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Connoisseurs find sushi in Boston is often lacking

By Devra First
Globe Staff / April 22, 2012
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On the big screen in the dark movie theater, sharp knives glide through crimson tuna as classical music plays. An elderly man prepares pieces of sushi so beautiful the audience sighs. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,’’ currently in theaters, documents the life and work of Japanese sushi master Jiro Ono. This is sushi in its highest incarnation, a traditional Japanese craft. It emphasizes simplicity, purity. There are few ingredients: perfectly made rice, pristine fish, a dab of soy.

How did we get from there to the sushi Bostonians commonly eat? Local sushi menus rely on “crazy,’’ “scorpion,’’ and “geisha’’ rolls filled with many kinds of fish, avocado, mango, spicy mayonnaise, cream cheese, and just about anything else a chef can imagine. And we can have these rolls whenever and wherever we want them. As sushi continues to grow in popularity, it seems there is a restaurant offering it on every corner. More than 15 new establishments have opened in the area in the past year.

For those on the go or on a budget, sushi is sold at food courts and supermarkets. Sales of sushi trays were up 11 percent in the United States in 2011, according to Nielsen Perishables Group FreshFacts data. AFC Franchise Corp., one of the largest suppliers of supermarket sushi, now operates more than 3,300 sushi bars in the United States and Canada. Soon enough, sushi will be available at drugstores, too. Walgreens recently announced plans for a 24,000-square-foot megastore in Downtown Crossing that will feature a sushi bar.

But just because sushi is everywhere in Boston doesn’t mean it’s good.

“ ‘Where should I go for the best sushi?’ I’m asked this question a lot,’’ says Merry White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University who specializes in food and Japan. “I have a snarky answer. Go to Logan and get on a plane. But that’s not helpful.’’

The highest-quality sushi relies on expensive, high-quality ingredients, and few of them. Key is rice, without which raw fish is sashimi, not sushi.

“Sushi in its basic form means vinegared rice,’’ says chef Tim Cushman, who runs acclaimed Japanese restaurant O Ya with his wife, sake sommelier Nancy Cushman. They serve creative sushi and sashimi, along with cooked dishes, but one can also request traditional preparations. “For great sushi, you need great sushi rice, and to make it you need premium rice. . . . Then you have to cook it properly, hold it properly, and serve it properly. You should never refrigerate it. The texture gets hard and grainy.’’ Cushman spent several years developing the rice served at O Ya.

Then there is the fish. “We get it locally and fly it in from Japan, and we pay top dollar to get the best fish,’’ Cushman says. “It has to be sourced properly, prepared properly, stored and served correctly, and cut correctly. It seems so simple, just a piece of fish on rice, and it is enormously complicated.’’

The importance of proper sourcing and preparation was recently highlighted when 58,828 pounds of frozen raw yellowfin tuna back meat, scraped from the bones and used in preparations such as spicy tuna, were recalled after a salmonella outbreak. Twenty-three of the 160 cases reported at press time were in Massachusetts.

For the average sushi restaurant owner, spending years on development or large sums on the best ingredients may not be the priority. Elaborate sushi rolls offer a symphony of tastes that can help hide any cut corners.

“The way of disguising not-so-great rice is to have other things in the sushi than are usual,’’ White says, “like anything with fat in it - fried something or mayonnaise or cream cheese. Those fatty things, not only do they give you a taste upper, but they’re familiar to the American palate.’’

Still, cities such as Los Angeles and New York have restaurants that offer high-end, traditional sushi. Boston has different demographics.

“We have the fish, we have a population that’s pretty well-educated and sophisticated, and we have people from all over the world,’’ White says. “But we don’t have a significant Japanese business population, especially since the 1991 economic downturn. The first wave of sushi [in the US] went to places where there were high-flying businessmen. We got the second wave, which is cheerful and cheap sushi.’’

Cushman says there’s a market for high-quality sushi in Boston. The wait list at O Ya most nights could fill another restaurant of the same size, he says. And the debut of the Japan Airlines’ nonstop service between Tokyo and Boston, which starts today, is expected to bring more Japanese travelers to the city.

Immigration patterns also affect what kind of sushi we eat here. The majority of Asian-Americans in Massachusetts are of Chinese descent - more than 118,000, according to the 2010 Census, a 44 percent increase over a decade. There are just over 9,000 people who report being solely of Japanese descent, down more than 12 percent since 2000. (Just over 15,000 call themselves part Japanese.) Here, restaurants serving sushi are more often run by Chinese and Korean restaurateurs than Japanese. These entrepreneurs are sometimes less beholden to sushi tradition.

“Maybe only 5 or 6 percent have a Japanese owner,’’ says Yoshiyuki Kawamura, the owner of Sakanaya fish market in Allston, who is Japanese. (Like sushi master Ono, he is from Shizuoka prefecture.) The number of Japanese restaurants has more than doubled since he arrived here 15 years ago, he says, but that trend is not being driven by Japanese restaurateurs alone. “The rest are Chinese or Korean. That’s why sushi is very famous right now. If only Japanese were making sushi, maybe it would not be so popular.’’

He is happy to see sushi taking off, in any form. “Sushi is part of Japanese culture, and I want to expand Japanese culture for the people, not only the high-society, upper-middle class,’’ he says.

Although his shop is primarily a market selling sushi-grade fish, he also offers prepared sushi at a reasonable price. Affordable sushi is many people’s introduction to Japanese food. Then, when they have the chance to go to an expensive restaurant, they will understand what they are eating, he says.

From an ecological perspective, sushi’s spread may be less desirable.

“In terms of sustainability, the concerns are the same for sushi as for any other seafood product,’’ says Tania Taranovski, Sustainable Seafood Programs manager at the New England Aquarium. For instance, some species have been heavily fished, such as sushi staple bluefin tuna, threatening their stocks. And some aquaculture methods can have negative environmental effects. “Seafood can be a really great healthy and sustainable choice for people,’’ she says. “We encourage people to think about it and think about making those right choices.’’ (Those in search of guidance can find a list of ocean-friendly seafood and other information on the aquarium website.)

Another approach: Eat less sushi, like the Japanese do.

“People who had been treated very well in Japan during the early part of the trade war in the late ’70s and early ’80s came back believing Japanese eat sushi all the time,’’ White says. “They don’t. It’s a high-end food in Japan, and people who know the differences between good sushi and not-so-great sushi will not go and get supermarket sushi the way we do. It is really about not just eating but experiencing the sushi in a beautiful space, in the presence of the guy who’s making it in front of you. Japanese people see it as a real treat. Imagine if you had lobster every day. That doesn’t happen. It’s a special event.’’

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

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