Friday, September 14, 2007

But is it Sushi?

908 17th Street
Washington, DC

1 out of 5 grains of rice

Hungry for a little sushi, I dropped by Wasabi in DC for lunch yesterday. The conveyor belt sushi joint on 17th street is not cheap, but it is close to my office and the steady flow of food in front of you means you don’t have to think too much or worry about ordering. Just grab and eat. How much more primal can you get? Just think of hunting and gathering for lazy people.

But as I downed a few small plates of smoked salmon and avocado rolls and some Chicken teriyaki over rice, I was left wondering – “is this really Sushi/Japanese food?” It was clearly stylized to by Japanese. How can anything bound in nori, containing rice and served with soy and pickled ginger be anything but Japanese. But I’ve had Japanese food in Japan and in some of the best places in the United States, and at best what I was downing was a pale pan Asian image of Japanese food.

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not a food snob. I like a good California roll as much as the next guy. But it’s important (as much as anything food related is really important) to make a distinction between real Japanese food and what is consumed at far too many malls, supermarkets and eateries as “Japanese” like food.

This begs the question, what makes “real” Japanese food? Of course, if you ask 50 people, 10 will say one thing, another 10 will say another and 30 will respond “what the heck are you talking about?” But to my mind, what makes Japanese food Japanese, or any food a kind of food for that matter, is what the food says about the place the food comes from and the people who invented it/make it. Think about the T-bone steak and what it says about the American past. Think about a good coq-au-vin and what it says about the French history. Not all food speaks to place, but to my mind the best ethnic foods always do.

In the case of Japan, Sushi says a lot about the Japanese people, who even to this day think of themselves as a nation bound to the sea in which everyone thinks of themselves (in some way) as a fisherman. There are small rock outcroppings south of the Japanese main island that the country spends millions of dollars every year keeping above the steadily rising sea levels because it expands the Japanese fishing territory and has become a national symbol. This mindset demands the freshest of ingredients that allow the natural flavors of the oceans to express themselves. Eating real sushi connects you to the sea and even our own origins, as we all come from the sea millions of years ago. This doesn’t just go for Sushi – it goes for most Japanese food. Anyone who has been to Osaka and eater Okonomiyaki can tell you that few foods reflect its place better than the “any way you want it” egg pancake from this Neon-dominated amusement park of a city.

So “No” is my short (and probably questionable) response to my own question of whether what I was eating at Wasabi was not really sushi. As I finished my last plate and paid, I realized it wasn’t even all that good “not” Japanese food. I was full, but not satisfied. What I ate was Japanese-inspired (if I can even use the “inspired” in this instance) food that would have been rejected by any educated Japanese palate and should not really be the destination of anyone going for more than just a filled stomach. It said nothing of place and history – only of convenience and kitsch. In short, I probably should have just grabbed a salad.