Exploring LA Sushi with Carl Chu

~ By RICHARD FOSS ~Originally published in LA CityBeat 2004

Carl Chu poked gently at a piece of sushi roll with a chopstick as he mused over the way America’s tastes have changed the world’s.

“Sushi has become American food. There is a distinctly Californian style of sushi roll, with ingredients like mayonnaise, avocado, and tomatoes. It’s what we do – if you go to Taco Bell you’ll have a burrito that is nothing like traditional Mexican food, and real Italian pizza is nothing like we serve here. Nowadays you can get the American versions around the world; just like American-style sushi rolls are spreading through Japan. It’s one of the amazing things that happens here – we tweak immigrant foods into things that fit our tastes, and the idea spreads around the world.”

Chu should know, having explored Asian food in America over five years and two books. His first, “Finding Chinese Food In Los Angeles” (Crossfield) isn’t just a compendium of restaurant reviews, but an explanation of the cooking of various regions of China with tips on where to dine locally. Since its publication in 2003 some restaurants have changed, but the enlightening and sometimes humorous explanations of the cuisine are every bit as useful. He admits that despite being was born in Taiwan, a haven for talented chefs who fled Mao’s Cultural Revolution, he still had plenty to learn about the cooking from other regions of the country.

“It’s hard even for someone who reads Chinese to understand a menu, given the poetic names for some dishes. When you have a dish called Buddha Jumping Over A Wall, what does that tell you?”

Personally, it tells me to go to the internet and look it up. It’s a dish from Fujian province noted for a huge number of expensive ingredients. It sounds more like a way of showing off your wealth to dinner guests than a way to impress them with your taste. Asked about the clutter of flavors in this and other Chinese dishes, Carl said that he realized a pivotal difference between Chinese and Japanese food while researching his new book, “The Search For Sushi” – the essential artificiality of Chinese dishes as opposed to the Japanese concentration on natural flavors and textures.

“The skills that go into cooking Chinese are all about control of heat and use of spices, and if the chef is good enough, he can make a fine meal with almost anything. Japanese cooking uses more raw or very lightly cooked ingredients. There are times when the taste or texture of a vegetable isn’t at its peak because of a bad growing season, and a Japanese chef has fewer ways of disguising that. They stop offering that item and come up with something else. Japanese food in Japan is very seasonal – they have extremes of weather and change cooking methods and spicing with the seasons. Few restaurants do that in California because we have fresh ingredients available all year round.”

For much of Chu’s book, the focus is on those ingredients – readers learn what time of year certain fish are at their peak, how to sequence the items you order so the flavors build rather than clash, and which are spoiled rather than enhanced by adding soy or wasabi. The artistry of the chef is also explored, and after you read the book some of the mysterious things that itamai is doing behind the counter will suddenly make sense. A short section at the end of the book includes sushi bar recommendations for major cities in Japan, the US, and Australia – another reminder of its worldwide appeal. At this time there is no regional Australian style of sushi, but since talent and information know no boundaries, it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that one will someday evolve. The section on Los Angeles includes suggestions for strictly traditional, modern, and creative restaurants, and will be a useful guide for locals.

As we sat over our meal, Chu frequently discoursed on societal themes, and I asked if he had studied anthropology before switching majors to journalism. As it turned out, he did neither. “I started out as an engineer, specializing in mass transit. That may not seem like it has a great deal to do with my writing, but it does… I’m looking at the social context of food, and that’s something you always keep in mind when you’re deciding the path of a highway or rail line. You affect communities when you do that, and you have to know who they are. Especially when you’re dealing with Asian cuisines, you have to understand the culture to understand the food.”

As he pointed out, while sushi has a cultural context that is Japanese, both the people who prepare it and the ones who enjoy it are from everywhere.

“You can have high-quality Japanese food in areas without many Japanese people. The San Fernando Valley is an example – a small Japanese population but some of the best sushi restaurants in California. I think it has something to do with the fact that good Japanese restaurants revolve around the chef, who often puts his name on the restaurant. Chinese restaurants hardly ever do that – the chefs are anonymous. In Japanese society, chefs have higher status; they’re regarded as artists. I think the isolation of the Japanese helped them to focus on developing their culture to an incredible sophistication.”

In Search Of Sushi is a valuable guide to aspects of that culture as well as the cuisine, and even enthusiastic fans of Japanese food will learn ways of getting the most out of their next visit to a sushi bar. It may be just a tip on proper etiquette or a hint of how to sequence your selections so you get the maximum of enjoyment from each, but it will make a difference. The book won’t officially be out for a few weeks, but advance copies are already in bookstores like Cook’s Library and Vroman’s.

So now that he has explored these cuisines, what will his next book be about? “This,” he said happily, as he raised his glass of iced tea. “I’ve been interested in tea for some time, and just came back from a trip to Asia to study it. There’s an incredible variety of flavors and styles, and of course, the rituals of preparation and drinking. Tea has a culture too, and I’m looking forward to writing about it.”

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