A seemingly fishy story – sushi in the desert

2
2003
Sushi Groove - nigiri sushi
Sushi Groove – nigiri sushi

With nearly 600 dusty miles separating Salt Lake City from the ocean, sushi might not be the first dish you’d associate with the Beehive state. Nor might it seem a sensible dining option either. Brine shrimp nigiri anyone?

As any seasoned diner will know though, there is of course good sushi and seafood to be found in Utah. That statement alone is usually enough for a typical SoCal transplant to snort their cortado in smug amusement, “I lived by the ocean, I know fresh fish, I know sushi, thank you very much”.

This familiarly glib response though exposes perhaps two fundamental misunderstandings that persist with sushi across all of America, not just Utah:

  • Living next to an ocean yields all the fishies in the deep blue sea
  • Frozen fish means bad fish

Because as we all know, the very best sushi happens something like this: a craggy faced fisherman (yellow trench coat and pipe too) wakes before dawn’s early light and takes to the ocean in a charming, weather-beaten row boat. He knows the most clandestine spots to snare only the best catch.

As morning turns to day, he delivers his bounty ashore, directly into the awaiting arms of the gleeful chef awaiting on a rocky beach with giddy glee. She in turn packs the glimmering seafood carefully on ice, cycling back to her restaurant, ready to thrill their patrons with only the freshest, most local, most impeccable fare.

Nonsense

The modern seafood industry is as massively scaled and globally integrated a production line as any other. 8 billion people can’t be fed on mere romanticism. Huge armies of trawlers roam the seas, gobbling up fish by the ton. Most stay out at sea for weeks upon weeks, storing their catch frozen en masse and in situ.

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For example, virtually all hamachi in the US is farmed and frozen in Japan before ever reaching American shores. Every restaurant relies on pre-preprared eel while the same is true of octopus for the most part. Soft shell crab is harvested only once per year, when the crabs are molting, then frozen for distribution year round. That sushi restaurant you frequent that guarantees never frozen sushi, they’re confused at best, outright lying to you at worst.

The dynamics and economics of modern production methods ensure you’ll be eating frozen fish coast to coast; your proximity to the ocean rarely has little impact upon the sushi on your plate.

Of course, I don’t expect you to take my word for it. After all, I’m nothing but another Utah rube who wouldn’t know their escolar from their elbow. Don’t take my word for it though, lets talk to some experts.

To get to the heart of the matter, Peggi Ince-Whiting was my first port of call. Whiting currently heads up the sushi bar at Kyoto, one of Utah’s most long lived restaurants, famous for its authentic take on Japanese cuisine. Before her current position Whiting ran the nationally recognized Ichiban sushi in Park City, the fast casual Hayai Sushi and also had a stint at local seafood distributor Fog River Farms.

Peggi Ince-Whiting at Kyoto Japanese restaurant

Lest there be any debate that Whiting’s opinion doesn’t deliver serious import, her credentials are impeccable. Whiting formally honed her craft in Tokyo, under the tutelage of sushi master Inou at Hama Sushi, a Registered National Treasure at the time. Yes that’s a thing.

I sat down and talked with Whiting about her experience in what was surely a tough environment, “Well, there was just six of us at the time”, Whiting explains of female sushi chefs in training. “In Tokyo huh, wow, that must have been tough”, I counter. “No, Japan, full stop”, she corrects. Let there be little doubt of Whiting’s pedigree, cutting her teeth in arguably one of the toughest arenas and times.

Whiting doesn’t see any supply issues with quality product here in Utah. If something is landed in LA, it’s merely a few more hours from Utah noting, “Most of the fish used in Utah sushi bars is gathered at fish brokers in LA and then shipped air cargo to Salt Lake City .  I’ve been told more than once by one such suppliers that since the fish I ordered is traveling further, he packs the freshest ones for me (pretty ironic when you consider that air freight time is less than traveling via freeway in LA).

