Traditional sushi meets Iowa City creativity

BY ELLE WIGNALL | JUNE 21, 2012 6:30 AM

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"I would see ideas in dreams. In dreams, I would see grand visions of sushi," 86-year-old Japanese sushi master Jiro Ono said in David Gelb's 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

The film follows Ono, the winner of three Michelin stars, in his meticulous path to perfecting the art of sushi and his relationship with his eldest son and heir, Yoshikazu. Jiro Dreams of Sushi will be shown at the Bijou from Friday through June 26.

Sushi has gone from a Japanese delicacy to an Americanized favorite, and Ono's traditional style of making sushi focuses on the basic elements, Gelb told The Daily Iowan.

"In the U.S., we are seeing a lot more of these big cut rolls with lots of ingredients and sauce," the director and producer said. "[In Japan, it's] about finding a balance among very pure ingredients, finding a balance between fish and rice."

Gelb's film showcases the traditional aspects of sushi in its native Japan with Ono, but sushi has expanded to encompass a wide variety of styles and tastes in Iowa City, the United States, and elsewhere.

Since its introduction in Los Angeles in the '60s with the California roll, sushi has made waves across the States, trickling down from $500 sushi restaurants to $13 sushi trays at Costco warehouses. Makizushi is a popular choice as Americans young and old join the craze, and the familiar rolls become vehicles for more unfamiliar styles of sushi.

According to studies conducted by Formosa Asian Cuisine, 221 E. College St., around 30 percent of locals eat sushi, and that number is constantly growing.

Gelb first experienced a traditional maki roll at the age of 2 on a trip to Japan with his father.

"It was all that I would eat; I had to eat kappamaki," he said. "I loved the combo of seaweed, rice, cucumber, sesame seeds, and soy sauce. I've been addicted to sushi ever since."

His love for sushi led him to Tokyo to observe and film Ono in his 10-seat restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, nestled in a Tokyo subway station.

Though Ono is a celebrated sushi chef, he has never felt his work to be done, Gelb said.

"He's never satisfied with his work," Gelb said. "He's always trying to do it better and better and better."

Ono's work ethic is incredible, Gelb noted, and it is Ono's "unrelenting self-criticism" that keeps him tasting every fish and striving for perfection even in his old age.

"We were listening to what he was saying, and taking it to heart, and trying to always find ways to improve the film," Gelb said. "We had a serviceable film, but we had to keep working on it and keep on trying to improve it."

Gelb and film editor Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer found themselves thinking, "What would Jiro do?" during the editing.

Ono's vision is clear, and his sushi is simple, pure, and traditional.

"According to Jiro, the rice is supposed to be body temperature and cooked al dente to balance the fish," Gelb said. "The rice is incredibly important."

While Americanized sushi has incorporated sauces, tempura, unusual produce, and cooked meat, Ono's style remains as a Japanese treasure.

"In Japan, sushi is a lot simpler," Gelb said. "It's really just about the purity of ingredients."

The balance between the very pure ingredients of fish and rice is the key element of sushi at its most traditional level, Gelb added.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not only about Ono's magnificent capacity for creating sushi but also about his relationship with son Yoshikazu.

"[Jiro and Yoshikazu] have two relationships: as a father and son and as apprentice and master," Gelb said. "Yoshikazu, when he was growing up, he didn't necessarily want to be a sushi chef."
Yoshikazu finally accepted his role as his father's son, Gelb said, and he has "sincere reverence for his father."

The sushi craze has not been lost on Iowa City. With nearly 10 sushi restaurants in the Iowa City/Coralville area, sushi is no longer a foreign food. It's transformed into an exciting cuisine that couples make a centerpiece during dates, students grab a quick bite of, and mothers buy for their children.

"It's fresh. It's really healthy food," said Eric Chen, a sushi chef at Oyama Sushi, 1853 Lower Muscatine Road. "Not deep fried. And low calorie."

At Oyama Sushi, fish is ordered from a supplier in Chicago about every two days. The fresh fish is appealing to health-conscious Americans, he said.

"American people, a lot of their food is frozen. I don't know why," said Chen, who is originally from China.

In most local sushi restaurants, a grand sushi bar is the artists' palette for sushi chefs. Behind it, one or two sushi chefs work diligently creating art, and the process is visible to customers.

A typical night at Formosa is buzzing with faculty, students, visiting parents, families, and couples, and people seeking to try something new, said George Etre, the owner of Formosa and Takanami, 219 Iowa Ave.

"It's basically everybody," he said. "You'd be surprised by how many people come from all over."

Located in the "hub of downtown," Formosa is the epitome of Americanized sushi and the "freshest around," Etre said.

"With traditional sushi, there are certain rules and ways you have to go about it," he said. "What we've noticed is that Chicago, Las Vegas, some of these hot spots, have taken their sushi and really pushed it to the max, and that's the great thing about sushi."

