Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sushi in Latin America

Big billboard for sushi ... look, colourful. The San Salvador Volcano in the background.

Fifteen years in Latin America and I am still looking for a good place for sushi. In Cuba, I ate at the high-end sushi resturant, Sakura, at the Tocororo restaurant. A very expensive place where I once had a lunch for four people that included scotches, steaks, lobster, cigars and Baileys and it was about $300 or 20 times the average Cuban salary. I heard that the Cuban sushi chefs were trained by personnel from the Japanese Embassy who probably wanted a second place in the country to eat sushi. The waitress told the chef that an Asian was out front so he came out and asked "Parece sushi?" to which I answered, "Si, parece." Roughly translated, he asked if it seemed like sushi and I said yes, it seemed like it. Actually, the fish wasn’t fresh and the rice was so poorly made, I could have made it.

This is one of the problems with sushi - it isn’t about proximity to the ocean, it is about how good the transportation is and the skill and standards of the chef. Cuba is an island and you can have a fish caught 10 miles from the restaurant but by the time it gets there, it won’t be sushi grade. You can find better fish in Kansas City than in Havana. That fish comes out of the ocean after a fight and it has to be gutted and put into ice right away. If it is left on the deck for even a few hours, you don’t want to eat it.

Hand roll ingredients. Looks good but no raw fish!

So that is Cuba. I was in Panama and called the Japanese Embassy to ask where they ate sushi and I was given the name of a place. We went and the sashimi was leaking water on the plate as it defrosted. The chef wasn’t Japanese and he wasn’t trained by a Japanese. The sushi was terrible.

In El Salvador, I ate at a high end place where we sat at low tables in a tatami room. I vaguely remember that the sushi was mediocre (a lot of varieties but nothing really fresh) but I do remember the cockroach that crossed our table. More recently, we have seen the entry of Sushi Itto, a chain out of Mexico, whose sushi is at the level of a North American shopping mall food court or a big supermarket. Pretty amazing that sushi is catching on in a country that still mostly eats rice, beans and corn tortillas. This place is fine if you think Taco Bell is good Mexican food or Papa John’s is good Italian. I would really like to know how many times a Sushi Itto chef has said "No, I won’t use that fish because it isn’t fresh enough." So if you liked the sushi here, I strongly recommend that you see a primer on Japanese culture and sushi at (I’m sorry to say this but this includes you Tracey).

Sushi chefs taking a break in San Benito

Then went to another place called 503 in the Zona Rosa for an all you can eat sushi night (what was I thinking?) and they, shockingly, used Chinese soy sauce! Holy crap ... that is like using ketchup for a spaghetti sauce or a wine cooler in a coq au vin. There is another place run by a Japanese guy called Tanoshi - the food is okay although the fish isn’t great, my maki was popping open on my plate, and it was too expensive.

Lizette modelling a hand roll

I am really left to making it myself. While I am Korean, my parents and I were born in Japan so they know their Japanese food. They spent 30 years there and me, only 3, but I certainly fanned my share of sushi rice for my Mom and my Dad is a semi-professional sushi fish cutter. My rice is pretty good now (and I no longer have to bring the rice from Toronto to Havana in my baggage ... I can now buy it at the Korean restaurant/store in San Salvador or drive to Guatemala City where there is a bigger distributor). We’ve made sushi a few times, either maki with cooked salmon or hand rolls with shrimp, veggies and smoke salmon.

But getting good raw fish? Haven’t seen any yet. I don’t trust anything in any fish market or even by the seashore so I am planning on going fishing next week on my friend Dan’s boat and I will bring a cooler full of ice. He said the Dorado (Mahi-Mahi or Dolphin Fish) are running but I am hoping to catch a small Yellowtail Tuna.

If I do catch some nice fish, I plan to filet it, bag it, and ice it and drive it back into town. When I am back, I will freeze some and give some away to some sushi aficionados that I know who will appreciate it as well as to the chefs of my favourite Thai and Korean restaurants and then I will hold a huge sushi/sashimi party!

Sorry, not many food photos ... I don’t bother when the food is bad. But wait for my next blog on ... Korean food where the planets will align, garlic is melded with chillies, and all will be right with the world.