What exactly is the state of sushi in American culture?
Once the most cutting-edge, exotic style of foreign cuisine to reach American shores, it now sits humbly within mass-produced plastic trays at virtually every large supermarket in America. Today, “California Rolls” are about as edgy as “Pumpkin Spice Lattes,” but presumably there will forever be a segment of the American population for whom consuming raw fish is unimaginable—which has prevented sushi from becoming fully absorbed within the mainstream of American eating the way Chinese and Mexican food have been. While Panda Express and Taco Bell no longer register as belonging to a different category from Burger King, sushi will always be its own thing, slightly offbeat.
Yet sushi also is distinct from other, more newly trendy “ethnic” foods: because excellent sushi is absolutely predicated on high-quality, fresh ingredients, the best sushi is often the most expensive sushi—a state of affairs that may seem natural enough but actually runs contrary to the discovery-oriented spirit of adventure that animates self-proclaimed “foodies.” The best Thai restaurant in America may really be a grungy strip-mall joint on the outskirts of Houston, but the best sushi restaurant is probably Manhattan’s Masa, which, at $450 a person, serves more businessmen than hipsters. Those averse both to old-fashioned haute-cuisine prices and to inauthentic iterations of foreign foods have few options when it comes to sushi.
The other demographic responsible for sushi’s initial rise—besides trendy food-oriented people—was trendy health-oriented people; however, in the age of kale and quinoa, sushi’s reputation as a health food seems sort of a thing of the past. It’s better for you than cheeseburgers, but today’s nutrition fanatics would never consume white rice, let alone the cream cheese and tempura flakes of American makizushi.
So who still is eating sushi? The answer is: everyone, because sushi tastes good. Most who try it like it.
In fact, sushi tastes so good that America has begun a quest to find out how bad sushi can get before it stops tasting better than most other foods. What if we sell it at Walgreens? What if we sell it at gas stations? What if we sell it at Costco? These are all realities.
The idea of “supermarket sushi” does not even make sense, given the conceptual framework within which sushi was initially presented to courageous American diners: that raw fish may never be fully safe, but if it’s served very fresh, under the supervision of a well-trained chef, it’s worth the small risk. If we assume that, in most cases, supermarket sushi is assembled by a careless robot working after-hours in an overseas cat-food factory and then, after traveling across globe, sits idle for days in a refrigerated case, it seems impossible that it can be remotely safe—yet somehow the assembly-line nature of the product actually makes it feel safer than it does at a mid-tier sushi bar, where a visible human (rather than a large, unseen food conglomerate) is responsible for your well-being.
Sometimes, a container of premade sushi when you’re shopping for groceries in a landlocked state seems like a great idea for a light, easy dinner.
There are three supermarkets in Rutland that sell sushi: Price Chopper downtown, Hannaford on the southern end of town, and Tops, formerly the Grand Union store, at the junction of Route 4 and Route 7. For this article, your intrepid reporter sampled the selections at all three last week.
Alas, Tops sold only frozen sushi (a concept previously unknown to me), packaged by Banzai, “Seattle’s 2011 Food Company of the Year.” I bought a 15-piece tray for $8.99, the cheapest-per-ounce unit I got at any of the three supermarkets. It contained three prawn nigiri and 12 pieces of cooked maki (no raw fish) with various indistinguishable fillings. I was disconcerted by the California Rolls’ snow-white avocado chunks, which had somehow lost every speck of their natural green. The worst part of Banzai’s uramaki, however, was the thickly layered, sweetened rice, which had a glutinous, mochi-like texture.
Hannaford, boasting an impressive 30 trays of sushi at the time of my visit, offered primarily unorthodox choices—most of the rolls contained chicken, mayonnaise, fried bits, or some other obviously American ingredient. I bought a “Tropical Delight” ($8.99, a mango-and-seafood roll with spicy peppers), a healthy “Avocado Salad Roll” ($5.49, a rice-papered vegetarian wrap that, as it contained neither rice nor fish, didn’t resemble sushi or sashimi at all—it was more like a Vietnamese summer roll), and a “Super Marina Plate” ($13.49, a miscellany). These—except for some crab salad that had a smoky off-taste—were all reasonably appetizing, if not ebulliently fresh.
Price Chopper’s selection (27 trays) looked virtually identical to Hannaford’s, but the setup there was different, vaguely suggesting a real sushi bar that, though unattended while I shopped, may have been manned at some point in the day by an actual sushi chef who may have created the store’s sushi on-premises. Unlike the sushi at Hannaford, the trays here came (reassuringly) with a packaged-on date, not just a sell-by date. I bought two containers: a “Lobster Roll” ($6.99, a cucumber roll topped with a messy glob of mixed-shellfish salad) and a simple “Tokyo Roll” ($5.49, the only primarily fish-based maki of this experiment, containing sliced tuna, yellowtail, salmon, tilapia, and relatively few extraneous ingredients).
Of all the sushi I ate, Price Chopper’s Tokyo Roll was the best. The irony of supermarket sushi is that, after refrigeration, raw fish still tastes good; it’s the rice that really suffers, yet supermarket sushi contains a lot more rice than raw fish.
Even so, the sushi area is probably my second-favorite part of the prepared foods department in any supermarket, after the olive bar. I’m not sure what that says about my palate, my consumer status, or my likelihood of dying from mercury poisoning—more than anything, it probably speaks to the greatness of soy sauce and wasabi, which, half the time, is what I’m really craving.