Whiting finishes, “we will always have a mixture of fresh and frozen products in sushi.  Having some of the products  frozen immediately actually preserves the freshness rather being ‘tired’ from traveling.”

Kyoto - small sashimi side plate
Kyoto – small sashimi side plate

Chill Out

In fact, FDA guidelines recommend the freezing of most fish that’s to be served and consumed raw; with deep sea fish such as tuna being a minor exception – such fish not being susceptible to the same parasites.

This shockingly-chilly lesser known fact about seafood is likely to trigger more than one sushi-snob. Many American’s have been repeatedly drilled with the mantra that frozen food is bad, frozen food can’t be good; with frozen seafood being public enemy number one for foodie dilettantes.

The fact of the matter is that modern day blast chilling tech takes seafood below -60 degrees Fahrenheit at incredible speed. At this rapidity of temperature change, the textural cell membranes of the fish are almost undetectably altered. At least as is important to palates, not mass spectrometers. Shin Tsujimura, chef at Nobu NYC, told the New York Times in 2004 that, “Even I cannot tell the difference between fresh and frozen in a blind test”.

Need more convincing? That FDA guideline is actual defacto law in NYC. Every high end sushi joint and lauded chef – Masa Takayama through to Masaharu Morimoto – are legally obliged to freeze non deep sea fish before plating. And for the fish that doesn’t need freezing like prized tuna, even the venerated Jiro Ono himself prefers to age fresh tuna several days before serving.

The notion that great sushi is the result of pristine fish leaping from sea to plate is nothing more than poetic claptrap. The fact of the matter is that modern logistics opens up most of the United States to a quality product – New York to Nebraska to yes, Utah.

Dave Ayala, Sushi Groove

For Dave Ayala (co-owner and sushi chef at Sushi Groove) the real issue is one of consumer education. “You still need to start with a quality product regardless of if it’s fresh or frozen”, he explains, “poor quality fresh fish that’s frozen, that’s always going to be poor quality”.

Like all of the chefs I talked to for this article, Ayala happily concedes that frozen product gets a bad rap, not helped by businesses on razor thing margins offering cut price deals and subpar product.

“A prime example are sides of hamachi”, he notes. “There are a few different quality options restaurants can choose from ranging in price from let’s say $9.99 per lb to $6.99 per lb.  The $9.99 is amazing, it’s bigger, fattier, cleaner looking and tasting.The $6.99 is kinda like a sponge – soggy and not much flavor. Unfortunately some restaurants are happy to pass off the inferior product to customers.”

While musing about consumer education, Ayala also touches on the topic of saku, something most diners are likely to have never heard of, but have almost certainly eaten. Saku, translating as block in Japanese, comes as just that to the restaurant ordering it – a uniform slab of frozen rectangular tuna making it simple for businesses to process.

Saku is often sourced from less premium tuna, and priced commensurately lower. A few quick cuts and pretty presentation is all it takes for a bargain basement priced tataki plate or maki roll.

Saku also comes with another lesser know secret of the seafood trade, “The slang term we often use is techno tuna, because of its almost fluorescent pink coloring”, Ayala jokes. This comes from the use of carbon monoxide to preserve the color of the meat; wood-gassed tuna sounds far less appetizing than sushi grade ahi of course.

The treatment does nothing to actually extend the shelf life of the defrosted tuna, but it sure does looks a million bucks. “Consumers don’t want brown tuna”, explains Ayala, “but that’s what naturally happens as the fish ages, not that there’s anything wrong with it”.

Ever wondered how and why a bluefin tuna is sold for $3 million at auction, while you enjoy half price rolls loaded with tuna for mere cents?

Sushi Groove - scallop with tobiko, togarashi, spicy mayo, green onion, ponzu
Sushi Groove – scallop with tobiko, togarashi, spicy mayo, green onion, ponzu

Lets quickly go back to that phrase sushi grade for a moment though too, it’s one you might want to take with a pinch of bonito flakes. The term is meaningless, pure marketing fluff. If you see that particular red flag there’s every chance someones trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Proceed with the same caution you would with anyone trying to hock you a Kobe beef hot dog, or a free meal for a time share presentation.

