Thinking outside the box: Osaka-style 'boxed' sushi
OSAKA--Sushi, the Japanese style of fast food that has taken the world by storm, has a long history. But it's not all about raw fish--at least here in Japan's second-largest city.
The hand-molded bites of rice seasoned with vinegar and sugar, topped with slices of mostly raw fish, are actually a style of sushi, called Edo-mae, or Tokyo-style sushi.
The signature sushi here in Osaka is called hako-zushi, or boxed sushi. Unlike Tokyo's Edo-style sushi, all the ingredients are either cooked or cured. And the sushi is not molded by hand, but rather, hand-pressed using a wooden square box, called hako.
Ingredients are placed atop a mound of sushi rice, and firmly pressed down with the lid to form a large block of sushi. The lid is carefully lifted and the sushi deftly cut into individual pieces. The aesthetics of hako-zushi lie in the clean-cut lines and the burst of color combinations of the bite-size treats. The sushi morsels that come out of the fragrant Japanese cypress wooden box are almost artisanal in their beauty.
Hako-zushi ingredients consist of elements of traditional nimono, a simmered course; yakimono, a grilled course; sunomono, a vinaigrette course; and mushimono, a steamed course. They are all represented and served within a wooden framework that is just 8 centimeters square.
Thus, the sushi is sometimes praised as miniature kaiseki, the term for a traditional multi-course dinner, measuring "nisun rokubu"--8 centimeters--as opposed to the regular "hassun" 8-inch platter used in a kaiseki course.
There are basically three schools of Osaka-style sushi: mushi-zushi (a steamed sushi); bo-zushi (a rod shaped pressed sushi); and hako-zushi. Yet, the regal hako-zushi seems to claim the name in its own right.
The main ingredients are grilled anago (sea-water eel), vinegared small sea bream, poached prawn and Japanese-style egg omelet. Back in the Edo Period (1603-1867), sushi was created with affordable fish like mackerel. Then in the middle of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), an establishment in Osaka's Senba district, called Yoshino Sushi, decided to elevate the concept to a new level, developing the hako-zushi that prevails today, with a variety of toppings arranged in an artistic mosaic. The elegant hako-zushi became popular among Senba's wealthy merchants and patrons. Other sushi shops quickly adopted the new style.
Whereas the essence of Edo-style sushi is the freshness of the toppings, Osaka's hako-zushi is all about technique and elaborate preparation.
Take the anago sea-water eel, for example. The anago is grilled slowly over charcoal coals, and repeatedly brushed with a sweet and salty sauce; the shiitake mushrooms that are sandwiched inside the rice are simmered in a broth for more than five hours.
When it comes to hako-zushi, rice is the key. A Yoshino Sushi chef said the taste of the rice "dictates 60 percent of the taste of the sushi." The vinegared rice is on the sweet side, and bursts with rich flavors inside the mouth.
In 2007, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries designated hako-zushi as Osaka’s local cuisine. But in reality hako-zushi is losing its status as a popular local staple. Hako-zushi ingredients are all seasoned and flavored so the pieces need no dipping sauce. Yet, quite a few customers at Yoshino Sushi, unaware of this, try to use soy sauce.
If it weren't for World War II, the fate of boxed sushi could have turned out quite differently. In 1947, postwar Japan was suffering from a severe food shortage. The government effectively prohibited all catering and restaurant trade.
It was the ingenuity of Tokyo's sushi restaurant association to insist that exchanging a cup of rice with 10 pieces of hand-molded sushi was, in fact, not "restaurant business" but "contract manufacturing." The authorities gave way.
Hand-molded, nigiri-style sushi was the prerequisite for the "contract manufacturing" business. Thus, many sushi outlets in Osaka switched over to Edo-style sushi.
Improvements in freezing technology and better transportation networks and logistics helped bolster the popularity of nigiri-style sushi.
By the 1970s, reasonably priced kaiten-zushi restaurant chains, with sushi loaded plates rotating on a conveyer belt around shop counters became the rage.
Nigiri-style sushi quickly became Japan's popular national food. Hako-zushi required too much prep and handiwork. The skilled sushi chefs were getting on in years. There were few keepers of the heritage.
Long established hako-zushi restaurants closed down one after another. Now, there are only a handful of places that offer hako-zushi as their main staple.
It was precisely this set of circumstances that led to the birth of Sanematsu, a restaurant that opened in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, in 2003. Sanematsu specializes in hako-zushi takeaways. It serves roughly 50 customers a day who are drawn to the taste of the "good old days."
Master sushi chef Takuji Sanematsu, 66, who has much experience working in Japan and overseas, was confident of success.
He said: "I knew we were offering the real thing."
At Yoshino Sushi, the founder of hako-zushi, customers are served traditional sushi prepared by seventh-generation master chef Takuji Hashimoto, 33.
He said: "I am proud to carry the culinary heritage of Osaka. I am committed to my work."
Naomichi Ishige, 75, an ethnologist who is a gourmand well-versed in the history and food culture of Japan, said that it was time for hako-zushi to head out overseas.
Ishige noted that after nigiri ventured abroad, chiefs overseas added novel ingredients like avocado, and succeeded in broadening the culinary possibilities of sushi. Ishige sounded hopeful: "If hako-zushi draws attention on the world stage that would revitalize interest back here in Japan.”
Former professional soccer player Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, 36, who played on the Japanese national team, was born in Osaka. He shared his views on hako-zushi:
"I just loved hako-zushi. I remember eating a lot of anago sushi when I was a child. The hako-zushi pieces are delicate and dainty compared to their counterpart, nigiri. That's what makes them so special.
"I sense true workmanship in the careful preparation and seasoning of ingredients. Hako-zushi travels well. So I want to see more people take hako-zushi along on trips and bring it home as a souvenir.
"I live abroad right now. Everywhere I go, I only see nigiri, fresh seafood sushi. I think foreigners will love the bright color palette unique to hako-zushi. I hope hako-zushi will go global and start spreading the good word."
GREW UP IN KANSAI
According to Osamu Shinoda's book "Sushi no hon" (Book on sushi) published by Iwanami Gendai Bunko, sushi was actually "born in Southeast Asia and grew up in Japan's Kansai area." Sushi originated as a means of preservation when fermented rice was used to store fish. During the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) people began eating rice and fish together, which gave rise to bo-zushi and oshi-zushi (pressed sushi) styles.