The Hot Sushi
Winter in Kyoto is cold. Winter is cold everywhere, but it is particularly cold in Kyoto.
This old city does not get much snow, nor does its Kamo-River freezes over. The historical temperature comparison among three major cities in Japan – Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo – does not yield sufficient differential to mark Kyoto as the cold capital: on average, the monthly temperature in Kyoto in January stays within the range of 3.9°C to 4.9°, which is around 1°C lower than Tokyo and 2°C lower than Osaka. With Hokkaido and Nagano to compete as the top skiing destinations, Kyoto does not warrant such a dominion over winter cold; and yet, Kyoto commands a special phrase – sokobie – for the creeping cold that chills the feet and the hearts of even the most stoic Kyoto residents.
They say it is because Kyoto is a basin encircled by mountains; notably, the wind that blows down from Mount Hiei is claimed to be singularly bitter. With elevation of only 848m, Mount Hiei is not overbearingly tall, but it had been a tower of power in the Buddhist world for 1200 years as seat of Tendai sect of Buddhism, founded by Saicho in 788 A.D. However, their dominance grew not only in the spiritual, but also in the political and even in the military, so that in 1571, Oda Nobunaga, who finally found their warrior monks just a bit too worrisome, ordered the destruction of the temple and the mountain was burned. Five hundred years later, the religion has changed from Buddhism to capitalism, but the rebuilt temple complex stands rich and mighty as ever, and the pilgrims arrive by the coaches and by the cable cars, are greeted and welcomed by the concession stands, selling sake and beer, and cafeterias, wagyu steaks and burgers. Perhaps, the cruel wind that breathes down from Mount Hiei carries a cold that is made more physiologically chilling by its psychological association with the massacred monks and the mocked faith.
Confounding the natural and supranatural forces, is the architectural artifice. The traditional Kyoto townhouse – kyo-machiya – is made to cool, not to warm. They are built shoulder to shoulder, narrow and elongated – the tax was collected in the old days according to the width of the house – so that most of the building effort had been expended in creating air circulation, with a long strip of courtyard running from the front to the back. The narrowness of these townhouses does not allow much sunlight to warm the interior. In addition, being made of wood, these houses are quite naturally leaky and draughty. Therefore, kyo-machiya may be a comfortable abode in the summer sun, but it is a “draughty house under a windy knob” (Gerontion, T.S. Eliot) in the winter wind.
Don’t forget: the Japanese wore no socks and put on no boots, until about 100 years ago.
So, winter is cold in Kyoto. And, when it is cold, what can one do to warm the body but to eat something hot? After all, humans departed from the path of animalistic existence when we mastered the use of fire to denature our food; cooking and eating, instead of merely feeding and nourishing. Fire – that fiery force which destroys all we ever build – also forges all that we create.
The history of human civilization is nothing but a journey of cooking: from a simple need of food preservation to elaborate sensory manipulation. Sushi is no exception: it started out as humble technique to preserve the edibility of valuable protein – by salting the fish. Then as rice began to be cultivated, our ancestors noticed that the cooked rice invariably started to rot, but sometimes, serendipity struck, and the rice would instead ferment and become a sour but edible pulp. Utilizing, albeit without knowing, the lactic acid bacteria – which also ferment the milk into cheese and yogurt – thus produced, the sushi pioneers buried the salted fish into the cooked rice, creating what is known today as nare-zushi. Nare-zushi is still made today, of which the funa-zushi – using freshwater funa from Lake Biwa - is most famous. For this type of sushi, rice is only the agent of fermentation, thus it is discarded and only the fish meat is eaten. However, as nare-zushi ages, the decomposition also progresses so that after a decade or so, the precursor of sushi would turn into a paste, which is coveted by the true "sushi" connoisseurs. Later, the method was adopted into making a oshi-zushi (pressed-sushi), which layers the fish and the rice then presses the sandwich to expel air – oxidization is neither good for food nor for our skin. As opposed to nare-zushi, it was called a “quick” sushi because the rice-fish sandwich would be ready only after a few days, instead after a few months (or years).
As human beings became more and more experienced in cooking – after many spontaneous but involuntary human experimentation on food poisoning – it was discovered that certain leaves had preservative, antibacterial properties, such as the leaves of bamboo and persimmon – which gave birth to sasa-maki-sushi and kakinoha-sushi in the 15th and 16th centuries. The fish in these leaf-wrapped sushi is salted and often marinated in vinegar because, after all, even with the leaves, the course of nature could not be perfectly preempted. No, nature is a tough enemy, hence, those beautifully boxed sushi in department stores are straddled with the latest human technology in food preservation with all those katakana additives on the label: what cannot be staved off naturally, must be done chemically.
