A diamond is, on its face, just a rock. Of course, it is a very hard rock, but it’s essentially a solid mass of carbon (also the main ingredient of graphite, the mineral used to make pencil tips). After the rock is cut, it becomes another story completely. The gem is judged by the four Cs: cut, clarity, colour and carat. These four Cs are everything. If the rock in question has flawless clarity, colour like spring water and a brilliant cut, it becomes perfection. People are now willing to kill, cheat, go into debt or sleep with someone horrible for this hunk of carbon.
Sashimi, on the face of it, is similar. It is basically a hunk of fish. I don’t know many people who are willing to go to the aforementioned extremes for sashimi, but like a diamond, sashimi is dependent on a few of the same Cs. The clarity (quality of the fish, or lack of flaws and parasites), colour (which indicates the freshness of the fish) and the cut are everything. One could say that sushi is just a piece of fish that the chef doesn’t bother to cook – or it very well may be the ultimate distillation of a chef’s skills, leaving him equipped with nothing but a fish and his dexterity with a knife. The optimal result? Glistening gems on a spread of rice.
While it is apparently present in New York, this standard of sashimi is rarely seen outside of Japan. In Beijing, California-style sushi rolls have taken off. Spicy tuna rolls, dragon rolls and “hairy scary” rolls are doused in sauces, cooked with a torch, and stuffed with various fried things. Quite often, these rolls are rather tasty; sometimes, especially when they include cream cheese, they’re just wrong.
At any rate, gems they are not. The diner is unable tell if any care went into the cut; most likely, there was not much. It is said by some that the spicy tuna roll was invented so that unsold tuna could be sold again, mashed up and covered with spicy sauce to mask its staleness.
So, where to go for freshness? The source: Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, the biggest wholesale fish market in the world. Here, fresh catches of everything are brought and bought by sushi chefs from Tokyo and from around the world. My original intention in visiting Tsukiji was to see the actual wholesale fish auction at daybreak; unfortunately, the wine bars in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Sanchome area were just too good for this to be a viable option. Instead, I went directly to the food stalls that sold a readily consumable product: the sushi stands.
Each sushi stand, of which there are several in the market, comes equipped with a photographic menu. Seeing how 11:00 a.m. was somewhat early, the stands were still empty, and a lot of the sushi chefs were watching little televisions mounted in their stalls. I settled on Tsukiji Donburi Ichiba because it looked fairly cheap and offered what looked like chirashi, a variety of fish offerings over sushi rice. Tsukiji Donburi Ichiba also offers other types of sushi bowls, such as maguro-don (slices of tuna over rice).
I have heard that the sushi from the stands near Tsukiji serve some of the best sashimi in Tokyo, and so it does. I had a small, beautiful bowl of chirashi for around $10, and a bowl of tuna sashimi over rice for $7. After I placed my order, the chef got to work while I watched from my stool, slicing away just so that the fish would melt in my mouth (when cut wrong, pieces of fish get a bit grainy and chewy). He then fanned the pieces out over rice, delicately garnished them with a small ball of wasabi, a pale rose of ginger and a slice of yellow tamago (a sweetened cooked egg cake). The tuna presented before me was pale, translucent red, the shrimp a pale, translucent orange. It tasted clean – fresh, of course, but clean – and it was absolutely gorgeous.
I ventured to a stall at the other end of the alley. Unfortunately, its name escapes me, but it served anago, which is saltwater eel. Anago is a bit different from its more popular cousin, unagi, as it is not doused in sweet, teriyaki-like unagi sauce. I ordered an anago and maguro combination, with came topped with a pretty shiso leaf and a smattering of eggy cubes. The fish here was similarly translucent and clean, but the eel, which was thicker and springier than unagi and had only a hint of sweetness, was a pleasant surprise.
The sushi chef’s aim is to present the beauty and the flavour of a sea creature in its purest form, unmuddled by gimmicky distractions. The chefs I met at Tsukiji delivered. After three bowls of brilliantly-cut, fresh-coloured and unblemished fish, I was satiated. And it didn’t even require mortgaging my nonexistent house.
Tsukiji Donburi Ichiba