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Enchanting Edo: Sushi chef aspires to spread the art of Japan's traditional 'fast food'

A sushi platter is seen at the sushi restaurant Matsunozushi in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on Sept. 7, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

TOKYO -- "When autumn approaches, mackerel becomes rich in fat. Salmon begin to lay eggs, so ikura (salmon roe) during this time is tasty. Bluefin tuna also takes on a distinctive winter taste." So says sushi chef Yoshinori Tezuka, 41, as he gently shapes rice in his hand to make sushi using fatty tuna.

    "Different kinds of fish all have their own season. I would like for people to taste the difference in seasons through the fish," says the chef of Matsunozushi, a sushi restaurant near Tokyo Bay in the capital's Shinagawa Ward. The moist pale pink topping of raw fish glistening in the eatery looks too good to be devoured in one bite.

    Yoshinori Tezuka, the fourth-generation head chef of sushi restaurant Matsunozushi, is seen pressing sushi into shape in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on Sept. 7, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

    Matsunozushi, which has been offering traditional Japanese cuisine for 110 years, started off as a sushi street stall in the Shibashinmei area -- currently the area around the capital's Hamamatsucho district -- in 1910. The eatery kept the ambience of Edo-style sushi stalls that apparently began to appear during the latter half of the Edo period (1603-1868). They were transportable booths rather than establishments with counters -- let alone the rotating conveyor belts that are seen at some eateries today. Sushi two to three times larger than the current servings were prepared at the stalls, and filled the stomachs of the people living in Edo.

    Tezuka remarks, "It was the fast food of the time. Being able to grab a quick bite of sushi, which people could pick up easily with one hand, seemed to have been well-received among Edo locals, who tended to be hasty and brusque."

    Yoshinori Tezuka, the fourth-generation head chef of sushi restaurant Matsunozushi, is seen in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on Sept. 7, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

    Sushi -- raw fish on vinegar-flavored rice -- can be broadly classified into two types: "oshizushi," or pressed sushi, an old tradition originating in the western Japan region of Kansai; and "nigirizushi," or hand-shaped sushi, also known as "Edomae-zushi." "Edomae," which can be literally translated as "in front of Edo," refers to fish caught in the sea in front of Edo (currently the Tokyo Bay). To phrase it in modern terms, it was "local production for local consumption."

    "Kohada (gizzard shad), anago (saltwater eel), octopus, ark clam, Asian hard clam, Japanese tiger prawn, smelt-whiting, cuttlefish ... A variety of fresh seafood such as these had been caught in the sea of Edo during each season. Edomae-zushi places a great deal of time and effort into preparing each different type of topping, from soaking it in vinegar to marinating it in soy sauce, steaming it or boiling it, in addition to preparations to make the raw fish edible," Tezuka points out. "Sushi is packed with Japanese food culture that places value on seasonal taste."

    Sushi targeting individuals who cannot eat fish, which contains vegetables including tomato, green onion sprout, paprika, lotus root, egg, and avocado, are seen at the sushi restaurant Matsunozushi in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on Sept. 7, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

    Tezuka, the fourth-generation head chef of Matsunozushi, has also worked to spread the charms of sushi to many by preparing the delicacy for people outside his restaurant. He has actively engaged in promoting the art of sushi overseas, while drawing from his four-year experience as a ski tour guide in Europe and North America at a young age. During the Osaka G-20 summit last year, Tezuka demonstrated his skills in front of the spouses of world leaders, and conveyed the heart and essence of the craft in English. The chef has also held sessions where guests from abroad can experience making their own sushi, as well as tours of the Tsukiji outer market. He has engaged in teaching lessons on food at elementary schools as well.

    Creative efforts have also been made for the raw fish topping itself. As there are foreigners who cannot eat fish, shellfish, or other food deriving from animals, the chef developed "vegetable sushi" so that such people can also enjoy the traditional dish. Servings of sushi topped with tomato, spinach, shiitake mushrooms and the like are popular for their bright colors that cannot be seen in fish.

    Samples comparing the sizes of modern sushi, left, and sushi during the Edo period, right, are seen in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on Sept. 7, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

    The tuna Tezuka presented to Mainichi Shimbun reporters was from a Pacific bluefin tuna caught in the Atlantic Ocean weighing around 150 kilograms. The variety has received certification under the Marine Stewardship Council's global standard for sustainable fishing of tuna, as a valuable resource of the ocean.

    "How we can savor these limited resources while valuing them is a theme to be explored. Japan, an island nation surrounded by the sea, has an amazing environment where different kinds of fresh fish can be eaten raw in each season. I'd like for us to enjoy the taste of Edomae while learning from the wisdom of people in the old days who treasured their precious ingredients."

    Tezuka's remark overflowed with a devotion to taste as a sushi chef, and passion geared toward passing on the culture of Japanese food to the next generation.

    For more information, please call Matsunozushi at 03-3761-5622, or visit the restaurant's website at https://matsunozushi.com/

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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