Jiro's Less Satisfying Dream
There’s this little sushi place in the East Village that my Japanese coworker turned me on to awhile back after I had seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi at IFC. After seeing the film I came to a starting realization that I had (essentially) been eating gas station sushi for most of my time in New York. Douse those rolls in Kewpie on the side? Yes please! Shove mango and tempura crap in cold rice? Bangin’. Previously frozen Ahi and Atlantic salmon? Thatz okay!
I thought I knew sushi from dating a carbophobic bodybuilder for the better part of a year as it was the only restaurant choice that we could agree on, but as it turns out I didn’t know crap. (Also, I got sick of the sashimi-edamame combo.) Thankfully, Kumi pointed me in the right direction. The direction of Hasaki on 9th between 2nd and 3rd. It’s not the Per Se of sushi, but its a flight of stairs up from what I had been eating all those years prior.
Anyways- since that moment of clarity, I’ve been back to Hasaki quite a few times and always had pleasing results. Also, surprising results. Prior to this place, I had just bypassed all the vegan and vegetarian options on a sushi menu. White rice rolled up around a carrot or some cucumber? Sounds.. stupid. Like a tiny balanced meal all in one bite. I do, however, like salted plum rolls. Hasaki’s version lured me over to the darkside and since then I’ve been hoovering down pickle rolls, clover rolls, even carrot based rolls. I don’t even bother with the other stuff much anymore.
So it got me to thinking, IS there really any vegetarian sushi or is that just a western palate thing?
As it turns out, there is quite a bit of vegetarian sushi in the traditional Japanese foodstuff. The downside to that is that I may have been essentially making an entire meal out of intermezzos.
Sushi came to be hundreds of years ago along the Mekong River in southeastern Asia when fish was wrapped around rice and fermented for either extended storage or palatability. Today you can still find this type of sushi called “narezushi” in places, but somewhere along the way someone added vinegar to the rice which became a more popular preservation and serving method.
Anyways, as sushi evolved over the centuries, distinct classes of it came to be. There’s Chirashizushi, which is a bowl of rice with various sea creatures on it. Then there’s Nigirisushi, the type where the pillows of rice have seafood (and sometimes other things) on top. Next, the traditional Narezushi that I mentioned before. Oshizushi is a block formed type of sushi native to Osaka where the toppings are put on the bottom and then rice pressed into the mold. The last two types, makizushi and inarizushi are the most vegetarian friendly types that are commonly found.
Makizushi (AKA a “maki roll”) is the type of sushi found with rice on the inside that’s bound by seaweed, cucumber, egg, soy or shiso. Although there are many different types of fish based Makizushi, one of the most commonly known vegetarian rolls is the Futomaki. I’ve seen these labeled as “Korean Sushi” and sliced thin, but really all the roll consists of is a variety of vegetables and perhaps egg, rice, and a wrapper. Sometimes multiple layers of rice and wrapper are combined (but only one center of filling). The focus is on composition with Futomaki- whatever is pleasing to the eye and the palate are the targets on this dish.
Similarly, Hosomaki are pretty easy to accommodate for the vegetarian sushi eater. Hosomaki are small rolls (about an inch across or less) with a singular filling on the inside. There are nonvegetarian Hosomaki, but its pretty common to find cucumber, carrot or other vegetable based versions as traditionally they’re kind of meant to be a palate cleanser before the next course of a tasting menu.
“Inside out rolls” or Uramaki is also fairly vegetarian friendly but usually combines combinations of various ingredients. From what I’ve read if you go to Japan this type of sushi isn’t terribly common as its hard to eat with the hands, but it’s about as common as dirt over here. Mango peanut roll, please.
The last type of vegetarian friendly sushi is the Inarizushi. This variety features a pillow of rice nestled gently in a pocket of lightly sweetened fried tofu. Aaaah. This type of sushi is named after the Shinto spirit Inari, who is one of the primary gods of the religion. Inari governs rice, industry, fertility, agriculture and foxes and is celebrated in one of the most delicious ways possible.
Most Inarizushi is simply seasoned rice in a tofu pocket, but there are regional variations on a theme. Sometimes rather than finding fried tofu around the rice sushi chefs will choose to use a thin omelette. Other times the rice may include some vegetables within it and folded triangularly in a tofu wrapper, but this style is more commonly attributed to Hawaiian style sushi.
Although the majority of sushi is really better suited for the pescatarian and omnivore, once I knew a little more about it I realized that I wouldn’t have to feel like I’m either cheating on my eating habits or eating severely westernized crap. (The latter may still be true on the fly, but whatevs.) When in Tokyo…