In the basement of a building connected to Tokyo’s Shibuya Station is a branch of the popular sushi chain Tsukiji Sushisay (tsukijisushisay.co.jp). The counter seats are lively on a Friday night with beer and sake flowing freely and jovial chefs expertly constructing custom sushi orders.
This is my second visit this month, and I’ve returned for one reason: avocado sushi.
Chilling behind the counter in front of me — between spiky sea urchins and rainbows of slippery slabs of fish — this creamy green vegetable is waiting to be diced into sushi, sashimi or salad.
Even in the cheapest kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi) restaurants vegetarians can order plates of kappa maki (cucumber rolls), ume-shiso maki (plum and perilla rolls), kampyo maki (pickled gourd rolls) and natto maki (fermented soybean rolls). But avocado sushi is rarer.
While accounts vary, a popular story claims that in the 1960s it was invented by a Japanese chef in California who couldn’t get hold of fatty tuna and used avocado instead for its similar texture. This led to the birth of the “California roll” and the avocado’s subsequent popularity in sushi in the U.S.
In Japan, avocado in sushi doesn’t have the same prevalence and I’ve only come across it in a handful of restaurants. Although often served as an accompaniment to shrimp or salmon, or reserved as a side salad, many of my Japanese friends aren’t familiar with avocado served sashimi-style or in a sushi roll.
Some might even ask, why bastardize such a highly traditional part of Japanese cuisine by replacing fish with avocado?
But while enjoying my third round of avocado nigiri (bite-sized) sushi at Sushisay, I watched the way customers’ requests were catered to, and the chef’s confidence in creating flavor combinations out of hand-picked items. What is sushi, after all, but the expert showcasing of simple ingredients — worthy of their pure flavors and textures — on a bed of vinegared rice?
Making sushi is about appreciating and respecting the ingredients available, and at impromptu temaki-zushi (hand-rolled sushi) home parties I’ve tried incorporating everything from soy ham to asparagus and cheese.
Mid-range sushi restaurants in particular seem to be the best places to try out nontraditional ingredients such as avocado. However, often these places have no menu and customers rely on a chef’s osusume (recommendation) when ordering, or ask for something as they think of it.
The chef at Sushisay kept the avocado coming and recommended it topped with sweet iwa-nori seaweed paste. It was a heavenly combination, which I’ll keep going back for.
But avocado isn’t just appearing in Tokyo’s sushi restaurants. On a visit to Tanegashima — a small island in Kagoshima Prefecture — the chefs at Ensai Kuroshio (2853-5 Nakanokami, Minamitane, Kumage; 0997-26-0847) expertly served up a plate of avocado sushi when I mentioned I was a vegetarian. The chef paired it with daikon (Japanese radish) greens, beautifully arrayed with ume (pickled plum), cucumber and yamaimo (yam).
Avocado is a newcomer to the sushi chef’s repertoire, but then, so were certain seafoods at one time. It’s no surprise that these chefs have no qualms about incorporating newer ingredients, and presenting them in a way that conforms to the art of sushi-making.