Fishy Follies

The real bargain sushi in Minnesota isn't in grocery stores; it's hiding in plain sight

Dear Dara,

I need sushi help, but not with picking the best sushi restaurant. As you may know, a sushi habit can get expensive. So my boyfriend and I occasionally buy grocery-store sushi. I've noticed recently that the fish is sliced thinner at my local Lunds, and, well, that refrigerator taste is stronger than I remember. Which got me to thinking, where can I go for the best grocery-store sushi?

--Jessica and Barry

 

Dear Jessica and Barry,

Ooh, grocery-store sushi. The slipperiest of all modern phenomena. One day it's good, the next day it's hard and weird. One day it's good, the next day it's squashy and weird. Unfortunately, I can't possibly tell you who has got the best grocery-store sushi. It would be like trying to find out which street corner in the Twin Cities has the best weather: There are too many candidates, and conditions change too fast. The answer would be irrelevant as soon as you found it. On the other hand, grocery-store sushi provides the perfect entry point to one of the biggest issues of The Now: Why is it that the only people who have to pay for anything anymore are the only people who can't afford to?

George Bush, he gets whatever he wants and doesn't have to pay for it: a war, tax cuts for the wealthy, tax breaks so energy corporations can generate their greenhouse gases more profitably, and then pay-outs for the hurricane victims they create. Open the pages of any celebrity magazine and you see the gift bags full of perfume, shoes, and jewelry that go to various high-paid glamour ladies, which is to say nothing of the high-end doodads they get sent hourly. I'd bet that neither Madonna nor Britney nor Gwynyth has bought a purse since there was a federal budget surplus. Which is to say nothing of babies, house pets, and basement furnaces, all of which further oppress the middle classes. Is this any way to run a universe?

Obviously, the only solution is to seize the means of production.

Yes, I am advocating exactly what you think I am advocating. Something even Karl Marx himself was incapable of. I am talking about making your own sushi.

First, you must go to United Noodles. Now, United Noodles is the biggest and most comprehensive Asian grocery store in Minnesota, and, in addition to its vast selection of Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, and various other groceries, it has the biggest local selection of Japanese specialty goods--from crazy baby-aspirin-and-Midori flavored sodas to super-fancy individually wrapped rice crackers designed for the high-powered executive to everything. Everything everything everything. Sushi rice. Sushi seaweed for rolling up sushi rolls. Chili oil for making your own dynamite rolls. Surimi (those pink-on-the-outside "sea legs") for making your own California rolls. A produce area with shiso leaves, scallions, avocados, cucumbers, and all the classic sushi vegetables. A refrigerator cooler filled with oshinko (the various sushi pickles).

And dozens of varieties of miso paste, including my favorite, live miso pre-blended with concentrated dashi, the broth made of dried tuna flakes and such, which you need to turn miso paste into bona fide miso soup. If you take a spoonful of this paste-and-broth combo (it usually has a label saying something like "with bonito," referring to the dried tuna flakes that go into the dashi) and add it to hot water, you get a miso soup that's indistinguishable from most Japanese restaurant miso soups. Add little tofu squares and a pea pod or two and you will feel like you have conquered one small corner of quick budget cooking; expect to spend about $6 on a square of miso soup concentrate that will last you through a couple of hundred cups of soup. But you're not there for your budget!

Oh, wait, you are. Well, try to forget that as you confront the rather expensive freezer case full of frozen packages of sea urchin, big pre-cut sushi shrimp, flying fish eggs, pre-cut mackerel slices, squares of top-grade tuna, and big fillets of unagi, those pre-sauced eel fillets ready for your toaster oven. In short, all of the exact same ingredients that they're probably putting in your grocery-store sushi. Before you leave, be sure to stock up on to-go containers of seaweed salad, marinated octopus salad, and tubs of pink gari, that lovely, thin-sliced, pickled sushi ginger.

