Photoessay-gallery: the story of sushi

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Regular readers will know that Tokyo is one of my favourite destinations both as a city and a photographic locale. Sushi is inseparable from Japan, and probably the only food I could eat every day without getting bored. I’ve visited Tokyo at least once a year for the last ten years; almost every time I shot at Tsukiji Market, the clearinghouse for a huge portion of the high grade seafood caught. It didn’t occur to me to try to curate these visits into a coherent documentary until before my last visit; at the same time, I found out that Tsukiji was going to close and be relocated to a new site in preparation for redevelopment for the 2020 Olympics. It would be the end of an era in more ways than one – and most of the proprietors I spoke to inside the market sadly agreed that things would never quite be the same again. Tsukiji is in so many ways an insular community unto itself, and a Tokyo institution. Today’s presentation is my tribute to that: a reasonably complete journey of fish to sushi, via Tsukiji.

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Sushi, and the philosophy of photography

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Seared Wagyu beef with momeji oroshii.

Sushi is a universe in itself – there are so few components that if you get any one of them slightly wrong, the taste will be horrible. But if you get every one of them right, the experience can be magical. Specifically, your fish must be fresh and in season; precisely the right amount of soy sauce should be brushed on to the top, with a little dab of wasabi hiding between the rice and the fish. The fish itself is cut slightly concave so it drapes perfectly over the rice, itself measured to precisely the right quantity to make a mouthful and shaped by hand, not too tightly packed and not too loose, either.

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Katsuo (bonito) with ginger.

And then there’s the seasoning that accompanies the rice – a mix of mirin and rice vinegar – which must offer the right degree of tartness and sweetness to provide a counterpoint to the fish and soy sauce, but not so much that it overpowers or tastes sour. And this is before we even talk about more complicated creations that involve multiple types of fish, or searing, or additional condiments and seasoning.

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Broiled anago (freshwater conger eel).

There’s a parallel between sushi and photography (and sushi and many other things, actually) – aside from the obvious that it’s art, sushi making requires both technical skill and creativity. There are constraints, but you can work around them. It can be learned, it can be honed by experience, but there’s definitely an element of talent and intuition involved which all great sushi chefs possess. Photographs and sushi both come in small, bite-sized increments – they require little time to create if all the elements come together, and can be enjoyed in moments or contemplated for hours – I’ve eaten sushi dinners with 20+ different varieties served over many hours; I suppose that would be like going through the Magnum annual. Neither photography nor sushi is cheap, either; and mastery can take years.

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Torigai clam.

There’s even an anticipative element to it – the feeling of curiosity before you go to eat (wondering what is in season and came from Tsukiji today) is much like the feeling I get before a shoot; you’re all excited and ready to go. It’s also entirely possible that it’s just me.

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Seared katsuo

The best sushi I’ve ever eaten – so far – comes from a local chef in Kuala Lumpur at a restaurant called Hanare; Kenny Yew is an absolute genius when it comes to creating new things – for instance, seared wagyu with momeji oroshii chili – as a sushi. I need to go at least once a month or I get withdrawal symptoms and the DTs, because I just can’t eat sushi anywhere else now. The few lucky friends I’ve taken there feel the same way. It really is art – some of the pieces make me tingly and others nearly bring me to tears. I’ve eaten things there I never would have though edible, let alone ordered – and loved them. That’s much like how certain exhibitions, art or equipment inspire me to try photographic experiments that work out a lot better than expected.

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Seared hama-tai (sea bream)

And best of all, you can mix the two. The lighting conditions at that restaurant are pretty horrible, but they save me a seat at the counter which happens to have a halogen spot over it; I position my sushi carefully to be well-lit. This set might appear the same, but that’s because I wanted a consistent point of view; (and comparison)
they were also shot during the same meal. I discovered one other thing that night: the best color I’ve yet managed to achieve is delivered by a combination of Zeiss glass and Olympus cameras.

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Oo-toro. (Fatty yellowfin tuna belly)

I had the ZF.2 2/28 Distagon on the Pen Mini via an adaptor, and was utterly floored by the color when I opened up the raw files on my computer – the sushi literally looked like it had in real life. Every bit of the color, texture, iridescence and freshness was captured. I’m guessing it’s a combination of the fortuitous lighting, the great color and micro contrast of Zeiss lenses in general, and the pleasing color palette of Olympus cameras. Whatever it is, I think I’ve found my perfect sushi-camera.

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Red snapper.

My parting advice is that if you do get a chance to eat sushi made by a master, do as you would do at an exhibition of photographs by a great photographer: put away your preconceptions, go in with an open mind, and enjoy. You’ll probably be surprised. MT

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Kamburi (giant yellowtail).