If you ever get the chance I highly recommend the counter sushi experience. However, most people's introduction to sushi is through the ubiquitous sushi train restaurants.
In Japan, sushi train restaurants are everywhere and have made sushi accessible to those whose wallets and purses are not weighed down with money.
For a family of four, a sushi train visit in Japan can easily be had for about 3-5,000 yen. That's around $30-50 for about 20-30 plates of sushi with two pieces to a plate. A counter sushi experience per person is at least 4,000 yen for 10-12 plates with a single piece of sushi piece per plate.
Notwithstanding the difference in quality, you can see why sushi train is so popular.
The sushi train experience Sydney is a tad more expensive though with the cheapest prices hovering around the $3 per plate mark. That's about 250 yen per plate, or over twice as expensive as its cheapest equivalent in Japan.
Now though that seems depressing for sushi fans in Sydney I have to admit that the quality of produce isn't all that bad in Sydney (remember, we're talking cheap sushi train here, not the higher end places).
While the range and variety of toppings pales in comparison to Japan, there is usually a distinct difference in flavour between the sushi in Sydney. The cheap sushi train chain stores in Japan are often characterised by a just-removed-from-the-fridge taste. I haven't found that taste as common in Sydney.
Like Japan, Sydney restaurants will usually have a standout dish. In Japan, I've found that yellowtail has been consistently the more enjoyable sushi train topping. Sydney's standout for me tends to be the mackerel and the salmon.
As you try different places be aware that you don't have to eat everything on offer. If you want to get the best experience and value for money, then stick to that restaurant's go-to servings.
You can often find lunchtime specials with the more pricier toppings reduced to match those of the rank and file sushi. Makoto Sushi in Chatswood is one such place with a weekday lunchtime special seeing everything priced at $3. It's a good deal so my advice is to stick to those discounted plates.
If there aren't any specials on offer then just ask the staff what they recommend. Or even other diners. Once you do find that go-to sushi, enjoy it.
Outside of a winning lottery ticket, it may turn out to be the best couple of dollars you'll spend.
It’s probably true to say that behind every good sushi chef lies a very, very good supplier of fish.
Develop a good relationship with the wrong person and you could set back your sushi restaurant by many years.
One of Sydney’s top seafood suppliers is Narito Ishii, a man utterly dedicated to quality. Outspoken and confident in his belief of the value of his work, Ishii-san took some time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts about his work ethic, the state of sushi in Sydney and his favourite sushi.
Thank you Ishii-san for taking the time for this interview.
It’s my pleasure.
Arriving in Australia you began delivering fish from Pyrmont Fish Market to restaurants before eventually starting your own supply company. In your own words, you thought, “I could do this myself?” What made you think that and how did thinking that influence your work philosophy?
Well, here is a little bit about my work experience history in Australia. When I first arrived in Australia I worked in delivery and distribution for a Chinese cold goods business. Of course, this was part-time work but after two years of it I’d had enough of the lack of professionalism. After that, I floated around a bit and then started up an Australian-Japanese fresh fish and wagyu beef wholesale operation but unfortunately was unable to secure a business visa through this and so I headed to Hong Kong.
That must have been a difficult time for you.
Well yes, but while in Hong Kong I was working at Japanese wholesaler, importing fish directly from Tsukiji, Hokkaido and Fukuoka. I learnt many things there, you know, about many kinds of fish. I’d talk to the supplier in Japan at midnight asking about availability and the weather and so on. I’d buy the fish on the phone and then see the fish delivered the same day to the restaurants. The fish was good. Expensive of course but honestly, not fresh enough… Anyway, I learnt a lot in Hong Kong about many kinds of fish, how to cook with them and about seasonal produce.
It sounds like it was an important experience for you.
It was and when I came back I started up Wellstone Seafoods which is a translation of my family name Ishii and we worked hard from there. Anyway, we’re about delivering good produce to restaurants. I tried pretty much all of the fish in the market and started selling more and more of the fish that I thought was good. With a lot happening, I sold the business to Pyrmont Seafood. However, without a doubt, it’s my belief that the breadth of Japanese food has expanded because of Wellstone Seafoods.
