When you begin to tick off American staples, which dishes come to mind? Burgers, of course. Maybe grilled cheese or shrimp and grits, depending upon nostalgia or location. But one favorite holds far more sway over this country’s collective palate.
Sushi is on a roll. The market research firm IBISworld projects sales of sushi in its common definition – including maki, nigiri, sashimi and other presentations – to reach $27.5 billion in sales this year in the US alone. Demand has been on a steady upswing since the 1980s.
Of some 33 Japanese restaurants in Monterey County, 16 include the word “sushi” in their name. And all but a couple make a point to serve sushi. Even Benihana, which began as a combination of entertainment and teppanyaki, succumbed to the trend.
Dial back 40 years, however, and the situation was quite different. In 1982, food writer and Carmel resident Michael B. Smith published a collection of reviews under the intriguing title of The Truth About Carmel Restaurants. At Hanagasa, he found a menu of sukiyaki, teriyaki and tempura, with one mention of tuna sashimi. It was similar at Robata. Shabu Shabu – a space now occupied by Flying Fish Grill – served its namesake dish as well as other nabe-style entrees, cooked by diners on a griddle at the table. Again, sashimi was the only sushi item on the menu.
“Younger people know sushi better,” explains Masayasu “Chris” Fukushima, owner of Ocean Sushi Deli in Monterey and Pacific Grove. “That’s too bad. There are a lot of dishes we serve – donburi, curry rice – that I’d like more people to learn.”
Donburi comes in several forms, but is essentially protein and vegetables atop a bowl of rice with a compelling sauce that teeters between sweet and savory. Ocean Sushi Deli’s gyudon – the beef version – brings hoarse, grassy whispers of onion that play well with the husky meat. Curry rice is what it says, though in Japan the sauce is thicker and less assertive than many curries from the Indian diaspora.
The generational divide mentioned by Fukushima began as different forms of sushi began creeping into the nation’s culinary consciousness starting in the 1960s. Yet despite the great range of Japanese cuisine, there seems to be a tendency in this country to become fascinated with just a few items.
Sushi, and to a slightly lesser extent udon, ramen, soba, tempura, teriyaki and a few other plates – that’s now. A century ago and for decades to follow, those lagged in popularity to a steaming pot of broth.
In the academic paper “Sukiyaki and the Prewar New York Japanese Community,” historian Robert A. Hegwood noted that the hot pot dish was the first to capture the attention of western diners – so much that by the 1930s it was the only Japanese food many knew.
There was a resurgence of interest in Japanese culture in the 1950s and ’60s, driven in part by American troops stationed overseas and an increase in international travel. In 1963, the Kyu Sakamoto hit “Sukiyaki” became the first Japanese song to reach number one on the US charts – that’s how popular the dish had become. (The title actually translates as “I Look Up As I Walk” and has nary a mention of food.)
“Sukiyaki is one of the most popular items in Japan, especially in winter,” Fukushima says, explaining that it’s a more communal form of dining. “Sukiyaki, shabu shabu – people sit around the table.”
Now it’s often hidden in plain sight on Monterey County menus filled with specialty rolls and assorted sashimi. “No one is into raw egg anymore,” Ron Bactad, of Sushi Time in Seaside, notes. There is a western style of sukiyaki – simpler, and without the egg. “I like it that way; It’s easier to eat,” he adds.
This version can be found at Ichi-Riki in Seaside. Dating back to the 1960s, it’s the oldest Japanese kitchen in Monterey County.
The broth is like the liquid essence of beef – glistening, rustic, with a mineral sweetness and nuanced tang – coaxed from soy, mirin and sugar. Strips of meat are happily lost in the broth. Scallions give a raspy bite, mushrooms descend into earthiness and glass noodles reflect all of this savor.
No wonder it became so popular.