Tokyo Cuisine: Tokyo Sushi
Land of the Rising Sushi
Working as a chef on a luxury yacht, Francisco Hervas knows all about working in a high pressure environment. Still, nothing prepared him for the exacting demands of an eight week course at the Tokyo Sushi Academy.
"The measuring test is the hardest," says the Spaniard. "You've got three minutes to create 18 nigiri (fish-rice combinations) - that's one nigiri every ten seconds. Each one must contain 18 grammes of rice and 12 grammes of raw fish, and these amounts have to be measured by eye and hand alone."
Those who run out of time in this test, or whose weights are out by half a gramme, have to start all over again. "I started again a lot," says Hervas with a rueful smile.
It may sound draconian, but Hervas knows how important accuracy and efficiency are in the world of high-end sushi cuisine. "The best professional chefs have to make great looking and great tasting sushi muy rapido," he says. "They also have to talk with the customer at the same time. Multi-tasking is the real order of the day."
Tokyo Sushi Academy
"When graduates leave here we want them to have all the skills necessary to be great sushi chefs," adds Ken Kawasumi, award-winning master chef of the academy. " Serving up sushi is far more complex an art than simply running a sharp knife through raw fish. The fish varies with the season, it needs to be cut finely, yet not so finely that it loses its flavour. The quality of the rice is also critical."
Opened a decade ago, the Tokyo Sushi Academy is currently Japan's only sushi chef training school that takes in both Japanese and non-Japanese students. That includes those who've never touched raw fish before. The school's 1,000-plus graduates now work all over the globe as sushi chefs, instructors and consultants.
"I've learned a lot in my time here," says Hervas. "The course wasn't cheap, but the knowledge I've picked up will really help my career. Western chefs generally don't have the first clue about making decent sushi, so my new qualification should really enhance my resume."
Tokyo is a place where food and culinary-related traditions are taken extremely seriously. It's hardly surprising the city has more Michelin stars than anywhere else on the planet. Certain restaurants are known to write poems about customers to accompany their meals, while few Japanese would think twice about queuing for hours to eat seasonal delicacies.
The Japanese capital has long sat at the heart of sushi culture. In fact, sushi was originally known as Edo-mae sushi, referring to its use of fish caught in Tokyo Bay. Today there's no better place to sample this historic fresh fish cuisine.
At higher end establishments sushi chefs will shape the rice before topping it with a whole fish that has been lightly pickled, followed by a slice of heavier, more fatty tuna or sea urchin, and then a simpler white fish. Japanese custom obliges the sushi chef to modesty - they will politely deflect compliments, attributing success to the quality of the ingredients or the customer's discerning palate.
Tokyo's Sushi Restaurants
To be the best demands serious dedication. With 40 million people living in greater Tokyo, eating out in tens of thousands of sushi restaurants crammed into a few busy areas of the city, the battle to be ranked among the city's sushi elite is incredibly fierce.
"Tokyo's best sushi joints work on an omakase shimasu basis," explains Steve Parker, a Tokyo-based tour guide from England. "This means that the head chef decides what to serve each day based on the season, and also on what Tsukiji Market - Tokyo's legendary wholesale seafood bazaar - has on offer."
One such upscale restaurant is Sukiyabashi Jiro, Tokyo's legendary 10-seat sushi temple. With 3 Michelin stars under its belt and the fact that owner Jiro Ono is the world's oldest three-star chef, Sukiyabashi is indeed a sushi institution.
"This is the kind of restaurant sushi lovers book months in advance and travel thousands of miles to experience," says Keiko Nagamatsu, a Tokyo-based food critic. "Ask a Japanese speaker to make your reservation well in advance, and make sure to confirm on the day. If you don't they'll automatically assume that you aren't coming."
Located in the heart of the Ginza district and dating all the way back to 1936, Kyubei is another of Tokyo's finest sushi eateries. Kyubei made the headlines in 2009 when it jointly paid over US$100,000 for a single bluefin tuna at the Tsukiji Market auction. Single, wafer-thin slivers of this prized specimen were then sold for US$22 each.
"If you're going to splash out on one Tokyo haute cuisine experience, Kyubei is a good choice," says Nagamatsu. "The sushi quality and presentation here have attracted the rich and famous since it first opened its doors all those years ago.
The service and food at Kyubei is so personalized that the chef will ask diners whether they want their slice of abalone raw or steamed, brushed with soy sauce or salt. Sushi novices won't be intimidated either - the chef will explain what every dish is, and which sauce to try with which each nigiri.
Kyubei and Sukiyabashi Jiro face stiff competition from sushi newcomers. Opening last year, Sushi SORA on the 38th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo boasts more than an impressive view.
"Head chef Imaizumi is a real master of authentic Edo-mae sushi cuisine," says Nagamatsu. "He works behind an eight seat counter made of Japanese cypress, so the interaction with customers is very intimate. That's the great thing about sushi haute cuisine in Tokyo you have the old and the new together, and they keep each other on their toes."
While a third of the intake at the Tokyo Sushi Academy is now female, Japan's sushi profession is still dominated by men. However, one place where men and women do work alongside each other side handling raw fish is Tsukiji Market. Most of Tokyo's sushi passes through here, en route from trawler to restaurant table. About 2,246 tonnes of fish, worth over 1.8 billion yen (US$15.5 million), are sold here daily.
"Whether you love sushi or not, Tsukiji really is a must-see," says Keiko Nagamatsu. "The market used to get really crowded, so places to view the tuna auction are now strictly limited. Those that are interested need to get there around 4.30 a.m. to register, but it's a fascinating spectacle that's worth the wake-up call."
Those who miss the auction can always turn up late for a great sushi breakfast at Daiwa Sushi, filling up on this popular restaurant's delicious miso soup and maki rolls as the crowds ebb and flow. You'll only get twenty minutes to eat, but the fish doesn't come much fresher.
"You know, even the way they wrap up the smallest tuna at Tsukiji is more beautiful than you'd ever find in an upscale delicatessen," says Steve Parker. "With such a reverence for fish, it's little wonder Tokyo is the sushi capital of the world."
Sukiyabashi Jiro: www.sushi-jiro.jp
Sushi SORA: www.mandarinoriental.com/tokyo/dining/sora
Tsukiji Fish Market Tour: Tsukiji Fish Market Tour
Daiwa Sushi (at Tsukiji Market): +81 (0)3 3547 6807