Wednesday, September 20, 2006


For a country which consumes a meagre 8kg of fish per capita per year, the sudden popularity of sushi definitely needs some explaining.

I suspect this socio-culinary phenomenon has more to do with projecting a certain image than porteños' genuine fondness of any food other than beef, potato, and refined carbohydrates. Maybe the desire to be "de moda" (fashionable) can really conquer their innate unadventurous palate; we are not just talking about fish after all, we are talking about raw fish.

There are a few passable Japanese restaurants in this town but the most disturbing sign is the numerous items on their menu with Philadelphia Cream Cheese. It gets my blood boiling; the Argentines have already bastardised the Italian pizza with too much cheese, now they are at it again!

I remember meals at Dashi, Osaka and Gaijin (the most authentic of the three) in which we had to carefully wade through the menu to find combinations without the offending item. Most of the time, we ended up with sashimi combinations – no cheese, no rice, just raw fish.

At Saturday's party, Guillermo and I sat with his St. Catherine's and St Brendan's educated cousins. These privileged guys and girls who wouldn't even go near cooked fish before were asking me how to make sushi at home.

They have already stocked up on seaweed sheets, mirin, rice vinegar, wasabi and the right type of rice. The obvious reason for their previous failed attempts is the absence of a piece of vital equipment, the electric rice cooker. Judging from their keenness, I believe I have boosted the sales of rice cooker at supermarkets in Barrio Chino.

Out of curiosity, I asked them what they put inside their maki (rolls). I wasn't surprised when avocado, cream cheese and tinned tuna were rolling off their tongue. Why bother eating sushi if it is not sushi they really want to eat? It is no different than putting a slice of ham and cheese, plus a dollop of queso blanco on some rice and seaweed then call it sushi!

Since we have a rice cooker at home, I have offered to make them futomaki (太巻き) with more traditional ingredients. It'll be interesting to see if they still like sushi so much after that.

In the name of research, I lunched at a sushi chain named Sensu yesterday. This outlet has branches in the more up-market shopping centres such as Village Recoleta, Alto Palermo and Solar de la Abadía. They also deliver to your home. I ordered a combination set of maki and nigiri sushi. Since green tea wasn't even a choice on the menu, I had mineral water.

The nigiri sushi of salmon and pescado blanco (white fish) were not as fresh as they should be. I am skeptical of menus which do not specify the fish they use; even fish with white flesh has a name. Of course, it was useless asking the waiter what was the white fish.

If the nigiri were underwhelming, the maki were worse. I couldn't believe people think those were sushi at all. The norimaki were made with low quality reconstituted crabsticks and cream cheese in the centre, simply diabolical. And it wasn't that cheap if you think it was just a restaurant chain, my very modest portion of sushi and water came to 30 pesos.

I suppose the moral of this story is to forget about going mass market when it comes to Japanese food in this town. If the so-called Japanese restaurants, the worst offenders being those in Palermo Hollywood, commanding top dollars cannot get it right, there is little chance for anyone else.

The change in weather has prompted my cravings for Japanese food which is light and fresh on the palate when executed well. One dish I particularly miss, though not all that traditional, is fantastically easy and luxurious at the same time.

Soba with sea urchin dressing was introduced to me by a gourmand friend and his Japanese wife. He simply took a wooden slab of uni (sea urchin) and whisked it with light soy, extra virgin olive oil and a dash of mirin to form a thick dressing. Cooked soba coated in this golden richness with a sprinkle of salmon roe and bits of toasted seaweed would take you to fast food heaven in an instant; I guarantee it.

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