Oh, and don't forget the frozen packages of gyoza and shumai, those various dumplings which, once steamed, stand a good chance of being the exact same ones you buy at your local Japanese restaurant. (Many, if not most, restaurants don't make their own gyoza and shumai these days but just buy the frozen imported ones, too. They cost less than $4 a package.) Did you get enough wasabi peas? Adequate frozen mochi, those adorable rice-dough-wrapped ice-cream nubbins? Finally, you can check out. What? You're spending way, way more than you would going out to sushi? Hey, do you think it was so easy for Thomas Malthus to confront the iron law of wages? What does that mean? It means we're moving on to the next paragraph.

Welcome to this paragraph, where we get drunk. Or rather, we drive ourselves to Surdyk's, to confront their marvelous new investment in sake architecture, and their largest-in-town selection of premium sakes. What's that, you ask? Well, it seems that Surdyk's got to noticing that there really isn't anyone in the Midwest selling the rare and interesting sakes that have devoted fan bases in coastal cities with large Asian populations, and, bless their little hearts, decided to invest in the massive refrigeration system necessary to sell such a thing.

"Good sake wants to be kept chilled," Noel Nichols, the wine consultant who has been overseeing this project explained to me. "I don't have anything against warm sake, but if you want that, you can buy the inexpensive stuff. Nama sakes, however, the draft, unpasteurized sakes, have to be refrigerated when they leave the sakery in Japan, and then they have to be refrigerated every step of the way until you drink them. We get them from a refrigerated produce truck driven in specially from Los Angeles.

"You can only find Nama sakes in Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and a few other coastal cities," Nichols continued. "Unfortunately, we discovered that a lot of what they send to the rest of the country is, well, let's say not fresh. It actually took a lot of arm-twisting to get [the importers] to sell it to us at all. They were lukewarm, at best, to the idea of that sake in the Midwest. They thought we'd sell it spoiled, and ruin their name."

Hey--what are we, 16-year-old kids trying to borrow dad's Cadillac? Who's not sophisticated enough to... those are fighting words! Well, if you want to show those importers who's sophisticated, then rush right on up to Surdyk's and try one of their premium Nama sakes, such as the Ichinokura Junmai Nama sake ($28.99) or Ohyama Nama sake ($25.99; these two Nama sakes come in 720-milliliter bottles; just a fraction smaller than a standard bottle of wine.)

Surdyk's also invested heavily in a variety of other sakes: They now carry about three dozen ultra-premium varieties, many of which are of far higher quality than the top-priced glass-pours in most local Japanese restaurants. So, that's a major advantage to saving money and eating in--you can drink much, much better.

Now we head home, to make sushi. You'll need instructions, of course, so you had better consult the World Wide Web. Ideally, you will be so busy with various things that by the time your friends arrive, you will just start looking online for directions. So, your friends will be hanging out, drinking your premium sake, and you will be cursing your computer's connection speed in another room. Sooner or later, you'll get to making the rice. The rice! Your goal from this point forward is to keep sushi rice out of your computer keyboard.

Remember the first time you ever heard about sushi rice? "In Japan," someone probably told you, "a sushi chef spends a whole year as an apprentice doing nothing but making rice." Sushi rice, like the making of a good baguette, is really, really hard to do well. Sushi rice is basically super short-grain starchy rice, well washed, coated with a vinegar mixture which both keeps it pliable and, with the same logic by which we add lemon juice to dishes to "brighten" them, or drink acidic wine with meals to enhance them, heightens the taste of the fish that accompanies it.

Sounds easy? Ha! I've done it maybe a dozen times, and it's never quite right. It's invariably too sticky, too dry, too vinegared, or not vinegared enough. The best part about making sushi rice is that it makes you into a great appreciator of real, accomplished sushi rice. The other best part is that if you really screw it up once you start trying to roll it, you might just end up with hands encased in gargantuan white lumpen starch mittens of drying rice. Play your cards right and you might be able to both frighten children and destroy the paint job on your walls.

