Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sushi: Lebanon's traditional food?

Royal Wings, the inflight magazine of Royal Jordanian Airlines

By Paul Cochrane in Beirut

There is a growing craze for raw fish in Beirut. Not for the catch of the day fresh from the Mediterranean Sea, but for tuna from Japan and salmon from Scotland. The rising popularity of sushi, Japanese cuisine's most famous export, has taken a firm hold on Beirut's culinary scene, with the number of sushi restaurants going from two a decade ago to around 20 today.

It's a new trend. Lebanese are curious and going for healthier food. Before sushi was only available in Beirut, but now sushi restaurants are opening outside of the capital,” said Avedis Bonyakrabian, manager of Yabani, one of Beirut's oldest sushi restaurants.

Sushi, patties of vinegared rice topped with varieties of raw fish, and sashimi, slices of raw fish eaten with soy sauce or wasabi (green horseradish), have become so popular that t-shirts are on sale with the slogan “ Sushi: Lebanese traditional food.”

It did not take long for sushi to be culinary accepted following the opening of the country's first sushi restaurant, Le Sushi Bar in 1997. “Raw fish is not unusual in Lebanon like in some places, as people eat raw meat, such as kebbe nayye,” said Charbel Nader, manager of Le Sushi Bar.

The extensive variety of sushi and its offshoots – Yabani and Sushi Bar offer over 60 types of sushi, sashimi and maki – gives diners such a selection it is impossible to try everything at one sitting.

With growing competition as more sushi restaurants open and the market fragments into price segments – ranging from $60 a head to as low as $20 – the higher end establishments are offering a wider range of Japanese cuisine, such as teppanyaki (grilled steak), noodles and gyoza (dumplings).

In Lebanon the stereotype is that Japanese food is sushi and sashimi, but now more people are familiar with other Japanese foods,” said Bonyakrabian.

With the fish distributed by just two main dealers in Lebanon, what differentiates restaurants is the quality of the cuts. “The attention to detail makes all the difference, in how you slice say a salmon,” said Nader. “And every restaurant is different from the other – it's not like hummus.”

The majority of ingredients are imported from Japan, from the sushi rice to seaweed with the aim of offering genuine Japanese cuisine.

While there has been a degree of “Californication” in the sushi menu to cater to local tastes, it has not gone as far as in the United States where sushi is made sweeter and even cream cheese has become an ingredient. But one core ingredient of Japanese cuisine that is not used is the alcohol sake.

The Japanese cook nearly everything in sake, but we have to consider people's beliefs here in the Middle East, so warn customers in advance if we do,” said Nader.

Sushi's popularity is set to continue. “When you see 10 year olds asking their parents for sushi, you know the market will become bigger than now,” said Bonyakrabian.

If the craze for sushi develops even further, Nader joked that in the future, “maybe we will eat [Lebanese salad] tabbouleh with chopsticks.”

Photos of Yabani by George Haddad

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