geeks out there. We all tend to be too full of ourselves anyway.

            ETA: for an introduction to the ideas underlying traditional sushi, pick up a copy of "The Zen of Fish" by Trevor Corson. It's an easy and entertaining read, and costs less than a few sets of nigiri at a typical sushi-ya.

            1. Hi cupnoodle. I'm from Toronto too and I know those restos that you mentioned.

              Real sushi is all about quality of ingredients...the rice, the way it's cooked and seasoned, the freshness of the fish, the right amount of wasabi to put, the density of packing the rice, and many other subtleties that are lost in AYCE places. Konnichiwa is ok but not really run by a Japanese Itamae.

              The Japanese sushi chefs in the GTA have an association...JRAC...and I think they have a website. The restos on there are a good place to start. My personal favorite is Zen. I've tried most of them but keep on coming back to this one.

              When you make the jump from AYCE to well-prepared sushi, you will never be able to go back. But the costs sky rocket as well. For instance, AYCE at Sushi on 7 is $20 but a basic plate of nigiri sushi at Zen will set you back by $30 and their omakase plate, which usually has the best fish/seafood for the day will cost you $50. An that's not including apps and drinks and dessert.

              My suggestion is go to one of the restos on JRAC and sit at the counter. Come with an open mind (and wallet!). Talk to the chefs, they will be more than happy to answer your questions. If you go to Zen, ask Jackie...he's the right hand man and is very friendly and approachable.


              1 Reply
              1. re: ctl98

                Sounds like the real question is: how is expensive sushi different from the affordable?