One of the more dramatic ways in which our food culture has changed in New Orleans in the last few decades is the abundance of Japanese restaurants. Sushi really took off in the U.S. in the 1980s, and New Orleans has been no exception to the general trend. Not even Hurricane Katrina was enough to slow the birth of new sushi restaurants. In the last two years, several sushi spots have opened in New Orleans and even more have sprouted on the Northshore. If you’re among the many local sushi patrons, you might enjoy a brief history lesson.
What we know today as sushi originated as a method of preserving fish that was probably first developed in the Mekong River delta sometime after man developed
the “paddy” method of rice cultivation. Raw fish was gutted, salted, then packed
with cooked rice and allowed to ferment or pickle. The lactic acid resulting from the fermentation process, together with the salt, preserved the fish, but the process took about a year and wasn’t kind to the rice. In the numerous sources I’ve read, the most complimentary thing said about the year-old fermented rice is that it was “putrid.” The fish was consumed but the decayed rice was discarded.
As times changed, the “pickling” time was gradually decreased; during the 19th
century, the fish (which at the time was still preserved or cooked) was pressed into boxes over rice that was simply seasoned with salt and rice vinegar. This style of sushi eventually gave way, in the city of Edo (Tokyo), to what we generally think of as sushi today – nigiri sushi, hand-formed cylinders of rice topped with slices of fish.
Interestingly, even the size of sushi has changed over the years. Prior to World War II, sushi was served in much larger pieces; with the advent of food rationing after the war, and particularly the scarcity of rice, restaurants were limited in the amount of rice they could serve per portion. Today’s serving size is the result. Also around the same time, the advent of refrigeration, which made shipping fresh fish longer distances possible, brought forth truly “modern” sushi – involving raw fish – was widely consumed.
In Japan, sashimi and nigiri are preferred to the large rolls common to US
restaurants. This highlights a basic difference between cuisine in Japan and, in the U.S., something that all sushi chefs come to understand after spending some time here. Hide Suzuki, the chef at Kanno Sushi in Metairie (3205 Edenborn Ave.), believes that Japanese people have more direct, “plain” tastes. They don’t like spicy foods as much, for example. Ken, the chef at Hana in the Riverbend (8116 Hampson St.), finds that locals tend to prefer sweet flavors, something that’s borne out by the almost ubiquitous use of sweet sauces on some of the many “specialty” rolls found at local sushi restaurants.
Each sushi chef in Japan has his own sauces, sometimes many different sauces for different fish or different preparations of the same fish. These are, nonetheless, very basic accompaniments compared to what we’re served here. Because Americans tend to enjoy bolder, more spicy food, sushi chefs here have adapted, and incorporated things like Sriracha chile sauce, mango and creamy mayonnaise-based sauces into more traditional Japanese dishes.
Suzuki has adapted to American and local palates with dishes such as Blue Crab and Avocado Salad with Jalapeño sauce. It is a beautiful use of local jumbo lump blue crabmeat, with a slightly spicy, vinegar-based sauce that perfectly balances the richness of avocado. Suzuki also developed a Spicy Soft–shell Crab Miso Soup that’s influenced by gumbo, and unlike anything found in Japan where Miso soup tends to be a fairly bland affair. Interestingly, Suzuki says that when Japanese tourists visit the U.S. and taste some of the non–traditional rolls and preparations we enjoy here, they often love it.
At Hana, chef Ken says that while he prefers traditional Japanese preparations, he’s developed a number of items to please local taste buds. The Poke Tuna Salad that Ken picked up in Hawaii combines deep red slices of tuna with a sweet soy and sesame dressing over mixed greens and spiral-cut threads of carrot and daikon radish. The special Eskimo Roll has crawfish and surimi (Crab Stick, or “Snow Crab”) wrapped in rice, then topped with white (Albacore) tuna, which Ken sears with a mini blow torch before seasoning with Japanese chile seasoning (togarishi) and fish flakes.
Another popular dish at Hana is the Special Salmon and Mango Roll. In addition to the sweetness of the mango, this roll features a center of tempura shrimp and a “snow crab” salad; the roll is finished with a slightly spicy sauce and the bits of leftover tempura that are commonly included in Crunchy Rolls.
At Metairie’s Shogun Sushi (2325 Veterans Memorial Blvd.), the Crawfish Roll is a small “inside out” roll (rice on the outside) with snow crab salad and avocado. The Metairie Roll combines the same salad with bluefin tuna and avocado. The huge Shogun Roll combines a center of barbecued eel, daikon radish sprouts, snow crab, cucumber and egg omelette with an exterior of rice topped with fish roe. It is a bit much to handle but with a sweet sauce, it’s very popular.
At Little Tokyo’s Mid-City location (310 North Carrollton Ave.), they take a different tack. Fish is flown in once a week from Tsukiji market in Japan. The week I dined, the selections included tiny sweet shrimp, an oyster whose provenance I couldn’t tell but which wasn’t from local waters, Ankimono (a fish “pate” made from Monkfish liver), fresh Japanese Yellowtail, King Salmon, Surf Clam, Aji Mackerel and more. The fish is fresh and artfully presented in one of the most elegant Japanese restaurants in the City. At $40, the sampler is a steal, considering the amount of fish and its rarity in New Orleans, and it’s around the right size for two to share. Sushi chef Jerry tells me that only the Midtown location of Little Tokyo regularly receives these Japanese delicacies.
Little Tokyo does have a number of rolls that are aimed at local tastes, including a
Po-Boy Roll that includes tempura shrimp, lettuce, crawfish and fried soft shell crab wrapped in a soybean sheet. The Saints Kick features fried “snow crab” tempura and cream cheese on the inside with spicy tuna on the exterior, served with a sweet eel sauce.
If you are truly interested in sushi, my recommendation is to sidle up to a sushi bar, preferably at a time when things aren’t too busy, and start talking with the chef. Find out what’s particularly fresh or interesting, tell him what you like and let him suggest something new. If you find a place you like, become a regular and before long you won’t even look at the menu. You may find that you trust the chef enough to simply say “omakase,” which roughly translated means, “feed me.” It’s absolutely the best way to experience sushi.
Much of the information I used to write this article was gained directly from local sushi chefs, including some not named above. Additional information came from Hiroko Shimbo’s The Sushi Experience (Alfred Knopf, 2006), Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art (Kodansha, 1980), and Trevor Corson’s The Zen of Fish, The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket (Harper Collins, 2007).
The mozzarella in carozzo at Leonardo’s Trattoria (709 St. Charles Ave.) may just be the best fried cheese sandwich you’ll ever eat. It comes with a light tomato sauce and, while it may not be good for your cholesterol level, it’s delicious.