Sushi, Russian Style

In Russia, the first Japanese restaurant opened in 1990. Up until 1999, when the first chain restaurants began to appear, most Japanese restaurants were very expensive, and only wealthy people could afford to eat there. However as chain restaurants targeted general public from different classes of the society, Japanese cuisine became instantly popular. According to the Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO), Japanese restaurants account for more than 37% of all restaurants in Russia, and this percentage is still increasing. But, are Russians being served authentic Japanese food?

Japanese restaurant chains normally serve what is perceived as the most popular Japanese food in the world: “sushi rolls”. Most kinds of sushi rolls that have become popular in foreign countries actually originated in the United States and not Japan. Each chain aims to serve their own unique variety of sushi; some do crab rolls and cream cheese while others serve a Philadelphia roll, wrapped in rice and salmon.

According to the result of surveys conducted by one of the biggest Japanese trading companies and Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Russian: Российская газета), almost all cooks are Russian, have never been to Japan and have never tasted real Japanese sushi. These cooks compete with each other by trying to make novel and original rolls. Russians enjoy these sushi rolls as a reasonably-priced fancy fast food often paired with alcoholic drinks. In Japan however, sushi is generally reserved for special occasions; special festivals, national holidays, birthdays or other celebrations, and it’s not as reasonably priced as other foods.

SONY DSCThough there is no denying the popularity of sushi chains in Russia, the nature of the so-called Japanese food here needs to be addressed. Most ingredients used in sushi restaurants come not from Japan, but from Europe, Africa, China, Korea or Russia. One could add the fact that Japanese products are almost always quite expensive. Soy sauce, nori (dried seaweed), wasabi and vinegars are also not made in Japan, but actually imported from China and Korea, where they are far cheaper.

Cooks and customers alike don’t feel it is necessary to order ingredients all the way from Japan as the natural flavour of ingredients is not of eminent importance to them. This might originate from the fact that the food served in Russian sushi restaurants are seasoned with various things that have their own strong flavour, such as mayonnaise, cream cheese, ketchup and chili sauce.

In Japan, cooks never wrap rice in salmon, cucumber or other raw fish. Customers never eat sushi with cream cheese, ketchup, mayonnaise or other sauces which have their own unique flavors; they spoil the natural flavors of ingredients. Unlike other types of rice, Japanese rice is very soft and faintly sweet. In Japan, Sushi is mainly shaped by hand, not rolled.

The rice ball should be soft and chewy, maybe a little greasy. Fresh sashimi should be pleasant on the tongue and have a melting sensation in the mouth. Brewed soy sauce should have a tense, flavourful aroma of soybeans. In the mouth, the delicate sweetness of rice and the tense flavour of sashimi should spread evenly, and the flavour of wasabi should go straight to the nose. Each grain of rice should look like a sparkling pearl, and the bright colours of sashimi should be pleasing to the eye. This is real Japanese sushi.

The “Russian” version of sushi may not be a terrible affront other than being anything but authentically Japanese. Interestingly, St. Petersburg is now the city that has the highest number of Japanese restaurants outside of Japan. One can only hope that people in St. Petersburg will one day be able to enjoy genuine Japanese cuisine.

As our experts can attest, while the world’s cuisines exert a great influence on the menu that is St. Petersburg’s restaurant scene, special attention must be paid to find the best and most authentic fare. The options available have clearly evolved over the past two decades and the future surely has both challenges and surprises in store for those seeking to explore international culinary experiences without leaving the banks of the Neva.

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