I have a confession to make: I regularly eat sushi from American supermarkets.
I know it's a sorry excuse for what can be a true art form. I know that if you put rice in the refrigerator, it totally ruins it, and that everything keeping the not-so-fresh raw fish from killing me is a preservative and preservatives are bad. I know.
But sometimes I get a craving and it absolutely does not matter if I can only fulfill it by eating something that's only as akin to restaurant-quality sushi as a McDonald's burger is to one made with Kobe beef (actual Kobe beef, not fake American Kobe beef).
Last year, every week before my graduate seminar in social psychology, I would go to 'The Cage', which is an on-campus convenience store that sells things like Pringles, wrinkled day-old donuts, powerbars, and slimy old tuna sandwiches. And, inexplicably, raw salmon handrolls.
They were always terrible. There was spicy orange sauce everywhere, the cucumbers were often so bitter I had to remove them, and the fish was occasionally edible alone but more often required a full slathering of soy and wasabi.
Basically, everything I am telling you should disqualify me from any pretense of judging Japanese supermarket sushi, but I'm going to anyway:
IT. IS. UNBELIEVABLE.
And cheap! ($3.98 for 8 pieces!)
When I was in Osaka, it was hot. Smotheringly so. There was one day when I had had just about enough of darting from covered mall to covered mall, looking at stacks of platform shoes because going in the sun would make me pass out, so I went to the supermarket, picked up the first package of to-go sashimi I saw, and booked it home before the heat brought the fish back to life.
I kicked my shoes off at the door, hauled open all the windows, sprawled on the bed, and lifted each piece of hamachi by two fingers, dropping them into my mouth like gummy worms, expecting them to satisfy my only slightly more than hamachi-flavored gummy worms would.
Instead, I found myself with a mouthful of fish fit to be served festooned on a platter at any sushi bar.
Seriously, I would not have been surprised or disappointed had I encountered it in a swanky izakaya or a spare, traditional establishment for $4 per piece. I would have welcomed it, savored it, reviewed it highly.
And here I was with it between my fingers on a lazy weekday afternoon in a hotel room for $0.50.
The sushi at every big supermarket was this good. Hamachi, sake, saba, and maguro. I'm ashamed to admit it, but some days I didn't really want to go out searching for restaurants because I knew that if I wanted to and with almost no effort, I could lounge around popping sashimi like potato chips for a pittance.
A hakozushi place in Shinsaibashi recommended by my (otherwise excellent) hostel, was full of old people. This can mean one of two things, possibly both:
1. It's a long-running establishment with a great reputation
2. It's boring (old people have fewer taste buds - yes, really!)
This one was boring.
Yes, despite its beauty. Every dish is beautiful in Japan. The slices of fish were paper-thin and were overwhelmed by the dry, starchy rice. The eggs were sickeningly sweet and there was that pink-sugar floss in half the rolls.
Admittedly, though, the salmon was fantastic.The moral of the story, or at least the story I'm telling based on my own limited experience (and very shady expertise that has been thrown into question by my enjoyment of American convenience store sushi) is:
Go big - to the famous players that hold clout in the Tsujiki market, to places that emphasize freshness above all else, to places that have a great local reputation - or else just walk down the street to the supermarket!