The same cynicism should be applied to phrases like: fresh, natural, organic and sashimi grade. Alongside sushi grade, these are terms with no legal standing in relation to seafood (see the book Real Food Fake Food, for a stunning deep dive into US food fraud).

No US grading exists for fish at all in fact. I could call my shoe sashimi grade, slice off a few chunks, and happily serve you with zero worries about the FDA getting in touch, other than for ruining a good shoe.

So what’s a sushi lover to do in Utah?

In short, question everything, believe nothing, start getting paranoid and maybe wear a tinfoil hat. O.k. that’s perhaps a little extreme, but getting educated is critical and far simpler than you’d think. Actually, it’s as easy as choosing the right seat in the house – the imposing sushi counter.

Plonking yourself down right in front of the chef can be a fairly intimidating experience the first time for sure. With a culinary tradition steeped in a myriad of etiquette and ritual, knowing where to even place your chopsticks can seem like a task fraught with error. My advice for those looking to learn though would be to jump right in. Be open, be honest, be curious. Don’t BS you’re way through. I’ve yet to meet any chef behind the counter who doesn’t explode with excitement at the merest hint their customer is engaged and enquiring.

Special presentation of ika, ikura, uni (Takashi)

Case in point, Antonio Rivera, a stalwart of the multi-award winning Takashi team in downtown SLC. Rivera gets animated when asked about interacting with customers.

“I love that part of my job!”, explains Rivera. Echoing Whiting’s earlier sentiment, Rivera continues, “we joke with customers about how our fish gets to our cutting boards while LA’s fish is still sitting in traffic. But in all seriousness, the globalization of international markets means so much product is funneled through so few ports, and from there we are able to source the same things that Nobu and Sawa and Ota are receiving.  

Showing the depth (terrible pun intended!) of flavors available when we move away from the big three American sushi fish: maguro, sake and hamachi. Seasonal products have such poor marketing but they add so much more to the experience of sushi; showing how dynamic sushi culture is in presenting the seasons and local terrain. Showcasing these lesser known fish teaches our customers and chefs to appreciate the wide range of textures and flavors and also knife skills.”

And of course, a rising tide raises all boats (yes, more terrible puns, I’m here all week). The more discerning clientele become, the more empowered restaurants can be in their sourcing. Rivera underlines the point further explaining, “the more educated our customer and local chefs are the better the demand for sustainability and environmental choices. Ignorance leads to overfishing and poor farming practices.”

In the decade I have had the pleasure of working with Takashi we have educated and introduced our customers to many new fish. Our blue fin / toro is Croatian farmed; a step towards enjoying a famous and traditional product while mitigating the impact of our ravenous demands.”

Sustainability is of course a whole other topic to itself, and while I could go on, I’m going to hand the baton over to you. Now it’s your turn. Start getting educated about the fish on your plate. The next time you dine out for sushi, ask your chef a couple more questions that you normally would. Because yes, there’s great sushi in Utah if you know where to look.

Credit. Many thanks to Kyoto, Sushi Groove and Takashi and the cast of millions for providing their time, patience and expertise in helping produce this piece. If in doubt – eat at any three of these restaurants – you’ll be glad you did.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Stuart. Why people think being near the sea – any sea – somehow magically bestows sushi places with something special makes no sense. If they actually think all that fish is magically available at the docks of every city from Seattle to Miami, there’s probably no hope for them anyway.
    Personally, I find the Tasmanian sea trout from the waters just off Santa Barbara better than the ones caught in Tampa – head held up high with the nose even higher 🙂

  2. Thanks for reading Rod! I just had to get the words out as I’ve had to defend Utah sushi so many times over, now I can just send them a link 😉

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