Bread Has Met Its Maker

2nd December 2011

Heather Harris samples the new lunchtime favourite

It’s overtaken two classic fillings already and is now giving jam a few sticky moments. Who would have thought that raw fish and rice would be taking on the great British sandwich as the lunchtime snack of choice?

But the statistics back it up… sushi sales figures are up by 21 per cent in the past year, according to retail analysts AC Neilsen, and with Pippa Middleton openly declaring her allegiance, the industry’s bottom line can only improve further.

As Kathryn Bettles, Tesco’s sushi range developer (now there’s a niche job) confirmed, “Packs of it now outsell our cheese & pickle and tuna & cucumber sandwiches. Sushi has become a mainstream popular snack for many people in the UK. Over the last five years it has been steadily growing in popularity”

Thanks also to the support of the Murray family. With tennis star Andy recently admitting to eating 50 pieces a day, that’s at least a couple of ‘shoals’ a week. (Although as the Japanese aren’t exactly renowned for their tennis prowess, perhaps a Spanish-style frittata or some Swiss cheese might be more useful for his back swing?).

Sushi is certainly seen as a healthy menu option, with its basic components of cooked vinegared rice (or ‘shari’) combined with other ingredients (or ‘neta’) such as seafood and black seaweed wrappers (or ‘nori’), ticking the boxes for omega 3, vitamins, low fat and high protein.

Kumud Gandhi, executive chef at The Cooking Academy in Rickmansworth, believes that its popularity is down to one main thing: “Bread. People seem to be obsessed with not eating it but want a quick lunchtime alternative. Made fresh at the weekend, our sushi can be eaten over the next four days.”

The academy’s two and a half hour sushi master classes run every three weeks and are constantly sold out. “And people not only learn all the cooking and rolling techniques but also the history and traditions behind this Japanese delicacy so they’re no longer afraid of it!”

Karen Bretts, from the How2Boilwater cookery school in Berkhamsted, agrees, “Four years ago when we launched, people hadn’t really heard of it – and now we are inundated. It only takes 90 minutes to learn how to make decent sushi from scratch and the supermarkets now stock all the ingredients.”

Even students, previously renowned for their creativity with mince, are jumping in at the culinary deep end and holding sushi parties where vast piles are prepared and eaten (although no doubt still washed down with a pint of Baileys).

Things have certainly moved on for this Japanese delicacy since it first appeared in the Muromachi period (AD 1336-1573) as a fermented rice dish.

The vinegar produced from the fermenting rice broke down the fish proteins into amino acids and created one of the five basic tastes, called umami in Japan.

Originally, when the fish was taken out, the rice was thrown away but over the centuries the process evolved until seafood and rice began to be pressed together using bamboo moulds. By the mid 18th century, this dish called sushi – literally ‘sour tasting’ – had reached Tokyo.

Once chef Hanaya Yohei got hold of the idea in 1799 there was no stopping him. He quickly turned sushi into the first form of ‘fast food’. Using freshly caught fish and rice he created a dish which could be served in hand-crafted ‘Bento’ lunch boxes (the Japanese equivalent of Tupperware but without the parties) or eaten by hand at, he suggested, ‘the roadside or theatre’.

While the picnickers and playgoers happily munched away, the Japanese culinary world began experimenting with his basic idea, to develop a range of dishes as diverse and complicated as the Japanese language itself.

Whole books have been written about the different types, from Chirashizushi (scattered sushi), a bowl of rice topped with a variety of sashimi and garnishes, to Makizushi (rolled sushi), a cylindrical piece formed with the help of a bamboo mat and wrapped in thin seaweed or omelette, and Inarizushi, a pouch of fried tofu.

As its name suggests, the commonly eaten California sushi rolls found in today’s supermarkets with their avocado and crab fillings are about as far removed from the traditional dish as Japan itself – although at least western manufacturers do make some attempt to recreate the traditional condiments which must accompany all sushi dishes: the soy sauce for dipping, the ginger to aid digestion and cleanse the palate and, of course, the wasabi, to stop food poisoning. This startlingly green paste, originally made from the grated root of the wasabi japonica plant, is now produced by mixing horseradish, mustard powder and green dye – and is guaranteed to blow the heads off even the most bullet proof parasites. The food safety authorities also recommend that all raw fish is frozen before being eaten just to kill off any bugs that are horseradish-immune.

By the 20th century, sushi restaurants had sprung up worldwide. They now range from the expensive and formal – where the host or hostess will greet you with the traditional ‘irasshaimase’ which means ‘please come in’ and does not require a response – to more relaxed sushi bars complete with the ‘itamae’ (sushi chef).

Given that the Japanese are sticklers for etiquette, even at these more casual establishments, certain rules apply. For example, chatting with the chef should be kept to a minimum – and it’s considered a serious insult to him to leave food on the plate.
Ideally each piece should be eaten with fingers and in one bite (with American portions this isn’t always possible, as a piece can be the size of a small house brick) and while slurping of soup is allowed, passing food to another person using chopsticks is an absolute no-no: it represents the passing of a deceased relatives bones at a Japanese funeral.

Leaving chopsticks sticking out of rice also symbolises death – and sushi eaters should never say ‘chin chin’ when proposing a toast as this refers to a certain part of a Japanese man’s anatomy…

Hardly surprising, with this minefield of potentially career breaking etiquette to negotiate, that the introduction of a serve yourself sushi experience was bound to go down well.

Founded in 1997, YO! Sushi delivered individual dishes to the masses at 8cm per second on a conveyor belt. At its opening, Fay Maschler, Evening Standard food critic, soon announced she had, ‘seen the future and it is fun’, while the usually ascerbic, AA Gill from the Sunday Times, immediately cited it as ‘the best sushi in London’.

Customers queued around the block for a slice of Tokyo – and of raw salmon – and by 2001, YO! became the market leader. Today over 80 Japanese-inspired items are freshly prepared for the conveyor belt in YO!s 66 restaurants worldwide, and the company has target of 100 establishments by 2012. Over four million customers a year are now rolling up to bars across Britain and in Dublin, Moscow, Dubai and Kuwait.

So what next for this fermented fish dish? Before our entire lunchtime selection is stamped through with ‘Made in Japan’ perhaps the sushi team at Tescos could use their loaves to come up with a cross cultural alternative…

Anyone for a sushi sandwich?

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