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I like sushi and although I am aware of local influences to a restaurant I prefer genuine cuisine. Sushi has become so popular that it sometimes is hard to find a sushi place with a real sushi chef. In my home town it is already quite difficult, let alone abroad. At home I have to rely on word-of-mouth.

How can I recognize a genuine sushi place outside Japan and outside my home town?

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A Japanese sushi chef once told me that whilst the chef is important, it's the freshness of the fish that's ultimately most important. That may have been false modesty, but assuming not I guess the less time between boat and plate, the better the sushi... –  codinghands Nov 15 '13 at 9:53
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The best sushi is considered to be served within 24 hours of the catch otherwise the fish will have to be frozen which makes it lose flavor or without the deep freeze it starts to spoil... –  Karlson Nov 15 '13 at 12:55
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Incorrect. Fresh fish is hard and has no taste, it's best (carefully) aged for a few days. Some chefs, eg. Yasuda of Sushi Yasuda fame (until recently NY's most expensive sushi restaurant), buy fresh fish and purposely flash-freeze it to improve the texture. –  jpatokal Nov 16 '13 at 11:36

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The other answers provide a bunch of handy tips for weeding out the absolute worst excuses for sushi, but little help for distinguishing the mediocre from the sublime. How, exactly, are you going to find out about "freshness" before you try it? No, there's only one rock-solid reliable indicator of excellent sushi: the opinion of the local Japanese expat community.

No matter where you go in the world, there will be Japanese expats there and restaurants that cater to them, in two categories. Category one is for the expense-account salarymen set, who will pay whatever it takes for good sushi; and category two is for the working holiday/married to local/university student/starving artist set, who occasionally want good sushi but are not willing to pay their monthly rent for a meal. Needless to say, the bang for buck is much better in category two: for example, the expense account set in Singapore liked a joint called Aoki, where dinner starts at S$165++, whereas students used to frequent a (now closed, alas) place tucked on the top floor of the Central shopping mall which did entirely respectable sushi sets for S$10.

enter image description here Stupendous sushi at Jirochyo in Hampton, an obscure suburb of Melbourne, where the vast majority of "Japanese" food is dire. You will never, ever find this place unless you live next door, or ask a Japanese expat.

The hard part is finding out these out, especially if you don't know any local Japanese residents and don't speak Japanese. As a rule of thumb, though, there will be always be a web forum that serves the local Japanese community: in Singapore, it's お役立ちウェブ, in Jakarta it's ジャカナビ, in Melbourne it's GO GO MELBOURNE, etc. Then search for eg. 寿司 ("sushi") or 美味しいお寿司屋さん ("tasty sushi restaurant"), run the results through Google Translate, and you'll find the best sushi in the place, guaranteed.

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There are several different dimensions of Sushi:

  1. Freshness: This is the most important in terms of flavor.
  2. Authenticity: If you want to make sure that the available (local) fish is at least prepared correctly, you will want to take a look at this item.
  3. Width of selection: This will tell you if the chef has the aspiration to serve customers who are familiar with Sushi instead of making a quick buck on something that is not really Japanese anymore.

Freshness

Regarding freshness, you have to consider the respective country's import limitations for seafood. For example, Singapore, while being quite close to Japan, has very strict import limitations. So all fish, even if imported in the morning from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, cannot be served in most cases on the same day. It might have to be stored several days for customs and health check reasons. To the contrary, Hong Kong does not have such restrictions due to a very strong free trade policy. Sushi delivered in the morning from Tsukiji can be served the same day for dinner. This results in a vastly different quality of Sushi in Hong Kong compared to Singapore. So knowing the import restrictions of your country and the distances to the major fishing ground is a good base to find out if the Sushi across the border can be by default much better than in your current country.

While the fish does often not come from Japanese waters anymore, still a very large percentage is traded through the market in Tokyo.

