One of the little joys of the sushi dining experience is the rapport that one builds with the chef. Unique among major North American cuisines, sushi offers a customer the opportunity to dine in a face-to-face setting with those behind the sushi bar. In addition to watching the masterful knife-play that is involved with the proper preparation of one’s mixed sashimi plate or order of kohada nigiri, it affords us an all-too-uncommon experience in modern America: the chance to get to know the person who is feeding us.
Consider our other restaurant dining options. It is exceedingly rare to find oneself in a non-Japanese eating establishment wherein one has the choice to sit directly before the executive chef and interact with him (over 95% of sushi chefs in the United States are men… but that’s the subject of a different post) throughout the meal. Try to find a French restaurant where the chef prepares your coq au vin tableside, or a California fusion joint that seats you next to the line cook so you can chat while he sets you up with your steamed halibut with Napa cabbage and mango salsa.
Only in the sushi world are we treated to this intimate experience of dining in the company of the chef. The irony of this situation, however, is that even though sushi diners have the opportunity to connect with the architect of the dishes they enjoy, they are often more removed than ever from the real star of the show — the fish itself.
Sushi does not typically present itself to us as fish. When it arrives at the table, it has been artfully sliced and diced, festooned with ornamental seaweeds and vegetables, and cradled by softly interwoven granules of rice. It’s a magnificent creation: a delightful dining experience that enraptures the eyes as well as the taste buds… but at what cost? Is there a price to pay for perfection in presentation?
The oceans are under threat from overfishing, pollution and trash dumping, bottom trawling, and more. One of the reasons that these practices are allowed to continue is that the realm of the aquatic is separated from our perception by our inability of human vision to pierce the waves. What lies beneath the ocean’s surface is nothing as much as a deep and fascinating mystery. If we could bear quotidian witness to the damage wrought by our actions, would we still behave this way?
It is difficult for us to offer fish the respect they deserve when we are unable to perceive them as living, breathing animals that have unique characteristics and habits, that form an integral part of an ecosystem that we are only just beginning to comprehend. In the context of sushi, these fish — many of which have never been seen by the vast majority of Americans in any form other than sliced to ribbons — are not presented as animals, but rather as an assortment of delectable morsels in a culinary tapestry woven together for our sensual pleasure.
So how do we surmount this obstacle? Part of saving the oceans is building awareness of the impacts of our choices, so how can we enjoy sushi while maintaining a connection to the fish that gave its life for our meal?
The secret is right in front of us.