Nobu: Japanese food culture in the West
In the last twenty years in Italy there has been an epochal change as regards the eating habits and taste of people. In fact, since the '00s it has become normal to consume raw fish in large quantities and this practice is now so well established that it seems to have always been the case. The reality is obviously different and the old consuming practices seem so distant in time that they seem never to exist.
This turnaround did not happen by chance of course. Behind every evolution of habits and customs there is always an explanation and, as almost always happens in the Italian case, it comes from very far away and has occurred back in time.
The massive consumption of sushi in our country, the credit, in particular, goes to a man who is hardly ever talked about but who is the architect of a change that also involves the rest of the Western world. This is the Japanese chef Nobu.
With the opening of his first restaurant in Italy in 2000 and the publication of the recipe book in 2001, he changed the eating habits of thousands of people.
Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's stormy and incredible life began in Saitama in 1949.
He lost his father at the age of eight in a car accident and was later kicked out of school: at seventeen he was forced to work as a dishwasher at Matsuei Sushi restaurant in Shinjuku.
There he began his sushi chef training and after seven years he was invited to move to Peru by Luis Matsufuji (a Japanese-Peruvian businessman who he knew), with the proposal to open a sushi restaurant together - in Peru there was already a large community of Japanese emigrants from the 19th century.
In 1972 he then moved to Lima where he discovered a great variety of fish and lots of spices. After a bad fight with his business partner, Nobu left the place and went to Buenos Aires to get a job at the Mikado restaurant. In Argentina, the situation was very difficult, because people preferred meat to fish. So he decided to return to Japan with his wife and two children, with no money and no prospects. A close friend of him at that time proposed to him to follow him to Alaska, where he wanted to open a restaurant: business finally went well but, after only two weeks from opening, the place burned down due to an electrical fault.
Nobu returned to Japan again and then left for Los Angeles where he worked at Mitsuwa and Osho, a chain of Japanese restaurants. He finally had the opportunity to work at an eight-seat counter where he experimented for the first time with his personal recipes, the result of studies carried out in his previous travels, some of which became cornerstones of his kitchen.
He started with ceviche, a typical Peruvian dish, of which he took the sauce from the marinade: to prevent the fish from overcooking, he spread it over the sashimi just before serving. This dish was incredibly successful, as was the tiradito, so much so that years later the Peruvian government appointed Nobu ambassador of Peruvian cuisine to the world.
Later it was the turn of the soft-shelled crabs, which he tasted for the first time in an Italian restaurant. He cooked them in deep oil and, at the suggestion of a customer, put them inside a roll: thus the soft shell crab roll was born.
These dishes were not born only from the creative genius of Nobu but also and above all from the need to meet the tastes of Americans who had completely different and very distant habits compared to the Japanese: to make Japanese cuisine appreciated, Nobu understood from the beginning that he had to proceed gradually, getting closer to the American taste and creating dishes that were a cross between cultures.
Therefore, when he realized that Americans loved fish with a soft texture, he studied how to make black cod appreciated by preparing it according to the recipe of saikyoyaki - fish marinated all night in white miso. Since getting that kind of miso was complicated at that time, he decided to use other ingredients like sugar and mirin and then grill the fish. The black cod with miso had an incredible success, so much so that later this type of fish was introduced in many international cuisines.
Although things were going well, the owner of the restaurant sold and Nobu found the strength through a financier friend to finally open his own restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills. In 1987 he opened the Matsuhisa, a small restaurant with a sushi counter for the omakase proposal, the result of improvisation and the effort to understand the tastes and needs of customers.
There are numerous dishes that Nobu invented behind that counter in those years.
One day he served a woman who did not eat raw fish (a custom common to almost all Americans): Nobu garnished white fish sashimi with almost smoke-point oil and ponzu sauce. The result was new style sashimi, lightly cooked on the surface.
Then it was the turn of the fried sea urchins in tempura wrapped in shiso leaf and nori seaweed, cooked in deep oil and served with lemon, salt and pepper separately.
One day a child put the chef in trouble by saying to eat only pasta: Nobu worked squid making them look like conchiglioni (a type of pasta) and sautéed them with asparagus and shiitake mushrooms. Sautéed calamari pasta with light garlic sauce became another signature dish.
From the counter Nobu noticed that the Americans were mixing wasabi in soy sauce before dipping sashimi in it. So he decided to combine the wasabi powder with the dashi broth and the soy sauce in a saucepan, thickening everything with garlic, olive oil (or melted butter) and black pepper. The result was the famous spicy garlic sauce used to garnish grilled tuna, chicken and scallops. The customers liked it so much that they started bringing bread to make the "scarpetta"!
Americans also loved to consume salads - in California there is a custom of eating light to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Nobu decided to add slices of seared tuna and a dressing based on soy sauce: so was born the sashimi salad with Matsuhisa dressing.
One day Nobu bought a huge amount of tuna. Not being able to use it all for sushi and sashimi he decided to cook it as a steak that apparently looked like wagyu. No one before that moment had ever offered tuna in that way in the US.
