Exploring zen and the divine Japanese art of sushi-making

Exploring zen and the divine Japanese art of sushi-making
Sushiya team: Shinichiro Takagi, left, Peter Tempelhoff, and head chef Ryan Reyes. (Photo: Supplied)

A ‘Sushiya Unveiled’ sushi demonstration at Time Out Market at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town was a rare opportunity to rethink our relationship with sushi and sustainability.

If you thought sushi wasn’t sushi without salmon, I’ve got news for you. Sushiya will blow your mind because at this “sushi shop” in the heart of the V&A Waterfront, salmon is completely off the cards. So if you want to order maki, nigiri or temaki (handrolls), the fish of the day is quite likely to be green-listed yellowfin tuna, yellowtail or Cape salmon. It may even be octopus (which is technically not a fish), simply dipped in boiling water, steamed for an hour, chilled and sliced. But never salmon, because flying fresh, wild-caught fish from the North Atlantic is simply not sustainable.

Shishiya chef patrons Peter Tempelhoff (of FYN, beyond and Ramenhead) and Shinichiro Takagi (of the acclaimed two-Michelin star flagship restaurant Zeniya in Kanazawa, Japan) are committed locavores, who serve local and seasonal as much as possible, which is why, when importing, they only support small-scale suppliers in Japan.

Locally, they source their fish from ethical fishermen and other produce from organic farms in the Western Cape.

At a recent sushi demonstration at the TimeOut Market, Shin, Tempelhoff and Sushiya’s talented young head chef Ryan Reyes explored the meaning of authentic Japanese sushi and why sushi is an art form that requires a zen-like balance between local and foreign ingredients and methods.

To drink, guests were treated to some spectacular wines from Cavalli estate in the Golden Triangle outside Stellies, Table Mountain water and a very special sake tasting.

Sushiya’s sake has been specially imported from the Fukumitsuya sake brewery in Kanazawa, which is committed to making Junmai-sake (historically the “way sake was”, using only rice, water, yeast) — a 100% unadulterated sake without distilled alcohol.

The most important thing about the venerated centuries-old Edomae style sushi — Japan’s original “fast food” that was sold at street stalls from the 1600s and evolved into haute cuisine — starts with the rice, Tempelhoff explains, because with this style of sushi, focused purely on rice and fish, “there’s nowhere to hide”.

This means ingredients have to shine: the soy sauce and wasabi must come from the best regions, not brewed in Singapore, The Netherlands and especially not China, which is why reading the label is so important. Even the top-quality Kikkoman soya sauce is brewed in many countries. The finest double-fermented soy sauce comes from Japan, hands-down, Tempelhoff says, as does the finest grade of nori.

The fish must be the freshest you can find and that’s local.

Sushiya uses only rice from Shin’s native region in Ishikawa Prefecture. It is nurtured by 4th-generation rice growers and aged for up to two years before being cooked in Cape mountain spring waters.

Four months ago, they imported about 2.5 tonnes of the rice and the chefs are already “piling into” the supplies, Tempelhoff says. “It’s really important that rice is cooked in a certain way.” It’s swirled in water and rinsed until it stops “milking”. Once the water runs clean, the rice is soaked for about half an hour before it is placed in a rice cooker (or cooked carefully on a stovetop). Shin’s rice is then tipped out into a tray, seasoned quite heavily, with a bit of sugar, a lot of acid (mirin) and quite a bit of salt.

“It’s incredibly important to get the right seasoning on the rice. And then, when you’re dipping your nigiri into the soya sauce, it’s also important that you roll the nigiri onto the side and only dip the soya sauce on the fish. You don’t want to get soy sauce on the rice,” he says.

Food waste is another taboo in a sushi chef’s kitchen, because that’s where you make your profit — and where you lose it — which is why knife quality and skills are so important, starting with the way they slice fish from the tail end, the angle of the blade and the thickness of the cuts. End pieces are never discarded: they are butterflied in such a way to ensure that everything is used.

Reyes explains that the darker the nori sheet, the better quality it is. The blackest nori has one shiny side and a blue-black sheen but when held against the light, it is bright green — unlike the mass-market nori sold in many retailers, which is brown by contrast. When you bend it, “You want to hear that crunch.”

I walked away from the event with a couple of sheets of nori and put it to the natural light test. The quality difference between the nori that I had recently purchased from a high-end deli and Sushiya’s was pretty startling.

Cheap and cheerful nori, made in China and sold in a local deli, and Sushiya’s top quality nori, right, imported from Japan. (Photo: Georgina Crouth)

More obviously, the quality of gari, or pickled ginger, already screams at one in the store. I steer clear of buying and eating the shocking pink stuff, and always prefer a portion of pale pickled ginger to one that screams colourants. Tempelhoff advises to always opt for the lighter gari, without the bright visible colouring. The original good stuff is made with tender baby ginger, which has a slight pink hue once vinegar is added to it, but finding it is rare.

Gari’s purpose is also not to go on top of sushi: it is to be eaten between different fish, as a palate cleanser.

Wasabi is one fussy vegetable, which is why Sushiya imports theirs. Very hard to grow, wasabi is found naturally along stream beds in mountain river valleys. It needs water to be constantly flowing and consistently at a temperature of 12°C. It also needs sandy soils and water to be between 800mm to a metre deep, which is why it’s a very difficult environment to try to replicate outside of Japan.

Head chef Ryan Reyes demonstrating the art of sushi. (Photo: Supplied)

Reyes says they like to use what is local and what is abundant: “If I was in Durban right now, I would use East Coast fish; here I use West Coast fish. They’re obviously very different in terms of flavours. This is why we don’t really like to use salmon.

“People are accustomed to having salmon in sushi and it’s becoming very popular in Japan now as well, where they’re starting to fly in salmon, but in a traditional omakase dining experience (where diners leave the selection up to the chef) like ours, we stick to local fish.”

Shin — a second-generation restaurateur — also happens to be a real fanboy of South African fish, in particular the quality of our tuna. Our finest yellowfin tuna and big-eye are carefully dressed and flown to his country, which is the world’s biggest consumer of sashimi-grade tuna.

There’s no denying that Japan’s absolutely bonkers about fish: In January, a huge bluefin tuna, weighing 238kg, was sold at Tokyo’s largest fish market for $788,440, Bloomberg reported. The first-day-of-business auction is considered to be a Japanese New Year’s tradition.

This year, bluefin fetched three times more than last year’s fish, and the fourth highest since records started being kept in 1999, the report said. Caught off the coast of Aomori prefecture in Japan, it was destined for the Michelin-starred Onodera in the Ginza district of Tokyo.

Tempelhof’s flagship fine-dining restaurant, FYN has just made The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, for the fourth time. The restaurant is ranked No 60 on the restaurant awards’ extended 51-100 list — up 15 spots on last year’s position when it also won the Flor de Caña Sustainable Restaurant Award.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Tempelhoff wins best in the world award as South America dominates World’s 50 Best Restaurants

A celebration of African ingredients and Japanese techniques, FYN joined Relais & Châteaux as Africa’s first stand-alone restaurant to be included as an official member.

In 2021, it received the Japanese Ambassador’s Award for their commitment to “fostering mutual understanding and a friendly bond between Japan and South Africa”.

The Time Out Market Cape Town kicks off its four-part Winter Wine Series on 29 June, which brings together the finest local wineries from the Western Cape. Tickets, available through Howler, cost R250 per person including a tasting glass. Featured wine producers will be announced soon. DM



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