Sushi has certainly increased in popularity in Sydney but for people who have experienced sushi culture in Japan, they may find the range of fish used here a little disappointing. What would you say to those people?
Unfortunately, there are a lot of sushi chefs in this country only playing at being sushi chefs. You know, people taking a strange pride in being sushi ‘chefs’. The sushi boom means that now anyone can make sushi easily so it’s about making money. As disappointing as that is though, I feel that it provides an important opportunity to let people know what sushi really is and that there is some good quality produce emerging. With all due respect, even you may not be properly aware of the flavour of the real Sydney sushi. I’d like to set up a tour in winter here for people coming from Japan to let them know about the flavour of sushi in Sydney.
And the range of fish?
The shellfish here [in Australia] is a bit weak but there really is a lot of different fish species, you know, fresh from around the coast and adjacent waters. Eating sushi in Japan costs around 10,000 yen [approx. $100+] but for that you are often getting frozen farmed fish from overseas.
Which ones do you think are the best here, the ones that you think represent Australia?
You know, I think the best three Australian fish in winter are the Southern Blue Fin Tuna, Tasmanian Purple Sea Urchin and Imperador. They were very cheap when I started the business, but now they are getting popular and the price is... But that's a good thing. It means that people understand the taste and respect it. Fisherman too are taking care of their fish more. You know, the Imperador, when I started buying it, it was only six dollars and sold mixed with alfonsino. That was ten years ago. Now, it’s forty dollars…
Anyway, you know, the sushi restaurants in Tsukiji in Japan are done. They are completely oriented towards tourists. If you have the chance, we should eat some of the real stuff together. I think your views might change.
That’s an offer to good to refuse Ishii-san. I’ll take you up on it soon. Okay, let’s talk a little about the actual work that you do. To put it simply, what makes a fish supplier a good one?
Someone who delivers good fish! I also try and explain the produce to people and mature their understanding this way and also by returning to Japan and taking pictures of the various produce and showing them to restaurant people. I consider it my job to try and improve the level of Australia’s Japanese cuisine.
What kind of things do you notice about the fish you are choosing?
Well, of course the degree of freshness and the seasonal taste. Meeting the demands of special orders is also important.
What about people buying from their local fishmonger?
To put it bluntly, your local community fishmonger sells good produce cheaper than the fish market. The best thing is to be on good terms with the fish dealer in your local area. This way, they’ll purchase fish just for your sake. Because the fish market has the name, they just stay silent as they sell you something. Knowledge from the source is the best since where they are from is their authority.
You’ve been to different fish markets around the world and you’ve mentioned that each market focuses on different things particular to their culture. Can you explain what you mean when you say that Tsukiji, Japan’s most famous fish market, focuses on umami and how that affects the understanding of fish in Sydney?
That’s a difficult question. Of course, the way of catching and eating fish will differ according to the country and that it is obvious that each market has its own personality and idiosyncrasies. What is amazing about Tsukiji is that the world’s fish are all found there and of course also the way the fisherman manage and control the fish and the skill in how it is all delivered. Alas, Australia has a way to go in this regard.
I’d like to ask you about your enjoyment of your work. What is it about fish supply that keeps you doing it?
Well, it’s interesting because the fish differ each day. You find that the same product can be good or bad since natural produce is influenced by the weather and such things. Also, that look on the face your customer when you’ve delivered on a special order from them. However, truth be told, I’ve yet to see the face of the person who ends up eating the food that was cooked!
Most people just sell and forget. You don’t often hear of that level of customer focus here. It’s something I experienced for the first time when I lived in Japan.
It’s a little different, right? Because of this, I’ve acquired my Responsible Service of Alcohol certificate so that if I have the time, I’d like to try being a waiter somewhere [and see things from the point of view of the person eating my customer’s food]. It really is great to see the fish that I chose and delivered in the morning be prepared by the chef. That’s why I sell that fish again.
Now, I do have to ask you, what sushi do you like to eat?
