A Hebrew Roll Model

Israelis have taken the popular Japanese mixture of rice and fillings and made it into something decidedly 'native.'

How much do Israelis love sushi? Depends what's in it. More than 15 years have gone by since the first local sushi producers got rolling and it's been about five years since the food started to be sold at sushi bars and supermarkets as a cold snack.

But the innocent Japanese seaweed rolls should know by now that several years in Israel leave their mark: The greenish wasabi horseradish will perhaps continue to adorn the plates, but the rice rolls will contain schnitzel bits, turkey, grilled chicken, mango, pumpkin, a dab of tehina around the edges − and the super observant will also add pine nuts to it. Israeli sushi is a unique development and it likes it that way: It is now served at hotels, kosher restaurants and on little plastic trays in supermarkets, between the containers of hummus and cottage cheese.

It is noon at the Sushi Ness restaurant in Netanya, and Avraham Nakash, the proprietor, is very busy: Soon lunch rush will begin. The restaurant owned by Nakash, a religious Jew from France who immigrated to Israel a year and a half ago, serves not only strictly kosher sushi with certificates, but also Japanese noodles and rice that he defines as a "hit."

"I wanted a restaurant in Netanya because it is, after all, a city, even though as compared to French cities it is small and intimate," explains Nakash with considerable optimism. "There are many things here, but there wasn't any sushi. So I took a course in making Japanese food, and here I am."

He serves the little rolls with tuna and also with salmon, and adds: "Everything is kosher under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate ... [and there is] also mixed sushi with meat and chicken, and it's selling very well."

Sushi Ness is a clear example of Israeli sushi that has undergone retraining, come on aliyah and is being sold − how symbolic − at Independence Plaza in Netanya.

'Sunflower roll'But Hebrew sushi has also come to Tel Aviv, and is being updated every day. On Bogroshov Street, at the dimly Moon sushi bar, manager Zohar Maldeza sits and displays the restaurant's varied menu, for which the two Japanese chefs, Suban and Sorin, who have been working at Moon since the day it opened, are responsible. Five years have been sufficient for them to understand the taste of local diners who come in every day, and they prepare a creative and seasonal menu that among other things includes sandwiches of rice checkered with tempura and filled with canned tuna. Alongside them are served tempura chicken, "sunflower rolls" ?(rice rolls with a corn and baked salmon filling?), rice rolls with sweet potato or with mango, and also a chicken sandwich and mini-schnitzels served as appetizers.

Maldeza explains that Israelis "really love vegetarian sushi. They will always prefer vegetarian to raw fish, like in Japan, and therefore our vegetarian menu is relatively large and varied. When avocado isn't in season, we'll use mango. Our chefs try new dishes every day and we see how the customers react to them. People like it that we don't educate them and don't explain to them 'how you're supposed to eat.' They like our openness and our improvements."

In Maldeza's opinion the jewel in the crown is shrimp tempura with goose liver − "a special dish that some people come here for especially."The widespread distribution throughout the Dan region of the wrapped rounds of rice covered in seaweed is due in good part to a machine − a small, speedy, light-blue robot at the Shangri La restaurant that energetically prepares sushi, mainly vegetarian, but also with tuna and salmon fillings. Avi Elad, proprietor of both the Shangri La and the Sushido restaurant, provides sushi for the Super Center supermarket chain, daily preparing trays of chilled rolls that wait patiently in the refrigerators for lunch at the reasonable price of NIS 25 for 18 rolls.

"The sushi is kosher, and is sold only at supermarkets where there is a demand for sushi," he explains. "We start with 10 trays at every branch and when it runs out in the middle of the day, we supply more. If there are leftovers, we shred them and absorb the costs. We started out with four sales points, as an experiment, and today we are already distributing at 13 places, and there is a constant rising trend."

The sushi is also distributed at places where there is a concentration of offices and other work places: for example, at Mega Atidim and in the areas of Ibn Gvirol, Yehuda Hamaccabi, Bavli and so on. According to Elad, the industrious robot prepares the little rolls "because I need to turn out more than 400 in an hour and a half. There isn't a chef who can do this well. This is the only sushi robot in Israel."

He conceals the sushi robot well inside the restaurant. "It helps us only in the preparation of the chilled trays. The customers at the restaurant always like to watch a chef prepare the sushi for them. It's an experience."

But everyone seeks innovations, apparently: "For the diners at my restaurants I make a dish that we call 'crazy sushi': sushi with a small piece of roast chicken inside. People really like this a lot. Why not?"

