Japanese chefs head to Britain to stamp out Europe's second-rate 'pseudo sushi'
Japanese chefs are to open a sushi school in London in an attempt to stem the spread of poor quality dishes which they say demean their country's prized cuisine
Chef Hiroyuki Kanda crinkled his nose. "When I walk into a sushi restaurant in London, it always smells fishy," he said. "A sushi restaurant serving clean fresh fish should never smell like that."
Out of everyone, Mr Kanda should know: crowned with three Michelin stars for his sushi creations at his Tokyo restaurant, and the creator of a national Japanese textbook on sushi making, the chef is one of the world's leading experts on all things fish-related.
Now, Mr Kanda along with a string of leading Japanese sushi experts have declared war on so-called "pseudo sushi" in Europe – food which claims to be sushi in countless high street cafes, supermarkets and restaurants but in fact bears little resemblance to what is found in Japan.
Early next year, the sushi tsars will open Europe's first sushi academy in London devoted to professionally training chefs in a bid to correct increasingly erroneous misconceptions of what sushi should consist of.
"The Italians would never allow their pizzas not to be perfectly crusty outside Italy," said Mr Kanda. "The French are also protective of their cuisine. We want to do the same with Japanese food. There is no quality control at the moment."
The new Sushi Academy London, in Highbury Studios in Islington, will offer an array of courses to train chefs in Japanese cuisine, from the concept and philosophy to cooking methods. A one-year course professional course is expected to cost £18,000.
Well-known sushi chefs from Japan will give guest lectures and students will be offered the chance to train further in Japan. A restaurant on the site will serve the high quality sushi which it promotes.
Mr Kanda, one several high-profile Michelin-starred chefs from Japan involved in the project, will be the supervisor and is currently finalising the curriculum. It will put great emphasis on use of the fresh and high quality seasonal ingredients which helped his own restaurant win its Michelin rating - such as bream in spring, pile eel in early summer, tuna in autumn and sole in winter - and enable it to charge up to £150 per person for dinner.
Speaking in his minimalist restaurant on a quiet backstreet in Tokyo's Roppongi district – its natural wood decor and crafted ceramics a million miles from the neon blare of London's trendiest sushi chains – Mr Kanda said: "There are many Japanese restaurants in Europe and London. But it's almost always very bad sushi.
"It may be that many Japanese people living in London work in sushi restaurants because it's an easy way to get a job, but they haven't trained correctly as chefs.
"Often sushi in Europe is very cold and hard. That's because they refrigerate it, which you should never do. The rice should always be warm and soft.
"This new school will be the first place in Europe to educate people about the philosophy of Japanese cuisine, as well as cooking techniques and method."
The rise of sushi outside Japan has been fuelled by its reputation as a healthy food, which is consequently much loved by weight-conscious celebrities. Now almost every high street offers it served in some shape or form, whether in supermarkets, restaurants or cafes.
Spearheading the drive to correct the growing chasm between authentic Japanese sushi and current European offerings is Masaki Aosawa, a businessman and former creative adviser to the popular Japanese television food show, Iron Chef. He will be the school's chief operating officer.
"Sushi is one of the most popular Japanese foods internationally but the number of restaurants serving 'pseudo sushi' is increasing," he said. "Food cultures should be respected because they have grown over many years of effort in their countries.
"We are deeply concerned that the rise of pseudo-Japanese food may result in an undeserved reputation for Japanese cuisine."
The sins against the sushi world on European high streets are apparently as numerous as they are sacriligeous: from refrigerating the rice (it should always be warm) to failing to clean the fish scales correctly (hence the fishy smell).
But among the most painful of observations? A sign in one sushi franchise describing sushi as a kind of sandwich using rice instead of bread, according to Mr Aosawa. "Sushi is not a sort of sandwich made with rice and these restaurants are not 'Japanese restaurants'," he insisted.
"We do not think Italian people would keep silent if they served pasta too soft or too hard. This is the same for us."
The art of making sushi – which first became popular in Tokyo in the early 19th century as sold on mobile food stands – has long been regarded as a discipline which is as serious as it is precise.
From the exact weight of the rice base and the temperature of the vinegared rice to the angle at which the knife should be tilted in order to obtain the perfect cut of fresh piece of fish, proper sushi is made with near military precision.
To the well-trained eye of Koji Nakamura, a sushi chef who will work as the main teacher at the new academy, the differences between good and bad sushi are instantly clear.
"There are people outside Japan whose first sushi experience is based on eating bad sushi. That's very worrying. This is what we're hoping to change."
SEVEN PSEUDO SUSHI SINS
Using rice which is not vinegared – this is wrong not only in terms of taste and tradition but also for hygiene.
Toppings and fillings which are not fresh – sushi should always be fresh.
Fish scales not cleaned correctly off fish – this can create a fish smell.
Lack of harmony between rice and topping or filling – this results in the need for more wasabi or soy sauce.
Bad shape – both in overall appearance and keeping the shape of the rice.
Rice that has been refrigerated, makign it cold and hard.
Fish is too soft - good chefs know when to add salt to raw fish to make flesh firmer and tastier.