September 19, 2006
Sushi's Big and Diverse World

Last night's SushiMasters competition at Memorial Auditorium no doubt was a learning experience for all 700 or so persons who attended.

The sponsoring California Rice Commission, for one, learned that if it is going to do this again - and the early sell out at $50 a head indicates the young competition already has generated enough interest to continue - it's going to need more than 2400 pieces of sushi to feed the crowd (it all looked to have been consumed by the end of the first of the three hours).

Attendees, or at least those who could get close enough to the action - the nine competing sushi chefs worked at a series of tables across the floor of Memorial Auditorium - learned that sushi chefs can be amazingly fast and intense, and their creations much more intricate and grandiose than rolls customarily found in sushi bars. Was that really gold flakes on one roll? It was.

I learned that Japanese sushi chefs are much more admiring of California's free-styling approach to sushi than I suspected, at least if Fumitoshi Inose, above, represents their views generally. Inose owns the restaurant Natural Sense in the prefecture Ibaraki just outside of Tokyo. He was at SushiMasters because he'd won a similar competition involving 605 sushi chefs at Tokyo in July.

At SushiMasters he recreated his winning entry, three long thin wheat crepes filled with tuna, shisho and salmon eggs, standing upright like totems in a bowl of sesame seeds. Compared with the elaborate forms of sushi that last night's competing chefs were creating not far from his display, his approach to sushi is simple and light.

"The beauty is hidden in my sushi," said Inose through an interpreter, Keiko Nakagawa. "It's something covered. It's not very expressive, like American-style sushi. It's not traditional Japanese sushi, it's not California sushi, it's my own expression."

The world of sushi, he added, is big enough to embrace all sorts of cultures and to encourage all sorts of voices. "Japan and California are two different cultures. That's the starting point. The way it looks and the way it tastes will be different," said Inose.

California-style sushi, he noted, is gaining popularity in Japan, including the iconic California roll, a creamy blend of crab, avocado and cucumber. "A lot of people think it's great," said Inose. "It's a wonderful thing to happen."

For the record, last night's overall winner was Shinji Nakamura of Sanraku Japanese Restaurant in San Francisco's Union Square neighborhood.

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