American Plate - Bite #100: Sushi

Monday, May 9, 2016
Frankly, I'm amazed that this wasn't the first entry of this project. True, I was first drawn to it by the allure of exploring our nation's history through the evolution of our culinary habits, but let's just say it: Sushi is amazing, and I'm head-over-heels in love with it. I'm extremely fortunate that its popularity has blossomed in the United States, because it might not ever have happened.

As recently as the 1970s, sushi was a niche food, enjoyed almost entirely by Japanese citizens in California and New York City. It had already had a long and prosperous history in Asia; archaeologists have discovered prototypes of it that date back almost 2500 years, and by the 1800s, sushi as we understand it today was being eaten in Edo (Tokyo). It's been filtering out ever since, and when the American diners wandered into those small sushi places of the 1970s, our country finally caught on to something special.

Opening a restaurant in Tokyo was a hellishly complicated and expensive process (and likely still is), so some chefs decided to seek opportunity by opening places in America, where their risks paid off. By the early '80s, sushi was starting to capture the national attention in larger cities, although it was still pretty mysterious to most Americans. It developed a reputation as being one of those weird foods that only rich people eat, and the middle classes stuck to their pork chops and meatloaf for a while.

Once people got a taste of the wonder that is sushi, though, it's no surprise that its popularity exploded in the late '80s and through the '90s. People like new and exciting cuisine. Once upon a time, Chinese food and Tex-Mex were the culinary frontier. Those became so thoroughly integrated that we needed a new thrill, and sushi stepped up to be the exotic food of the moment. Sushi restaurants began appearing everywhere, and they're a happily common sight across the American landscape today.

It makes sense to round out the journey of American historical tastes with sushi, as it still enjoys a bit of novelty as an exotic and unfamiliar cuisine to many people, yet has enough widespread popularity to be considered intrinsically linked to modern American tastes.

That linkage to American tastes carries some dangers, though. Wonderfully traditional Japanese flavors began to get blunted for American palates, leading to the invention of bland, disappointing things like the California roll (avocado and tasteless fake crab) and the Philly roll (filled with cream cheese). When I go out for sushi, those are banned from the table. Other American flavors can be more successfully incorporated, like deep-fried shrimp, but I'd always rather get something as close to the authentically Japanese experience as possible.

Sushi is incredibly important to me. When someone asks me what my favorite food is, it often feels like being asked to name a favorite child, but you can bet that sushi is always hovering at or near the top of the list. Does my love of sushi make me feel any less American? Absolutely not. To me, it's as much a part of America today as pizza.

Just as sushi displaced other foods to be the poster child for welcoming strange and exciting new flavors to our country, so too will it be displaced by something else. But like pizza, I have trouble believing it will fade out of popularity, like tang and aspic casseroles. Whatever the next food that steals America's heart turns out to be, a portion of mine will always be devoted to sushi.