After a few hundred years of warring warriors, Japan finally settled into a period of peace in the Edo-period (1603 – 1868). In the latter half of Edo Period, rice vinegar took place as the souring agent – a faster way of tweaking the PH balance than rice and fish fermentation. Consequently or concurrently, new breed of sushi sprouted all over Japan as war-less idleness left more time, money and human lives to be devoted to the development of a cuisine.
In the Western Japan, especially in Osaka, oshi-zushi evolved into hako-zushi where vinegared rice and fish – marinated or cooked – were pressed into a wooden box and shaped into a block, which was cut into pieces. Together with its sibling, bo-zushi – molded in to a log – hako-zushi and bo-zushi came to represent the Kansai style of sushi. However, it was still a little while until the development of nigiri-zushi in the East – the one-bite sushi we are familiar today.
No more manmade disasters, but the Earth still bombarded Japan with terrible catastrophes. The history (or a story) has it that after a flood, a daimyo decreed that the people should only have one soup and one dish in order to curve spending; however, the gluttons would not have it and concocted chirashi-zushi or bara-zushi – which incorporated different kinds of ingredients into rice to circumvent the “one-dish” policy. Chirasi means “scattered” and bara “pieces”: the technical difference is that in the former the ingredients are scattered on top of the rice, whereas in the latter they are mixed into the rice. Traditional recipe calls for golden kinshi-tamago (shredded eggs), brown grilled sea eel, pink soboro (minced cooked fish or shrimp), dark shiitake mushrooms, white pickled lotus roots, red carrots and green peas or beans to create a colorful palette, pleasing to the eyes and also to the palate. This pretty chirashi-zushi has come to be associated with the Girl’s Day in Japan and is one of the few types of sushi still regularly made at home (no one makes nigiri at home, just to clear the air) for special occasions because all the ingredients are readily available and can be cooked at home. Raw fish did not make its way into chirashi-zushi until the recent raw sushi craze.
Chirashi-zushi had also become a local specialty of Kyoto. Kyoto Prefecture has historically been deprived of fresh seafood: while not exactly land-locked, the port is 150 kilometers away on modern motorway from central Kyoto. Thus, the traditional Kyoto cooking uses salted or dried fish. One exception is hamo – pike eel or conger eel – which was blessed with a stout constitution so that it could survive live until it reached Kyoto city; and that was the reason this rather bland big fish became synonymous with fine dining. Hence, chirashi-zushi was a type of sushi particularly suited for Kyoto due to its cooked ingredients.
Furthermore, being far enough away from Tokyo saved chirashi-zushi from the clutch of nigiri-zushi and was able to survive the vicissitude of times. Perhaps it was no small part due to the cultural difference between Kyoto and Tokyo: nigiri-zushi started out its life as a plebian fast food, which the genteel Kyoto could not abide along with the upstart Edo shogunate. Slow-food, rather than fast food, characterizes the style of Kyoto cuisine, and the time-consuming chirashi-zushi – each ingredient is cooked separately and seasoned differently – has agreed with the meticulous and detailed Kyoto mindset.
Chirashi-zushi is refreshing on the palate for its sweet acidity and it makes a pleasantly light meal on a nice day. However, nice days – Kyoto does not have, certainly not in the winter, when the wind blows down from the mountains straight into the back neck – where the kimono collars are deliberately left open in the name of fashion – and when the morning frost freezes the bare feet and empty stomachs. Under the stoic masks of Kyoto, people yearn for warmth, for a moment of respite from the never-ending numbness. Far from the sea, but blessed with pure water – the essence of dashi – Kyoto developed recipes of delicate soups and steamed dishes to ward off the cold. In the dead of winter, sushi – a bowl of cold rice – was just not very appealing.
Which, of course, vexed the sushi shops and made their dark days even bleaker. One sushi chef, probably stranded with too many leftover chirashi-zushi – had a moment of revelation.
Why not just steam it? If it is warm, people would eat sushi again! (Caption not subject to historical accuracy.) Thus, mushi-zushi (steamed sushi) was born. His gambit proved to be correct because even after 116 years, Otowa’s wood steamer still beckons the passersby on the busy Sanjo-Dori Arcade each winter (extended one month due to popular demand, now from November to April).
Resting on past laurels, not, Otowa meticulously maintains its master recipe: starting with the sumeshi – the vinegared rice is cooked the day before and is let to rest overnight to mellow out the pungency because to be greeted head-on with a whiff of acid is quite a turn-off. The next day, marinated, grilled and ground hamo is mixed into the rested sumeshi. This, however, is only the first step of making the rice. Otowa furthers adds a paste of cooked shiitake and kanpyo (dried gourd) to the rice; if you look closely, you can see specks of black materials which are the ground hamo, shiitake or kanpyo particles. Added to this triply prepared rice is grilled sea eels, stewed shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Last, but surely not the least in terms of effort, is the eggs. The same hamo is again utilized, grilled and minced and added to the beaten eggs, which makes Otowa’s eggs fluffy and fragrant with a hint of extra savory sweetness. Finally, every part is compiled into an imari bowl, and the bowl into a steamer, which soon starts emitting streams of white vapor in the busy shopping street – a clever and convenient way of advertising its signature sushi. The idea of heating sushi was so popular in fact that the new hot sushi spread to other sushi shops in Kyoto and even caught on in Osaka; each shop writing its own recipe for the new chapter of sushi to heat up the slow winter months.
