Sushi is popular in Poland’s urban centers. Seriously popular. An informal study of Warsaw magazines reveals that about 12% of all the city’s restaurants sell it – and even then you probably want to book a table on a Friday night to make sure you get some.
It seems that to Varsovians (Warszawiacy), sushi says modernity (nowoczesność), taste (smak, gust), and fashion (moda). 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 (bogactwo) and success (sukces). 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 (ryby), seafood (owoce morza) or vegetables (warzywa) 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 (wędzona makrela) sushi is a popular choice, eel (węgorz) with gherkin (korniszon) 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 (krewetki) or fish (ryba) and extra avocado(awokado) 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 (śledź) or sprat (szprot) 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.
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 (pałeczki do jedzenia) 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 (wdzięk) and panache (ostentacja). The joy of sushi isn’t simply the food; it’s the style as well. And as a modern and cosmopolitan city (kosmopolityczne miasto), Warsaw is the perfect place to eat sushi in – and with – style.
There are some great sushi restaurants not only in Warsaw, but other (mostly big) Polish cities. It is not quite exactly the same sushi as the one I’m used to in Maine. But overall great new experience!
I would recommend Sakana restaurant in Warsaw (Moliera 4/6 St) and So-An (Koszykowa 54 St).
Do następnego razu… (Till next time…)