When you start ticking off the American must-haves, what dishes come to mind? Burgers, of course. Maybe grilled cheese or shrimp and grits, depending on nostalgia or location. But a favorite has a lot more sway over this country’s collective palate.
Sushi is on the rise. Market research firm IBISworld predicts that sales of sushi in its common definition – including maki, nigiri, sashimi and other presentations – will reach $27.5 billion in sales this year in the United States alone. Demand has been steadily increasing since the 1980s.
Of some 33 Japanese restaurants in Monterey County, 16 include the word “sushi” in their name. And all but a few make it a point to serve sushi. Even Benihana, which started out as a combination of entertainment and teppanyaki, has succumbed to the trend.
Go 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. In Hanagasa, he found a menu of sukiyaki, teriyaki, and tempura, with a mention of tuna sashimi. It was the same in Robata. Shabu Shabu – a space now occupied by Flying Fish Grill – served its namesake dish along with other nabe-style dishes, cooked by diners on a hot plate at the table. Again, sashimi was the only sushi item on the menu.
“Young people know sushi best,” says Masayasu “Chris” Fukushima, owner of Ocean Sushi Deli in Monterey and Pacific Grove. “It’s a shame. There are a lot of dishes we serve – donburi, curry rice – that I wish more people learned about.
Donburi comes in many forms, but it’s basically protein and veggies over a bowl of rice with an irresistible sauce that swings between sweet and savory. Ocean Sushi Deli’s gyudon—the beef version—brings raspy, grassy whispers of onion that play well with the husky meat. Curry rice is what it says, although in Japan the sauce is thicker and less assertive than many curries in the Indian diaspora.
The generational divide mentioned by Fukushima began when different forms of sushi began to creep into the country’s culinary consciousness from the 1960s. Yet, despite the wide variety of Japanese cuisines, there seems to be a tendency in this country to be fascinated by just a few dishes.
Sushi, and to a lesser extent udon, ramen, soba, tempura, teriyaki and a few other dishes – it’s now. A century ago and for decades these were less popular than a pot of steaming broth.
In the scholarly article “Sukiyaki and New York’s pre-war Japanese community”, historian Robert A. Hegwood noted that the hot dish was the first to catch the attention of Western diners – so much so that in the 1930s, it was the only Japanese food. many knew.
There was a resurgence of interest in Japanese culture in the 1950s and 1960s, driven in part by American troops stationed overseas and an increase in international travel. In 1963, Kyu Sakamoto’s hit “Sukiyaki” became the first Japanese song to hit number one on the US charts – that’s how popular the dish had become. (The title actually translates to “I look up as I walk” and has no mention of food.)
“Sukiyaki is one of the most popular dishes in Japan, especially in winter,” says Fukushima, explaining that it’s a more common 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 likes raw eggs anymore,” notes Ron Bactad of Sushi Time in Seaside. There is a western style of sukiyaki – simpler and eggless. “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 is the oldest Japanese kitchen in Monterey County.
The broth is like the liquid essence of beef – glistening, rustic, with a mineral sweetness and nuanced flavor – cajoled with soy, mirin and sugar. Strips of meat are happily lost in the broth. The scallions give a grating bite, the mushrooms sink into the dirt, and the glass noodles reflect all that flavor.
No wonder it has become so popular.