Text by Katherine Knowles
It’s a bright sunny day and the terrace outside beautiful new shopping centre Golden Terraces (Złote Tarasy) is abuzz with the lunch time crowd. There’s a sizable bunch tucking into pizzas and salads, a few at the tapas bar, but overwhelmingly, people are rattling their chopsticks in the sushi section.
“It’s the new carbonara,” says business woman Dorota. “A few years ago anyone who was anyone had carbonara; I’d go out to dinner with girlfriends and we’d all order carbonara. Well, now it’s sushi. If you want to be fashionable you have to eat sushi for lunch.”
“It says that you’re sophisticated, that you have good taste,” says Andre tucking into Akashia’s delicious and popular bento box. “I eat sushi twice, maybe three times a week. I’m a very modern person: I go to the gym, I have an apple notebook - and I eat sushi.”
“I used to live in New York, and people ate sushi a lot,” ex-pat Kate notes, “but here, it’s absolutely everywhere! My local Italian restraint Piccolo Bacio has a sushi menu too – it’s really good. It sounds a bit odd, sushi and pasta on the same menu, but actually it’s genius – my boyfriend hates fish and sushi is my favourite food so for us, it’s the perfect place for a date!”
It seems that to Varsovians, sushi says modernity, taste, and fashion. It’s also one of the more expensive foods you can eat – though really that’s an encouraging sign. Who wants to eat cheap raw fish? So it’s a sign of wealth and success. It’s the food of business deals, of cash rich calorie-reluctant lunching ladies, of trendy about-town urbanites who scoff at their old-fashioned mothers recoiling in horror at the thought of eating uncooked, slimy fish flesh.
Sushi is ‘vinegared’ rice topped with other ingredients – fish, seafood or vegetables being the most common, but as in America, home to the California roll, here in Poland sushi has been adapted to cater to some more local tastes. Smoked mackerel sushi is a popular choice, eel with gherkin packs a tangy if utterly inauthentic punch, and rice stained ‘Barbie purple with beetroot juice’ is a common sight. Anathema in Japan, but popular with most western sushi eaters, the calorific Philadelphia or mayonnaise rolls with deep fried battered prawns or fish and extra avocado are big sellers.
It’s a long way from sushi’s origins back in 17th century Japan, when Hahaya Yohei created a delicious roadside finger food by marinating fish in vinegar and selling it in strips or on a damp cushion of rice. The acid breaks down the fats in the fish, fermenting it slightly and creating one of the five basic tastes identified by Japanese cooking, ‘umami’, defined as a taste sensation that is meaty or savory.
‘Umami’ sounds terribly Eastern and exotic, but in fact it has always been a part of Polish cooking, more so than in other European cuisines. Żurek, a popular broth, gets its umami taste from the fermented rye flour, and bigos, Poland’s national dish of hearty meat stew, gets it from the fermented cabbage, the naturally occurring nucleotides in the mushrooms and the cured sausage – curing increases the glutamate content. The precise minimalist aesthetic of sushi might be a million miles away from this warming hearty food, but the basic meaty-sour taste is not.
And Poland has always appreciated fish dishes, again with an emphasis on curing, brining and smoking – all increasing the umami taste. Strips of herring or sprat fillets lightly brined with allspice, mustard seed and bay has the slippery-fresh rawness of sushi, albeit distinctly Polishflavoured, and it’s been a traditional part of Polish cooking for centuries, making Poland ripe for a sushi invasion.
“My sushi classes are so popular, I can’t tell you. We’ve got a waiting list,” says Katia Roman-Trzaska, the owner and manager of Little Chef Cooking School for Children in Warsaw. “We don’t publicise the classes at all; people hear about them from friends and want to do it. It’s a fun night out, and it’s exciting to get in on the process of how it’s made. I’m not saying I can teach someone to be a master sushi chef – obviously not - but people can have fun and make food that will be delicious. We always end up with more sushi than we can eat, which is one of the reasons it’s good to make it at home: it’s so expensive to eat out. People here can afford sushi, but if you love sushi, you can never afford enough!” Truer words have never been spoken.