Often incorporating tempura, produce such as cucumbers and avocados, spicy sauces, and even beef, Formosa's and Takanami's sushi is continually changing to please the customers.

"[There is] steak inside some of our rolls, even sweet-potato tempura. We incorporate it with other items on our menu or with a wine or drink," Etre said. "We like to experiment."

The creative aspect of sushi allows Formosa to cater to all different kinds of people.

"All of our signature rolls are built off a basic roll," Etre said. "If you like one roll, we use the basic rolls to introduce people to other sushi. A lot of our rolls, the customers create themselves."

Sushi has become a meal for big and little mouths alike.

"Kids love it," Etre said. Many families feed their children sushi, and "it's not a foreign concept by the age of 16 or 17."

While it might seem unorthodox for children to request a California roll over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it suggests that sushi now caters to an American palate. Restaurants such as Formosa incorporate much less raw fish than traditional Japanese sushi, making sushi more appealing to young palates.

Randy Johnson, First Avenue Hy-Vee's assistant manager of store operations, said high-school students are Hy-Vee sushi's main customers.

"We get a lot of students from City High who eat here for lunch," he said.

The Hy-Vee sushi counter has been open for a year and three months at the First Avenue location, and it has become a place to get a reasonably priced, convenient meal for many people.

"We just found a demand. Customers asking about it," Johnson said. "We thought it would be a nice premium thing at decent cost. A lot of people were going more toward the healthy food, and sushi is pretty good for you."

He attributes the popularity of sushi to a trend toward healthy food in the United States.

"It's just, you know, it's really the health phase that's going on," he said. "Everybody is trying to be healthier and still looking for quick meals."

While the idea of raw fish brings a foreign appeal to Americanized sushi, the most popular style of sushi in the States is uramaki, rolls with the outer sheet of nori inside the rice, and increasingly, they are being filled with less-raw fish.

Sixty percent of Formosa's rolls contain no raw fish, but fresh fish is flown in two to three times a day from all over the world, Etre said. Nigiri and sashimi sell the least on Formosa's menu.

"The fish isn't the hard part," he said. "A lot of our produce, it's hard to get."

In a typical week, Formosa goes through 140 to 200 bags of cucumbers and avocados, Etre said.
With so much raw fish being flown in from each coast, the question of environmental preservation arises.

"A lot of that stuff we end up throwing away," Etre said.

Gelb attributes the mass production and marketing of sushi in the States to America's large appetite.

"Chefs have created large rolls, like the California roll," he said. "It helps fill up the customer."

And while being full of sushi every now and then is no problem, dining on it several times a week is not traditional, Gelb said.

"I know people who eat sushi four to five times a week," he said. "In Japan, sushi is eaten as a delicacy and for special occasions."

He recommended sushi eaters seek out more expensive restaurants that focus on their fish.

And Gelb noted Ono's concerns on the enviornmental impact of using too much fish in the film.

"Jiro is also very concerned about environmental issues about fishing," Gelb said. "People are eating it so often; they would ask that people eat it less."

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, "nearly 85 percent of the world's fisheries are fished to capacity or over-fished."

Seafood Watch is a national effort to raise consumer awareness of sustainable seafood use through education on its website, printable guides, communication with the government, and partnerships with suppliers.

"We really have to think about the role [of fish] in the ecosystem," said Alison Barratt, the communication director for Seafood Watch. "It's really important that we keep the structure in the ocean, try to keep that as intact as we can, while still eating what's healthy for us."

Seafood Watch has a sushi-specific page that supplies consumers with lists of fish to eat and fish to avoid to sustain a healthier planet.

"Sometimes, it's just a case of trying something you haven't tried before," Barratt said. Being adventurous and eating smaller fish that are more abundant and often less likely to contain high levels of mercury is a win-win, she noted.

The higher on the food chain fish are, she said, the more likely they are to contain high levels of mercury because of their diet of smaller fish. Practicing sustainable sushi eating and being aware of the effect made on the environment helps balance the ecosystem.

Fish awareness is on the minds of Iowa City sushi restaurants as well.

"We talk to people more about it more than they talk to us," Etre said. "We try to inform our customers on what fish we have and what is fresh."

Barratt said consumers, suppliers, and businesses should be aware of the risks of over-fishing.

"It's about finding that balance between taking from and relying on the ocean," she said. "If we manage that in the right way, there will be sushi in the future."

The future of sushi lies in a fusion of cultures, palates, and creativity from sushi lovers and the effort of consumers to get informed on their fish.

But the past of sushi will always hold its roots deeply in Japan with careful, skilled artists such as Ono working to perfect the humble combination of rice and fish.

"I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top," Ono said in the documentary. "But no one knows where the top is.

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