Extraordinary sushi from Nishiki-zushi

Late last December, while I was traveling in Kyushu, I received a rather mysterious message that a friend had made a dinner reservation for me at a sushi restaurant in the Oita regional fishing port of Saiki, where I was planning to overnight. The restaurant, Nishiki-zushi, was just a couple of blocks from my hotel and, though I had driven for hours that day and was quite tired, I managed to go along (albeit a bit late). I’m so glad I did. Awaiting me was the most amazing sushi meal I have ever had (and in the land of sushi, that’s saying a lot!).

IMG_1323Sushi masters across Japan apply strict standards to produce fine sushi.  Hiroshi Iwasa, proprietor of Nishiki-zushi, is an excellent example of a master sushi chef.

Chef Iwasa is a Saiki native with more than five decades of experience making sushi.  He is an artist who can produce flavorsome meals that are, in the best Japanese tradition, a feast for both the eyes and the palate.

Thanks to the introduction of my friend, Chef Iwasa joined me for my meal and told me a bit of his story. It was a fantastic meal and a night to remember.

As much as possible, Chef Iwasa uses fresh fish locally caught in the nearby Bungo Strait, including flounder, squid, sardine, halfbeak, salmon, mackerel and shrimp.  He often visits the Saiki fishing port himself to select the best fish in order to give his customers the finest sushi meals.Thanks to the water temperatures and swift currents, the fish of the Bungo Strait is renowned for its excellent flavor and texture. Every sushi chef’s dream, although in this case, I was the lucky recipient of his vision.

One of Chef Iwasa’s specialties is a sea bream ham sushi served with a sour plum sauce. He also uses locally grown rice and serves tea made with locally grown leaves. To complement my meal, Chef Iwasa recommended a bottle of Hanaemi Tokubetsu Junmai, very fine local sake that paired perfectly with the many flavors of the sushi I was enjoying.

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A little over a decade ago, Chef Iwasa was asked by Japan’s ambassador to Dubai to create something really special for the embassy’s Emperor’s Birthday celebrations.  Chef Iwasa designed sushi that looked like ornamental carp swimming in a pool.  He achieved this look by putting small pieces of salmon, sea urchin and nori seaweed onto the rice ball and covering the entire ensemble with a thin slice of squid cut and arranged to look like a carp.  With little black sesame seed eyes, and even pectoral fins, the end result is charming, almost too pretty to eat.

Perhaps it was predictable that Chef Iwasa would choose ornamental carp as the central feature of his creations.  In Japanese, ornamental carp are known as “nishiki-goi” (brocaded carp), and the name of Chef Iwasa’s restaurant echoes that:  Nishiki-zushi. At the same time, Chef Iwasa makes no proprietary claims on his designs and is happy for others to copy his lead, especially if it serves to popularize sushi.

Using the yellow dye extracted from gardenia pods, known in Japan as kuchinashi no mi, Chef Iwasa makes a sunflower of dyed squid and a scored shiitake mushroom (see photo above).

He also produces other celebratory shapes, like a red-crowned crane, to the Japanese a symbol of good fortune and longevity, using a single salmon roe as the red crown.  Another popular figure converted to squid-based sushi by Chef Iwasa is the turtle, a symbol of wisdom, luck and longevity.

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Chef Iwasa’s “designer sushi” proved to be so popular with the embassy crowd that he was invited back the following year to reprise his masterpiece.  He then began to market plates of his special sushi online.  He uses a special technique of vacuum sealing the product so that it retains its shape and can ship either refrigerated or frozen.  This makes it possible for anyone to enjoy his delightful creations, which are particularly popular for special occasions.

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Plates of Chef Iwasa’s sushi (marketed under the name Tansho 丹匠) can ordinarily be purchased through the Daimaru-Matsuzakaya gift catalogue or directly from Nishiki-zushi’s website, although current disruptions in delivery schedules have resulted in temporary suspension of online sales.

I remember years ago reading in Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential, how his parents once drove miles through the French countryside to a particularly famous restaurant, leaving him and his brother in the backseat of the car with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, while his parents went inside for a meal. It was Bourdain’s epiphany that a meal of fine food could, in itself, be a special occasion.  Certainly my evening with Chef Iwasa, enjoying his amazing sushi, was a special occasion I will not soon forget.  I have to admit, given the chance, I would again drive hours to dine at Nishiki-zushi.

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Photo by Kouji Takeda (thank you!)

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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