Every year, restaurant reviews and TV programs compete to feature this sushi anomaly since the mainstream sushi, on the contrary, is becoming “raw-er” every year. But such downmarket journalism does not care so much about the tradition or the recipes; it picks up mushi-zushi only to stamp a sense of seasonality in our season-less society and to quickly fill a 5-minute air time, giving short shrift to the minced minutiae. Chirashi-zushi, embodying the five colors and five flavors of Japanese cooking (see Ripe for Vegetables: https://www.theworlddigested.com/single-post/2017/05/24/Ripe-for-Vegetables) is, however, no longer a luxury because it is not as visually arresting as a bloody block of wagyu beef or as sinfully sounding as a calorie-laden chocolate cake. People have come to eat with their eyes and ears, not with their mouths and tongues, hence if a particular little Red Book says it is worth 3 stars, it is delicious, and if it is adorned with photogenic squirts and swirls of sauces and bubbles, it is elegant. How many of the tastes buds which have come to sample this legendary fare are able to appreciate the savory depth create by the invisible hamo? For it is this kind of subtleness, unspoken but noted, that creates the beginning of a relationship, which keeps the customers loyal and the chefs on their toes, as if the hamo has got its formidable jaws into the customer’s belly.
The new tradition is no longer new in 2018. Many sushi shops have, over the years, dropped this unappreciated but labor-intensive novelty to combat other arrivals – domestic and foreign – which rival the place for luxury food. Sushi today is all about tuna – the fattier the better – which, ironically, was disliked as a base fish owing to the very fattiness a mere hundred years ago. For that matter, neither salmon nor yellowtail was considered traditionally edomae. Sushi in the old days used to be about “cooking” in that edomae sushi is not just a slice of raw fish slapped on top of sumeshi. Be it fish or shellfish or vegetable, each would be either salted, marinated, aged, boiled, stewed, grilled or steamed so that even the unheated had gone through a process of chemical transformation of denaturing. Such “cooking”, if considered carefully, was only proper: in the era before modern refrigeration, salt, vinegar, wasabi and ginger were cleverly adopted so that the chefs would not inadvertently kill off their valuable clients.
Only two old sushi shops in Osaka still belabor to serve this winter comfort. One, the more commercially savvy, has expanded its operations into the underground warren of department stores by applying itself, not to the all-natural preservatives, but to the artificial compounds; while the other, quietly but studiously, remains rooted in a forgotten corner of Osaka named Sakura-River. Devoid of cherry trees, the last chef of Sushi-Tora still steams up a superb bowl of mushi-zushi for the hungry and cold customers.
If Kyoto-style mushi-zushi or chirashi-zushi is dainty, then Sushi-Tora’s version can only be described as daring – for true to its name, tora – tiger in Japanese – its mushi-zushi resembles a wild tiger trapped in a bowl. Strips of black seaweed against chopped yellow eggs jump into the eyes, and underneath the mound of black and yellow lay chunks of grilled sea eels – overcooked but fragrant – tangled with crunchy woodear mushrooms – which were just waiting to burst through any crevices opened by the unsuspecting chopsticks. To make this once luxury item still truly worth its weight in gold, the chef further slaps down two pieces of thick squid and lathers on some pink soboro (shredded sweetened fish flakes) on the top for his idea of decoration; and shoves a golden chestnut confit – sweet – in the middle for an after-meal delight. Opening the lid – scalding – of Sushi-Tora’s mushi-zushi is like opening the secret cave of Alibaba. Instead of shouting, “Open Sesame!,” we say “itadakimasu” to rediscover the wonders of forgotten Japan.
The chef – stooped from bending over the kitchen counter for sixty years – says now he serves the steamed sushi all-year around because his aging customers request it. The lid – now cooled – is soon to be closed on this chapter of sushi; for Sushi-Tora, despite having weathered through hot and cold and high and low for over 120 years, has no heirs.
It is now cold year around and, not only in Kyoto, but everywhere. As we turned on the air-conditioning, we have turned off the season, and cold air blasts from the wall unit, instead of down Mount Hiei. While the winter sokobie had once frozen the feet, the unnatural wind now chills the soul. In spite of the global warming, the true sokobie has just begun.
Address: 565 Nakanomachi, Shinkyogoku-dori Shijo-agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto
Closed on Monday.
Address: 2 Chome-3-1 Sakuragawa, Naniwa Ward, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture 556-0022
closed on Sunday.