Matsuhisa restaurant became a real landmark in Los Angeles. Numerous newspapers began to review it, and in 1993 the New York Times listed it among the top ten restaurants in the world - the only traditional Japanese restaurant on the list was Kyoto's Kitcho.
Nobu began to serve numerous illustrious clients such as Tom Cruise, Barbra Streisand, Madonna and, in 1988, even Robert De Niro who after a year asked him to open a restaurant together in New York. Nobu was not convinced and waited until 1994 before agreeing to the opening of the Nobu restaurant in Tribeca.
It was a restaurant three times larger than the Matsuihisa which featured an omakase menu based on improvisation only at the counter, while a pre-set menu was available at the table. Furthermore, until that moment, Nobu had proposed only fresh fruit as a dessert (as happens in almost all traditional Japanese restaurants) but in Tribeca he hired a pastry chef who created signature sweets such as the bento box: dark chocolate with ice cream served in a box lacquered.
Nobu became a star, so much so that he appeared in Hollywood films such as Martin Scorsese's Casino (1995) and Austin Powers in Goldmember by Jay Roach's (2002).
The year 2000 marked the turning point for what concerns Italy: Nobu entered into business with the stylist Giorgio Armani, opening the Nobu restaurant in Milan. It was a difficult choice initially for the chef, since Italian cuisine was based on solid and well-anchored traditions: he did not think that Italians would appreciate raw fish but to his great surprise the Milanese customers loved his cuisine, as he himself reported in the his autobiography published in 2014:
Milan enthusiastically welcomed Nobu's cuisine. A few years ago I went to eat at a newly opened seafood restaurant in town and to my surprise they brought me a dish very similar to sashimi. The first time I was in Milan, no one would ever order raw fish. I asked the chef: << Now do you eat it in Milan? >> He replied: <<Are you kidding? When you opened your restaurant, you changed the restaurant culture in this city, didn't you know? >>
FUSION AND AYCE
Over the years Nobu expanded what became his empire, counting over 40 restaurants around the world and luxury hotels, as well as a sushi bar on cruise ships. In each of his premises there is an identical menu as well as some exclusive courses made with local and seasonal ingredients.
With the publication of Nobu: The Cookbook (2001) restaurateurs in every corner of the globe began to copy his recipes to the letter; it was often the former chefs of his premises who proposed his recipes.
Nobu has never liked to define his cuisine as "fusion", although in fact it would be classified as such. In any case, his genius was to invent watershed dishes that have diametrically modified food uses in the world.
There is no doubt that the first approach of Europeans to Japanese cuisine was of the fusion type, since, as for Americans, the taste of Italians was very different from that of Japan.
In the Milanese case, there were very few restaurants offering traditional Japanese cuisine and were mainly frequented by Japanese residing in Italy and businessmen who continually traveled the world - I remember Tomoyoshi Endo (since 1970), Poporoya (first opening as a food in 1977 and then the first sushi bar in Milan in 1984) and Osaka (the first ramen restaurant in Milan opened since 1999).
Unfortunately, Nobu's decidedly not very popular prices did not allow most people to know and taste his dishes, other successful entrepreneurs succeeded in this arduous undertaking by taking up the American formula of All You Can Eat and allowing for the first time to bring Italians to oriental cuisine.
AYCE was born in the 1960s in the casinos of Las Vegas, when lavish buffets were offered without limits at midnight. In Italy, many Chinese entrepreneurs proposed this formula, offering menus at bargain prices that included Japanese-American dishes (otherwise called "fusion") and Europeanized Chinese dishes. It was a real boom, a multi-generational turning point that involved everyone, entire families included.
It is customary to think that AYCE sushi is a strictly Western peculiarity, but in reality low-cost sushi formulas have also existed in Japan for many years in "mechanized" versions that were also lucky in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century.
Following the historical evolution, first of all it must be said that the first "prototype" of sushi arrived in Japan about 2000 years ago from China. The "modern sushi", similar to what we mean today, was made in the Rising Sun around 1800 and after World War II it came to be considered a luxury food - before then it was usually sold in street stalls.
During the 1950s, Yoshiaki Shiraishi, owner of a sushi restaurant, invented a method of mechanization of preparation and service in order to try to reduce the high costs of this dish and make it more popular. After visiting an Asahi Brewery and being fascinated by conveyor belts, he set about working on his personal project. In 1958 he opened Mawaru Genroku Sushi in Osaka, the first kaiten restaurant in the world. It was immediately lucky, so much so that in the space of a few years over 200 opened throughout Japan. Even today, many Japanese eat kaiten sushi, as evidenced by ever-crowded places like Genki Sushi in Shibuya.
Also in Italy the kaiten sushi (ie with the roll) were very successful, it is believed that the first to open was Zen Sushi.
Returning to Japan, in the 1980s there was the famous economic boom that brought the country into view in international markets. Many Japanese who had already emigrated to the United States in the 1960s decided to open sushi bars to sell their dishes to the Americans.
