Sushi evokes an almost religious zeal in some people, who will vigorously debate the various aspects that influence what makes a great sushi restaurant. It starts with the rice, which has iconic status in Japan, and indeed the very word sushi means ‘seasoned rice’. Trainee sushi chefs typically spend two years perfecting their technique in cooking and seasoning rice.
One thing that is key is that sushi rice should be served body temperature warm, flavoured to one degree or another with vinegar, and shaped by hand as a vehicle for the fish. It goes without saying that the quality of the fish is crucial, and nowhere takes fish as seriously as Japan. The seasons matter a great deal, and not merely for which fish appear – tuna tastes best in winter due to its diet for example.
The famous sushi restaurants are in Tokyo, usually very small places with as few as half a dozen seats. Yet much of the fish they actually serve comes from Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. On the outskirts of Sapporo, the capital of this region, is Sushizen, a restaurant that has been serving sushi for over 40 years.
It is in an unassuming building, with the traditional blond wood counter at which you take your seat in front of your chef and wait for the sequence of sashimi and sushi to begin. As at any top sushi restaurant, the best way to go is ‘omakase’, letting the chef serve what is best that day.
The exact sequence of fish will vary with the season, but might include the silky sea urchin that Hokkaido is famous for, or the stunning hairy crab with its remarkable flavour. Tuna will appear in three forms: akami from the top of the tuna, chutoro in the centre of the fish and otoro from the belly, with increasing degrees of fattiness respectively. Local shrimp is served distinctly fresh, alive when served on the rice.
An array of fish, from superb wild salmon through pike mackerel to fish that do not have an English translation, appears in a steady sequence that will dazzle anyone who is used to eating sushi in Europe or North America. To accompany your meal, either drink beer or choose from an array of sake bottles. Sushizen is far off most travellers’ radar, yet is up there with the very best sushi restaurants in Japan.