Food & Drink

Sushi crimes: How Japan polices its culinary traditions

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

“This is the best sushi you’ll find in LA,” says a suavely dressed man to his date, as they swoon over a table laden with ersatz creations like “caterpillar roll” and “spider roll.” But just as they’re about to consummate their passion, the meal is interrupted by a trio of armed Japanese officials: the dreaded Sushi Police, staunch enforcers of culinary orthodoxy.

By the end of the opening episode of anime series “Sushi Police,” Los Angeles’ finest purveyor of bogus Japanese nosh has been reduced to rubble, and the integrity of Japan’s signature gastronomic export safely protected — for now.

The tone of the series, which premiered on Tokyo MX earlier this year, may be deliberately outlandish, but its story is loosely rooted in reality. Back in 2006, the Japanese government proposed to introduce a system of accreditation for overseas restaurants serving authentic washoku (Japanese cuisine). Though the idea was hardly unprecedented — Italy and Thailand both have similar setups — it drew widespread mockery, inspiring the “sushi police” barb, and was quietly withdrawn.

Since washoku was recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has been busy reworking the scorned idea. In January, domestic media reported that a certification program for overseas chefs was expected to start within the year. But defining what makes food “authentic” is tricky business, recalling Justice Potter Stewart’s famous observation on obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

While the government prepares its own top-down strategy to guarantee the sanctity of Japanese grub, other organizations have been doing their bit. The World Sushi Cup, held in Tokyo in August, gives non-Japanese chefs a chance to shine, while keeping them in check — contestants must take a training session or test with the All Japan Sushi Association and World Sushi Skills Institute in order to take part.

Tokyo Sushi Academy seemed like a good place to look for answers. The Shinjuku-based school, which makes a brief cameo in “Sushi Police,” offers an intensive eight-week course for Japanese students looking to learn the essentials of “authentic sushi.” At its Tsukiji campus, international students can choose between four-week sushi and washoku courses or opt to take both.

When I visit the Shinjuku school on a Friday afternoon, the students are getting ready for a typically rigorous test in which they’re given 10 minutes to prepare a tray of 16 standard nigiri sushi and two types of maki-zushi (sushi rolls). Their efforts are judged on a set of criteria that includes balance, neatness, and the cleanliness of their knife and cutting board when they finish.

“This isn’t the hardest test,” says Viet Tran, a Vietnamese-American chef who runs a handful of restaurants in the Los Angeles area. “We have to make 18 of these (nigiri) in three minutes.”

Fumimasa Murakami, a veteran sushi chef who has taught at TSA for the past 3½ years, emphasizes the importance of “simplicity” in the academy’s approach.

“If people come to study at our school, we hope to teach them the Japanese mindset of making delicious food without spoiling the ingredients,” he says. “I think that’s real sushi.”

So it’s surprising to find a poster in the school’s foyer displaying a range of heretical sushi strains from around the world: Australia’s teriyaki chicken roll, Brazil’s mango-based monkey roll, Mexico’s spicy tampico roll.

For Murakami, the presence of such international variants is simply a “reality.” Even Japan, he says, moves with the times — albeit rather less radically. Though the emphasis was once on serving the freshest fish possible, younger chefs now prefer to offer matured sushi, where filleted fish is allowed to sit in order to concentrate its flavor.

Would he approve of an official plan to certify overseas sushi restaurants?

“What’s necessary isn’t authentication, but some way of acknowledging: ‘Yeah, that’s good sushi’ or ‘This place has really tasty food.’ ” he says. “If you don’t do that, the foundation of sushi culture is going to disappear.”

Anthony Zeidan, a Lebanese restaurateur who has been studying alongside Tran at TSA over the summer, says it can be difficult to transpose the ideals of Japanese cuisine to other countries.

“I know that a simple tuna roll — like we just did right now in class — Lebanese people would maybe find it boring, because they wouldn’t understand the quality of the fish,” he says.

He pulls out his phone and shows pictures of some of the dishes he devised for Sticks & Maki, his sushi restaurant in Beirut. One of them, called “Purple Moon,” is made with beetroot rice, salmon, avocado, nori seaweed and crab, topped with cilantro and a pinch of spices. Another uses quinoa instead of rice.

“They want mayo on it, they want it dirty,” he continues, describing his typical customers. “That’s not how I do it in my restaurant, or how I like it, but that’s how most of the people in the Western world like it: fried, mayo, spicy.”

“Western customers are spoiled,” agrees Tran. “They’re not willing to have an open mind to try something that they’re not accustomed to.”

And what about authenticity?

“If I go to a sushi place, if the chef’s not Japanese, I won’t want (to eat there),” he says, laughing.

Careful, now — the Sushi Police might get ideas.

For details about Tokyo Sushi Academy, visit www.sushischool.jp.