Over the years, many Japanese migrated to California, forming a well-defined community. Precisely in this circumstance in the 60s the first experiments that we can define "fusion" were noticed. Many chefs developed a type of sushi that was an instant hit among Americans: uramaki. It was a quality of upside-down sushi, with the external rice (the seaweed flavor was deemed too strong by Americans and not aesthetically pleasing to look at) filled with what was easy to buy in California as long as it wasn't raw fish - as indeed Americans did not eat it.
The first successful preparation was the California roll. It is assumed that chef Ichiro Mashita of Tokyo Kaikan restaurant invented it in the 1960s, replacing the tuna with avocado. Later the recipe was made up of cucumber, surimi and avocado. Since the 1980s, the California roll has become a must throughout the USA.
In fact, the authorship of this dish is also disputed between the chef Ken Seusa of Kin Jo Sushi Restaurant in Hollywood (he would have invented it in 1979 and the name of the dish was defined by many trade magazines including Gourmet Magazine) and the chef Hidekazu Tojo. The latter would have invented it in 1971 when he moved to Vancouver, Canada, giving that name in honor of the Californian customers who came to eat at his restaurant. He would also have invented the B.C. roll (British Columbia), uramaki containing grilled salmon and cucumber with sweet sauce on top.
Among the uramaki created in America and which have made the history of Japanese fusion gastronomy for years are the Phidadelphia roll (fresh or smoked salmon, Philadelphia cream cheese, cucumber or avocado), which can also include other fish besides salmon - the combination Philadelphia and avocado was very popular as a bagel topping in the 1980s in the US; the Spider roll (soft-shelled crab, cucumber, daikon, lettuce, spicy mayonnaise and external nori seaweed), clearly inspired by Nobu, whose name is mainly used in the USA; the Dragon Roll (mayonnaise, tempura shrimp, avocado) and the Rainbow roll, created in the late 1960s in Little Tokyo in the city of Los Angeles.
It is therefore possible to trace two Japanese-US catering lines, a high one represented by Nobu and the chefs of the caliber of Nobuo Fukuda of the Nobuo restaurant (here for his documentary) and one that concerns low-cost restaurants that have had the merit to make the majority of the world population approach Japanese cuisine.
After all, as in the famous monologue of the belt of The devil wears Prada, even in the kitchen it always happens to start from a dispersive base and then arrive at the highest landings. What matters is to go up the climb to get to the starting point (the washoku cuisine, a Unesco World Heritage Site) and enjoy the history and flavors.
What is not clear is that it was the Japanese chefs who made these dishes over many years and not other populations such as the Chinese one (as we usually think). Not only did the Japanese who migrated to the USA modified traditional recipes to meet the Americans, but they also had the additional ability to make dishes with raw materials of people who in turn emigrated to the United States (as shown, for example, by the Tacos of Nobu sashimi - there is a huge Hispanic community in California).
And if you think that the experiments were done by Japanese chefs only abroad, then we are very far from reality. Leaving aside the great multitude of dishes of foreign origin consumed in everyday life, continuing to talk about sushi, we must also open a parenthesis on salmon. Yes, because salmon sushi is a commercial operation called Project Japan.
In the mid-1980s, Norway was faced with an overproduction of salmon: the government therefore hired Bjorn Erik Olsen to sell it to Japan.
In 86 Olsen went to Tokyo to study the eating habits of the locals about raw fish and found his target in sushi. But the Japanese didn't eat raw salmon for two reasons: they didn't like the smell and the look, the salmon caught in the Pacific was not fat and was full of parasites.
It took Olsen a good ten years to find a solution and in 1992 he managed to sell tons of Norwegian salmon to the Nichirei Corporation, as long as it was sold as sushi.
Salmon sushi began to appear in food stores and during the 90s also on national TV: famous chefs like Yutaka Ishinabe showed this new type of sushi on programs like Iron Chef, making it popular also among the population.
Today the Japanese eat salmon sushi but it remains virtually unobtainable in high-end restaurants.
As for Italy, especially some cuts of salmon are very cheap and this is one of the reasons why so many restaurants offer it. Sometimes, in the jargon, salmon is referred to as "the chicken of the sea", precisely because it is cheap and is found in large quantities.
Today it is very fashionable to talk about Japanese cuisine and say to frequent authentic restaurants, much more because thanks to low cost travel people can go to Japan and try the local cuisine firsthand. But for many years this has not been the case and outside the big Italian cities it is still difficult to find authentic restaurants.
Ultimately, it must be emphasized that the Japanese don't eat sushi every day. There are still chains that offer low-priced sushi but the Japanese don't eat raw fish every day. What is further interesting is that many dishes that we today define as "traditional" in turn derive from foreign cuisines: even within the washoku many preparations derive from distant lands, such as sashimi from China or tempura from Portugal .
The Japanese are credited with the incredible and innate ability to assimilate the best from other peoples and rework it according to their canons. Japanese cuisine is a mix of innumerable incursions from the outside and to appreciate it, in my opinion, it must be studied and judged for what it is.
- Nobu. L'autobiografia (by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa; HarperCollins, 2019)
- Nobu: the cookbook (by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa ; Kodansha USA Inc, 2013)
- Nobu oggi (by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa; Biblioteca Culinaria, 2014)
- Nobu West (by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, Mark Edwards; Giunti, 2008)
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