Heritage: The Thread That Binds
How important is ethnic heritage when it comes to sushi? This five part series will attempt to make the case that it is the most important thing. Throughout the oncoming months, this series will discuss the importance of Japanese heritage when it comes to sushi, history of sushi, western adaptation to sushi, what makes a Japanese sushi restaurant great, the importance of its chefs and the quality and freshness of sushi. It will end with a special feature that showcases some of the top restaurants and chefs in the Chicagoland area.
I will start by giving you the backdrop of my interest and involvement with sushi. As you might know, I am not Japanese, but my interest in the Japanese culture began at the early age of eleven when my father enrolled me in Judo lessons. At the time I was more interested in learning how to defend myself from a much less minority accepting culture than what we have today.
My interest in the martial arts evolved as it carried into my high school years where I became a huge fan of the movie “Karate Kid.” The movie, most especially Mr. Miagi's lessons about life, really inspired me. It was then that I began wondering if other Japanese traditions could have such meaningful lessons. This is when I began entertaining thoughts of exploring other forms of Japanese culture.
These thoughts remained dormant for years until I developed an interest in bonsai plants (thanks to Mr. Miagi) that quickly evolved into an interest in Japanese gardens. At the time, there weren't any colleges or universities in the Chicagoland area that offered courses in Japanese gardening so I sought out professionals who might be able to teach me. My search resulted in a voluntary gardening position at the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, IL where the curator, Tim Gruner, was happy to take me on as a volunteer. In addition, I found Dr. Ikka Nakashima, a Chanoyu (Japanese Tea Ceremony) teacher who also did Japanese Garden presentations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Strangely enough, I learned more about the Japanese Garden from my three year study of Chanoyu with Nakashima sensei than I did volunteering at Anderson Japanese Gardens. The greatest lessons from Nakashima sensei were the ones that taught me about certain sensibilities that tea masters and gardening masters have shared throughout history. I later learned while studying Japanese garden art in Kyoto, Japan that anyone can pick up books about Japanese gardens, but there are certain things essential to Japanese gardening that cannot be taught through books. This became clearer to me when I accepted a supervisory position in Florida with the master gardener who designed and created Anderson Japanese Gardens, Hoichi Kurisu.
Immediately after interviewing with Hoichi (as he preferred to be called), I sold my house and moved my family to Florida to help him supervise and develop the maintenance of his newly constructed 16 acre garden at the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach, FL. Did I learn more about Japanese gardens? Of course, but interestingly enough; I learned something else about Japanese culture & heritage.
Just as Nakashima sensei taught me about Japanese gardens through Chanoyu; Hoichi taught me about sushi through Japanese gardens. Prior to working for him, I had been eating sushi for thirteen years. I thought I had a pretty good understanding about it, but it wasn't until I began eating sushi and sashimi with him at sushi restaurants, something we did frequently, that I discovered how much of a novice I was when it came to sushi.
My travels with him brought me to sushi restaurants in Florida, New York, Portland and Chicago. It didn't take me very long to learn of his discriminating taste for sushi and expectations regarding how it is prepared and served. One of the most memorable meals I had with him was when he pulled a Mr. Miagi lesson on me, his other employees and the Palm Beach County gardening staff at the Morikami by taking us all out to dinner at a sushi restaurant in Florida.
“Gardening is not chop suey, but more like sushi”
Before arriving at the restaurant, everyone thought it was just his way of showing his appreciation for the hard work we had been doing. As the dinner commenced, it was clear that he had “wax-on-wax-off” intentions. The Japanese chef, who he knew well, was given careful instructions on how the food was to be prepared and served.
The food was methodically served little by little so that we could appreciate each of its individual qualities. “Gardening is not chop suey, but more like sushi,” he said at one point. “Each of the six gardens at Morikami has their own uniqueness and each of its plants and boulders," he continued. Later that evening, the chef took the time to explain how he saw a correlation between sushi and Japanese gardens. Needless to say, my sushi moments with Hoichi broadened my outlook toward the world of sushi.
After the closing of Hoichi’s Florida office, I returned to the Chicagoland area and I took on a side job learning how to make sushi at a Japanese restaurant. Although it wasn't formally the equivalent of what real “decchi” (apprentice) undergoes in their ten year apprenticeships in Japan, it was still, and continues to be a learning experience for me. I was fortunate to learn from Ide-san, a Japanese chef who learned his skills the traditional way in Japan.
I spent more than three cumulative years as his assistant while observing and learning as much as possible. I still consider myself a student, but the lessons I've learned from him have brought me to a totally different understanding and appreciation for sushi chefs. Like Nakashima sensei and Hoichi, a great deal of Japanese heritage can be found in the way Ide-san prepares and serves sushi.
Three different people (mentors) with three different skills have been mentioned here, yet they all share cultural threads that bind them together and give meaning to Japanese heritage. These threads of heritage are what keeps the integrity and spirit of Japan's traditions intact. Without it, sushi can become diluted and vulnerable to the things that rob it of its ability to become the best it can be.
In part 2 of this series I will discuss the history of sushi, western adaptation and what makes a sushi restaurant great.
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