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With major restaurant chains hit by food safety scares, and a factory worker jailed last month for lacing frozen foods with pesticides, consumer confidence in the food industry in Japan is at an all-time low. Writer and food safety campaigner Hirokazu Kawagishi’s latest book is a timely contribution to this renewed skepticism about the food we eat, where it comes from, and whether it is what it claims to be. In Gaishoku no uragawa (literally, “the other side of dining out”), Kawagishi reveals the secrets behind Japan’s restaurant trade.

In an extract published in Toyo Keizai this week, Kawagishi lifts the lid on Japan’s kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) with 10 pro tips to help you decide which restaurants are worth your time — and which to avoid.

Let’s take a look at what he recommends, including why you should always take a closer look at the squid; the secret significance of the hole in the soy-sauce pourer, and more tips to make sure you don’t get scammed at the sushi counter.

With major chains offering plates for just 100 yen (less than US$1), you’d be forgiven for thinking that they all sell the same product. But Mr. Kawagishi says there are big differences between the major sushi chains. Some use fish which arrives at the restaurant frozen and pre-cut into neta pieces, ready to be plopped on top of the rice. Some don’t even cook their own rice on-site. But how can you tell? Well, according to Mr. Kawagishi, it’s just a case of knowing where to look.

1) First, check out the squid

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When you arrive at a sushi restaurant, says Mr. Kawagishi, the first thing you should do is take a good look at the raw squid being served. Does it have cuts scored into it? Scoring the flesh like this is essential to get rid of a parasite called anisakis, which is commonly found on the surface of squid. If raw squid has an unscored, flat glossy surface, that means it’s been frozen and defrosted before being served.

Freezing kills the anisakis parasite, so in the United States the FDA actually recommends all shellfish and fish are blast-frozen before raw consumption; but Japan, or at least Mr. Kawagishi, takes issue with this. Taste comes first, and a sushi restaurant that’s serving pre-sliced frozen fish isn’t going to be a patch on one that cuts it fresh for you.

2) How much tuna is in your tekka?

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Tekka-maki is a thin sushi roll filled with red tuna – and hopefully not much else.

In some restaurant chains, though, they’ll mix raw tuna with vegetable oil to make a lighter pink sludge that looks like toro (fatty tuna) but is in fact cheaper. You can tell if your tuna has been adulterated by giving the maki a gentle squeeze: straight tuna can’t be squished easily, but if it’s been cut with vegetable oil it’ll lose its shape immediately.

3) Is the tamago freshly cooked?

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Do you want your egg fresh from the frying pan, or straight from the freezer? Tamagoyaki should have a slightly uneven, hand-cooked appearance, says Mr. Kawagishi. If it’s the same yellow shade all over, it’s probably been made with liquid egg from a bottle, too.

Personally, I like my tamago ever so slightly on the warm side, just to remind me that it came from a pan a little while ago. I certainly don’t want it to be chilly to the teeth because it’s been in a fridge all day.

4) That soy sauce spout

Next, look at the soy sauce dispenser on the table in the restaurant. How big is the hole in the spout? According to Mr. Kawagishi, restaurants that are serving poor quality fish deliberately provide a soy sauce bottle with a wider opening, so you’ll pour, and thus use, a lot of sauce. Once you’ve unwittingly drowned the fish in soy sauce, you’ll be less likely to notice that it’s not as fresh as it should be.

This kind of dispenser is also probably a bad sign.

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Mr. Kawagishi goes on to explain that the condiment in the soy sauce dispenser might not even be soy sauce at all – it could be “amino-acid type condiment” or some other dubious, strongly flavoured concoction.

By this point in the list, I for one was beginning to feel disheartened by the stories of fake fish and tableware-based trickery. Are cheap restaurants out purely to trick and deceive us? Luckily, Mr. Kawagishi’s next point is a little more positive!

5) You can’t go wrong with salmon

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There’s one item on the menu that will be the same quality, whether you’re in a 100 yen chain restaurant or a high-end sushi place. In Japan, any salmon you’ll get as sashimi has almost definitely been imported. The salmon in a high-end restaurant will be thicker cut, but in terms of raw ingredient, there’s no real difference, whether you’re paying 100 or 10,000 yen. Whichever sushi-go-round chain you visit, therefore, salmon is usually a fail-safe option.

6) It’s not all about the fish

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Is the rice warm? A good sushi restaurant should at the very least be serving rice that’s been freshly cooked on-site. If you’re skeptical about the rice you’ve been given, Mr. Kawagishi recommends peeling off the fish and tasting the rice by itself. If it seems oddly sweet or too cool, chances are the restaurant is using pre-cooked rice.

Once we’ve worked out whether the restaurant we’re in is trying to rip us off or not, Mr. Kawagishi would have us remember three more important tips for eating like a pro. (And as we learned last month, we’ve been doing it all wrong anyway!) Here they are:

7) Eat in the right order

Apparently, it’s best to start with subtle fish (such as white fish), before moving on to stronger flavours like uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe). Next up, you should have fatty items like toro (hopefully it’ll be actual toro, and not just tuna cut with vegetable oil), and finally maki.

▼ At what point should I have my 100 yen fries, though?!

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8) Eat with your fingers

Sushi tastes best when the neta (fish part) is laid directly onto your tongue. It’s easier to do that with your fingers than with chopsticks, which is why sushi is supposed to taste best when eaten with your hands (but you knew that already, right Rocketeers?!)

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We’re not sure too many people want to try that out at a 100 yen chain restaurant, though!

9) Fresh is everything

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Sushi is at its most delicious the moment it’s made. From the second it hits the plate, says Mr. Kawagish, it’s losing freshness. It stands to reason, then, that at kaitenzushi you should never actually eat anything off the belt. Think of the conveyer belt as a revolving display cabinet of what’s on offer, and order the dishes you want so that they come to you fresh. Or at least fresher.

After that little triad of advice on how to dine properly, Mr. Kawagishi returns to the question of the restaurant itself for his final piece of advice:

10) Judge on appearances

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Without even entering a restaurant, you can tell a lot about it. If the shop’s outside is clutter- and garbage-free, and if the staff uniforms look clean and well looked-after, the kitchen will probably be clean too. And you’ll never get tasty sushi from a dirty shop, says Mr. Kawagishi.

While some of these tips may seem like common sense, we hope you learned something new, too! You can find out more about Mr. Kawagishi’s fascinating work on his Facebook page. The good news is, he updates it with daily photos. The bad news is, he’s a food safety fanatic, so sometimes the pictures are of mouldy cheese.

Sources: Toyo Keizai, Hirokazu Kawagishi via Facebook
Top image: ochanomizu hotel juraku