My friend Sasha, who left town years ago, used to throw make-your-own sushi parties. They were the best. He'd spend all week on the phone with the folks at Coastal Seafoods assessing the sashimi-grade fish market, he'd shop, we'd arrive around 8:00, and we'd start drinking. He'd start the rice at around 9:00, we'd realize it wasn't cooling quickly enough around 10:00, so we'd stick it out on the fire escape in the snow. Then at around 11:00 we'd remember that we were actually there for dinner and go dump the snow from the rice.... From there it was rice mittens, sushi rolls that looked like they had been run over by Zambonis, and slices of fish that looked like they were cut by a chimpanzee during an earthquake. They were great nights. They also left me with a lifelong appreciation of real sushi chefs.

On the other hand, you can get first-rate takeout from most sushi bars for just a little more than you'd pay for grocery-store sushi. My best budget advice is to get "chirashi" sushi takeout. Chirashi sushi is basically a variety of traditional sushi ingredients, both fish and other things, like the sweet egg custard tamago, cut into slices and served on a simple bed of sushi rice.

 

Dear Dara,

Well, Barry and I took your advice. We made our own sushi and as you predicted the rice was the toughest part. Here's what else we found out:

 

Homemade
Prep time: One hour
Cost: $26 for 20 pieces, plus lots of leftover frozen Unagi
Taste: Only fair, because of the bad rice

Grocery Store
Prep time: None
Cost: $30 (3 x $9.95) for about 24 pieces
Taste: Only fair, because, well, it's grocery-store sushi

Combo platter from Midori's Floating World Café, our local sushi joint
Prep time: None
Cost: $30.00 for 10 pieces of nigiri and a roll
Taste: Great!

So we got the most food when we made the sushi ourselves, it took the least amount of time to do grocery-store sushi, and it tasted the best to do Midori takeout. Now if we could just combine all three!

 

Dear Jessica and Barry,

Because I am loath to put anything in my column that I haven't experienced myself, I went out and replicated your experiences. And I have to applaud you for true, core thriftiness! I ended up spending $70 at United Noodles, but then again, I splurged on ridiculous Japanese sodas, one of which is called Miss Parlor and is festooned with a raindrop-peach-head character wearing a garment of pointed leaves. It's cuter than kittens. For my 70 dollars, however, I also ended up with miso soup for the year.

I also ordered both chirashi sushi and a big sushi combo dinner meal as takeout from both Nami, in downtown Minneapolis, and Midori's Floating World, on East Lake Street. I ordered them late Friday afternoon, telling the order takers that I wanted to pick up the meals at a specific time, on my way home from work. Both restaurants had the takeout ready to go on the dot when they said they would, and while I ended up spending more than you did, I also got the full meals at both, which netted me two lovely miso soups and two fresh green salads, along with enough sushi to feel very full.

My total bill? $45.19 at Nami for a $17.95 chirashi sushi dinner and a $19.95 sushi platter of one tuna roll and 10 nigiri pieces, which are those long slices of fish on top of a finger of molded rice. And $41.14 at Midori's, for a $15.95 chirashi sushi and their biggest $22.95 sushi "Jo" platter, with 10 pieces of nigiri, a California roll, and a tuna roll.

I don't really want to use this space to talk about the various merits or demerits in my takeout boxes, but I will point out that both had a few gems (great hotate, that raw sea scallop, from Nami, and excellent mackerel from Midori's) as well as a few ho-hum pieces. However, the rice was flawless, the convenience delightful, and the fish in both better than any grocery-store sushi I've ever had and, considering the volume, not a drop more expensive.

I guess that in this, the latest stage of capitalism, it is one thing to control the means of production, but quite another to do it well. And I suppose it's yet another thing entirely to penny-pinch your sushi, and enjoy it too.

 

UNITED NOODLES, 2015 E. 24th St., Minneapolis, 612.721.6677;www.unitednoodles.com.SURDYK'S, 303 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.379.3232;www.surdyks.com. MIDORI'S FLOATING WORLD CAFÉ, 3011 27th Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.721.3011;www.floatingworldcafe.com. NAMI, 251 First Ave. N., Minneapolis, 612.333.1999;www.namisushi.com.

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