Well, when it comes to sushi, I have to say tuna. I’m not sure there is anything that can top it. Naturally it has to be properly matured and eaten at the time it is most delicious. It also doubles the flavour when I eat at my customer’s place and I’m finding out from the fisherman when they caught it and so on. It really is great!
Okay Ishii-san, thank you very much for your time.
You’re welcome. Was it ok? If there is anything you aren’t clear on, just ask.
Like most things in life, quality is often what you perceive.
My introduction to sushi was at my university canteen. Every week I would buy a small sushi lunch box filled with salmon, tuna, prawn and other such exocitisms. I loved it.
A few years later I moved to Japan and things began to change. On my first trip back to Sydney, I once again bought one of those sushi lunch boxes. I hated it.
It's hard to avoid sounding elitist once you have had the 'real' stuff but truth be told, there is a difference between good sushi and bad sushi. There is even a difference between good sushi and good sushi since even now, over a decade since I moved to Japan, I am discovering that the sushi I used to think was good has now become a stepping stone to even better sushi.
The first rule to keep in mind with sushi is that if you are enjoying eating it, it is good enough quality. However, should you start to notice something different, then do not resist what will happen next. Move with it.
Here are five things you might notice about your sushi as your appreciation of it grows:
1. The rice itself starts to take on more importance
Given that sushi is vinegared rice, this shouldn't come as a surprise. But if you are like most people and think of sushi in terms of its topping, then it will be one. Sushi masters consider rice to be the most important part of sushi and each one has their own take on it but in general, it should be somewhat light and even airy. If you notice any hardness, coldness or mushiness, take note. You may still enjoy it but probably not for much longer.
2. The size of your sushi starts to concern you less and less
In the old Edo period of Japan, sushi was much larger than it is now but has evolved into a bite-sized cuisine. If you are one who expects your meals to fill your belly until you are gutted, step back and remember the old Japanese saying, 'hara hachi bun' - eat until you are 80% full. Quantity is not the same as quality.
3. You start to wonder why there are other foods being offered at the sushi restaurant
Like most everything else in life, the better something is, the more attention it has probably been given. Sushi is no exception. The more attention it requires, the more likely it is that you will not be offered the choice of hamburgers, noodles, tempura or sushi.
4. Mayonnaise starts to get at your nerves
There seems to be two kinds of sushi, non-Japanese sushi and Japanese sushi. The non-Japanese style relies on the addition of flavours and their combinations. Nothing wrong with that. Japanese sushi relies on drawing out the intrinsic flavours of its ingredients. Remember, too, that Japapnese cuisine is listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage...
5. The distinction between topping and rice starts decreasing (or increasing...)
The better the sushi, the more the topping and the rice work together. Like a good pasta and sauce, one should not be more noticeable than the other. If you don't like your al dente pasta mixed with canned sauce or a fresh tomato-based sauce covering soggy pasta, then you will understand.
As you can see, appreciating sushi is very much a personal thing. If you enjoy eating it, it won't be long before you will also enjoy appreciating sushi's many subtleties
Eating sushi really isn't that difficult. You only need to enjoy it.
You see, there is no rule saying that you cannot dunk your sushi into an overflowing bowl of soy sauce. So if you enjoy your food salty then dunk away. But if that is what you want then you may be better off going for a pizza instead.
After all, unlike pizza where the flavours punch you in the nose and hide non-performing ingredients, sushi is basically a topping and some rice. It is hard for one to hide the other. There just simply aren't enough ingredients to cover any mishaps.
This means that enjoying your sushi is pretty much in direct proportion to your being able to appreciate the levels of subtlety contained in the topping and rice.
Here is some good advice when eating sushi - watch the people around you. Are they dunking away in the soy sauce? Are they using chopsticks or their fingers? Mimicking the clientele is not a bad thing. It shows an awareness of your surroundings and that's a good start when it comes to learning to appreciate sushi quality.
By being observant you will eventually find that a lot of the trapdoor etiquette associated with sushi turns out to be not much more than a kind of good manners towards the chef.
So with that in mind, here are some of my do's of sushi eating:
So there you go, the easiest culinary rules in the world. Enjoy!