Philadelphia roll with smoked salmon, cream cheese and avocado. Dragon roll with shrimp tempura topped with eel. Geisha roll with tuna, salmon, Tobiko and Ponzu sauce. These are just a few of the names found on the menu of Ayaka Japanese Restaurant on South University Avenue.
Sang Paik, head chef at Ayaka, carefully cuts and prepares the fish that will go into these rolls. He works in silence, with his head bowed at the neck and an expression of intense focus painted on his face. His hand methodically moves the blade as he chops and peels, chops and peels, all the while making sure to greet and bid farewell to every customer. He makes his work look simple, but in reality, this couldn’t be further from the case. After all, the work of a sushi chef takes the utmost precision and dedication.
Sushi is a traditional form of Japanese food that varies in style and taste depending on the region. According to Paik’s wife and Ayaka’s owner, Kazumi Paik, the popular Osaka style of sushi is known for its variety in ingredients, while the Tokyo style is known for its seasonings.
But the basic process of sushi rolling begins with the fish. Sashimi, a plain fish, and nigiri, a fish with rice, are the two original kinds of sushi. Yet according to LSA senior and Sushi.com waiter Isaac Kim, the most popular form of sushi in this country is maki, or rolls. This contrasts with Japan, where the customary sashimi and nigiri continue to dominate the sushi scene.
“(Maki) is more of an American thing,” Kim said. “But by now (in this country), it’s all just sushi.”
As a town known for its cultural diversity, Ann Arbor boasts a vibrant sushi scene — evidenced by the numerous sushi bars and restaurants littering the edge of campus. Though a lot of things have changed about the practice of making sushi through its transplantation from Japan to America, some of its original attributes are still present today in Ann Arbor — most notably gender distribution of sushi chefs.
“In Japan, it’s much more traditional to have men as sushi chefs,” Kazumi Paik said.
This custom has its roots in the old Japanese thinking that men, by nature, have a lower body temperature than women, making their hands cooler. Thus, when men touch the fish, they’re transporting the least amount of heat.
“When you make sashimi or nigiri, you’re supposed to touch it the least amount of times as possible,” Kim said. “That’s also why the portions are so small. As opposed to serving sushi in large quantities, you’re supposed to eat it in small portions so you can eat it quickly before it gets warm.”
The process of making sushi differs from restaurant to restaurant, but there are a few common trends.
“First we make the sticky rice,” said Haeri Lee, manager of Totoro on State Street. “Then we marinate and mix it in with a special vinegar sauce. Once this is done, we roll it in seaweed, and finally you can add whatever you want, like salmon or tuna.”
The important part comes with the preparation — sushi can either be of excellent or poor quality depending on the way it’s treated and cut, especially when it comes to the raw fish itself.
“The way you can tell the quality of a sushi chef is by how he cuts the fish, and by the color,” Kim said. “A lot of our chefs make the rolls, but only a couple are allowed to make the nigiri and sashimi.”
Sushi is seasonal and thus depends upon external factors for quality and quantity. Whether a restaurant has a certain fish in stock is largely reliant on the popularity of a certain item and its availability.
“What a lot of people don’t know about sushi restaurant culture is that just because an item is on the menu doesn’t mean it’s really there. There are different seasons for different fish,” Kim said. “Certain fish are what one might call an acquired taste, like sea urchin, and these are really expensive. So we might not order a lot of that type.”
Sushi has taken on a life of its own since its spike in popularity in the United States. These innovations can be found here in Ann Arbor, both in the style and in the ingredients that go into the recipes.
“American sushi is so different, in a good way,” Kazumi Paik said. “In Japan, we would never think to use cream cheese or avocado or to deep fry our sushi. These are all American influences.”
The creative aspect is something that’s also distinctly American. New York rolls that tower with seasonal decorations and caterpillar rolls using avocados as the body and soy sauce as the eyes and mouth are just two examples of items that can only be found on the menus of American sushi restaurants.
According to Kazumi Paik, the singularity of American sushi has even begun to influence what’s occurring back in Japan.
“My family came here from Japan, and they were so impressed with this kind of American sushi that they asked me to come back to Japan to start an American-style sushi restaurant,” she said.
But the artistry goes deeper than cultural influences. It begins in the kitchens themselves. Chefs are the ones responsible for developing new rolls, both in taste and in aesthetic design.
At Totoro, when chefs come up with a new roll, they begin by tasting the ingredients themselves. Then comes the design. They’ve been known to incorporate anything from spicy sauces to apples and carrots for decoration. Finally, the new creations are brought to customers to see whether a warm reception is in order. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.
“We always eat food with our mouths, but first we see it,” Lee said. “So if it looks terrible, people are more hesitant to eat it. This is why we try to make it as attractive as possible.”
As a college town, Ann Arbor has shown itself to be more than hospitable to sushi culture. The diverse student population and University community have allowed for numerous restaurants to sprout up right along the edge of campus.
“Around here, it’s mainly students and families, so we try to accommodate for them,” Kim said. “On Wednesdays, it’s 20-percent off for everyone (at Sushi.com).”
This symbiotic relationship works out well for the restaurants and the students alike.
Beyond the cultural and traditional aspects that comprise the sushi scene in the country and Ann Arbor, good sushi rolling aims to prepare and present the best food possible. In a brief break from his work, Sang Paik noted his personal favorite roll — Ayaka’s rainbow roll #2.
“It’s so good. It melts in your mouth,” he said.
The joy Paik takes in his craft parallels the level of customer satisfaction found in the sushi restaurants in Ann Arbor — in this town, people simply love sushi.