“When I started the classes I thought it would be mostly ex-pats who took them up,” she continues, “but it’s not – it’s almost always Poles. People here are travelling more and opening up their taste buds. Ethnic food is new and exciting, and the availability of ingredients is great here now. It’s melded into the way that people cook – Thai, Indian, Fusion – it’s the reality of what people eat. It’s good when people trust their palettes and eat what they like. It doesn’t matter if it’s not authentically Japanese as long as it’s authentically good. I think it’s creative. Cream cheese in sushi used to be a profanation but I say, as long as it gives you pleasure. That’s another reason why it’s good to make sushi at home – you can try out new things without having to worry. If I have some smoked salmon in the fridge, I might try that in maki, or add some mushrooms – whatever I have about.”
Sushi lovers can buy trays of frozen fish specially prepared for maki or sashimi in the bigger Warsaw supermarkets. Frisco, the online supermarket service (www. frisco.pl), will even deliver it, ready for dinner. It’s what most restaurants buy to use too. “We import our clams from Spain,” says Randy, head chef at The Art of Caviar and Sushi, “but everything else comes from a Polish supplier.
For fish to be safe for sushi it has to be graded according to quality and treatment. What we think of as ‘fresh’ sushi fish is usually defrosted; it’s flash frozen as soon as it’s pulled from the sea at -31 degrees or chilled at -4 degrees for over seven days. Both of these processes kill any parasites that might be found in the fish and make it safe to eat. Most pulled-fromthe-ocean fish would make you quite sick if you sliced them up and munched them straight down with some wasabi and soy.
“I think that people are eating in a different way these days,” says Katia. “It’s more usual now for the wife and the husband to be working, so it’s not reasonable to expect the wife to slave over the stove to prepare a traditional Polish feast of lots of dishes on the table anymore. With sushi, men seem to want to make it as much as women, and you can even do a dinner party where you can share the process with your guests. My assistant had a maki party last weekend and once a month or so my husband and I get out the sushi mats and the frozen shrimp. It’s great to get dressed up and go out for dinner, but sushi isn’t only fancy impressive restaurant food. It can be real home family food too.”
The pleasures of dining out
Sushi may, as Katia says, be catching on in the homes of Poles, but out on the Akashia terrace the customers are not so sure about rolling up their sleeves and dipping their hands in vinegar and fish. “I wouldn’t make it at home,” says Andre. “I’m too busy to cook – well, sometimes I make pasta. I prefer to eat out, or maybe have (telephone delivery company) Room Service (www.roomservice.pl) deliver food to me. When I want something healthy to eat, I order sushi.”
“I’d sooner eat sushi out. I like it to be special,” says Dorota. “It’s a luxury food. I wouldn’t want it to be just another thing I cooked for the family. It’s treat food that I eat once a month, maybe with my girlfriends, or as a special treat for me.”
“A lot of the Poles I cook for are trying to impress. They like to buy the more expensive sushi – with caviar sometimes,” says Chef Randy as he slices salmon on the black lacquer counter top in The Art of Caviar and Sushi bar. “This one I’m making now, it’s salmon roe caviar sushi, and it’s very popular. It’s a way of impressing business colleagues. I’ve even made it with Beluga caviar – that’s the most expensive one.”
For all its popularity, and despite normalising ‘make your own’ sushi classes, sushi just isn’t normal everyday food. It has a taste of the exotic, the rarefied and the precious about it. It is food with presence, food that has cache. It’s thrilling to watch highly-trained Japanese chefs and their Polish disciples cleaver-ing up fish and creating our dinner before our very eyes. It’s gratifyingly novel and space age to select little dishes from a moving conveyor belt. It’s glamorous to click lacquered chop sticks against porcelain bowls, spectacular to have food brought to the table on a giant wooden junk. It’s rewarding to master the art of using delicate chopsticks with grace and panache. The joy of sushi isn’t simply the food; it’s the style as well. And as a modern and cosmopolitan city, Warsaw is the perfect place to eat sushi in - and with - style.
Katia might not entirely approve of it, but she does recognise the style over substance sushi argument. “I think people eat sushi for many reasons” she concedes. “Of course it’s stylish, but Poles are very open to new eating experiences and enjoy new tastes.”
She goes on to say that, “I’ve run sushi making parties for kids’ birthdays.” The last word in yuppie parenting? Apparently not. “It’s not as pretentious as you might think – children seem to love sushi. Maybe it’s the size of it, or the fun of making it, especially if they can choose their own things to go inside it. It can be very appealing if the kids are interested in the process.
Sushi is achingly hip and stylish, but it’s not without substance – delicious fresh-tasting fish. And here in Poland in vogueishly designed minimalist eating places, whether for reasons of taste or for reasons of fashion, cold is definitely – even defiantly - the new hot.