Fish and cardsDo the developments prompted by the relatively successful naturalization of sushi disturb purist chefs? It is surprising to discover that the answer is: not at all. Boaz Tzaeri − who is married to a Japanese woman, is considered the veteran sushi-maker in the country and runs Tel Aviv's Sakura restaurant − returned at the beginning of the month from his 30th visit to Japan. "The fact that everyone is making a lot of sushi is good," he says. "I was just in Japan at a new sushi bar that opened in the Sakiju area − the fish market − and there they serve sushi with ham and cheese. It is also possible to serve sushi with spinach or with cream, in my opinion. But in Japan they make a point of using good ingredients: nori seaweed of good quality, real rice vinegar and not 'rice-flavored,' and Japanese rice whose grains come out after cooking 'one by one,' not as a mush.

"When you use good ingredients, anything goes," continues Tzaeri. "The problem is that in Israel there are a lot of sushi bars that use inferior ingredients: nori seaweed that is very cheap and doesn't contain enough protein, and inferior quality rice. If sushi is very cheap − I'm suspicious of it. There's nori that costs $10 a package and nori that costs 10 cents. Fifteen years ago, they were importing 15,000 packages of seaweed a year. This year, 40 million packages are being imported. It's in supermarkets and natural food stores, but you have to check the quality."

According to Tzaeri, Sakura imports its own raw materials. "Then people taste sushi at a wedding, or at a hotel, and they say that they don't like it. Of course they aren't going to like it: It's like eating a juicy, tasty steak or eating a dry, inferior cut. The inferior cut isn't tasty."

Someone who imports considerable quantities of ingredients here from the Far East is David Elisha, owner of the Imo Eastern Trading Company. He and another importer, East & West Food, Ltd., control the ingredients that are provided to most of the Far Eastern restaurants in the country. The veteran in the field, Elisha imports special nori for Tsaeri of Sakura and easily counts the number of sushi "purist" eateries in Israel: There are only three. Sakura, chef Oren Goldwasser's Tatami in Haifa, and a surprise − a small sushi bar called Minato, which is tucked away in a gas station near Caesarea where chef Aki Tamura makes traditional Japanese sushi, with his partner, Matan Rosenthal.

All the other restaurants, Elisha says, improve and update the sushi every day and mainly see the Japanese restaurants in the United States as their role ?(roll??) model. "There's nothing wrong with this, of course. It's just a different tradition. The Americans are a few steps behind Japan, and we are few steps behind the United States. In Japan there is hardly any avocado. They don't dip the sushi in soy sauce until it's swimming in it, but only just barely. The Israelis, like the Americans, like to get 'a lot of return' in sushi, a lot of strong flavors, so that 'no one should put one over on us.'"

Elisha reviews briefly the long history of Japanese sushi, which started out as a cheap and safe way of preserving the freshness of fish that had been caught a day earlier: "They preserved it in rice and vinegar and pickled the fish, using pressure. Over time the format changed and seaweed was added to the recipe: Groups of card-players wanted to eat the fish preserved in rice in a convenient way, without stopping the game. They rolled everything up in seaweed and sliced it. Thus to this day on the seaweed packages, there are pictures of card-players."

Adjacent to the shop Elisha operates is the Ginger center, where there are workshops on sushi preparation. He admits that he "sins" there from time to time, despite his knowledge of ancient tradition, with cute additio ns to the sushi. "I love to put sweet potato in sushi, for example. Or roasted pine nuts. It's an amazing addition, which a lot of people have learned from me."

Last of the puristsAki Tamura and Matan Rosenthal of the Minato restaurant are not prepared to add pine nuts, chicken or goose liver to sushi at the restaurant they opened a year ago just outside Caesarea. At the restaurant there are only 12 seats, and it is also possible to eat the sushi in the adjacent cafe, "out of consideration for the parents," explains Rosenthal. "The child eats what he wants and the parents order sushi." Rosenthal has been specializing in Japanese food for a decade now and runs a catering service that supplies it as well. "Even though I've studied only in Israel, I had good teachers," he testifies.

Five years ago at a dinner he met chef Tamura. Married to an Israeli woman and living in Givatayim, Tamura is a third-generation sushi-maker and to this day his grandfather has a sushi bar in the Minato area of Tokyo. The encounter engendered a partnership, which led to a catering business and the Caesarea restaurant. "The restaurant is a kind of trial balloon. We wanted to open something small, without a large investment. [Usually] Japanese restaurants require a lot of investment because of the fresh fish," explains Rosenthal. "People knew about us from the catering and they came."

Rosenthal has even planted an organic Japanese garden in the yard of his home in Shefayim, where vegetables like Japanese pumpkin are harvested in season for the restaurant. "Although in our catering service we've encountered all kinds of requests, and we're familiar with Israeli taste, we try to keep the tradition," says one of the remaining sushi purists in Israel, adding that in the future he and Tamura plan to open a larger place, perhaps adjacent to the Japanese vegetable garden. "After all, Aki has a tradition and a dynasty to preserve, no?"