Authenticity

Regarding authenticity, it is of course preferable to have a chef that is trained in Japan (which are to a very high percentage Japanese). Those can be found most easily in Japanese Hotels abroad (ANA or Nikko/Okura Chains). Since some of the hotels are not owned anymore by ANA or Okura, these might be difficult to find unless you know the history of the Hotels around you. The restaurants usually remained the same despite the change of ownership. Google can help here for example to find a former ANA hotel in Vienna with a still very high quality Sushi restaurant.

What has to be considered specially in Europe is that often Korean and Thai citizens open Japanese restaurants since Sushi can often generate a higher turnover than Korean or Thai cuisine. If a restaurant offers non-Japanese food it is usually a very good indicator that you are not dealing with authentic Japanese cuisine.

Another indicator is price. While not 100% reliable, you need to consider that Japan is a country with high living standards. While the competition among Sushi chefs in Japan forces many of them to seek employment abroad, many people who leave Japan are seeking a similar quality of lifestyle abroad. If the restaurant advertises permanently with discount prices, one should keep an eye open, since the authentic restaurants will much less compromise on quality than price.

Another good hint is if the menu is available in Japanese of course. It shows that someone in the restaurant speaks Japanese and that the restaurant is frequented often by Japanese people.

Width of selection

Authentic Sushi has an astounding width or selection that goes far beyond the standard fish selection that you find in many restaurants. However, since the cheaper restaurants catering to the casual Sushi-eater do not want to waste money on buying fish that the customers would not order since they do not know it, a selection beyond Tuna, Salmon and Shrimp is often a indicator that you are dealing with something more sophisticated.

Further it is always good to know the local names for fish and if they exist in Japan. Many foreign Sushi restaurant fall back on local fish that do not even exist in Japan and there the authenticity is gone quickly of course.

Other factors

Customer density: It is good to know how many Japanese people are abroad per country to find out if there is a high likelihood of authentic Japanese restaurants.

Other information: If you speak Japanese, I would strongly recommend Japanese travel guides since they usually have very good information on these topics. On top of that, many countries have special magazines for Japanese expatriates. The local Japanese embassy might even advertise business run by Japanese citizens.

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Re: freshness, I'm calling bullshit on most of that. The vast majority of fish used for sushi, including bluefin tuna and particularly salmon (which has to be frozen to kill parasites), is frozen shortly after it's caught (often on the ship), sold at Tsukiji as frozen, shipped out as frozen, and only defrosted at the restaurant. There is thus essentially no difference in the "freshness" of imported sushi fish in HK and Singapore, since it's all frozen anyway. –  jpatokal Nov 16 '13 at 11:03
    
I guess what I want to say is that the quality degrades the further you are from the source. And not all fish coming from Tokyo coming to Hong Kong is frozen but sometimes only chilled. The Mediterranean Tuna etc of course is. And by the way, while I am by now used to you seeking and criticizing almost all of my recent posts, I would be happy if we can have a factual conversation instead of "calling bullshit" on someone. –  uncovery Nov 16 '13 at 14:36
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I don't understand why we should even assume that good sushi can only be made from fish imported from Japan, especially when Japan is infamous from fishing so far from its own waters in the first place. Why would a qualified sushi chef not make good sushi from locally obtainable fish? –  hippietrail Nov 16 '13 at 16:08
    
@uncovery: Sorry, that was a bit harsh -- I'd edit my comment if I could, but it's too late. But I do disagree strongly with both your claim and its supposed impact on the quality of sushi in Singapore, which (IMHO) is generally good and on occasion excellent. And I'm following questions about Japan, not you personally! –  jpatokal Nov 17 '13 at 10:20
    
@jpatokal I do not agree that all and any fish that has been frozen is just as good as when chilled. You can get chilled fish from Japanese waters in HKG. And of course a lot of frozen tuna etc from Europe in Japan. –  uncovery Nov 17 '13 at 12:34

IMO, the following are good indicators:

  • Are the chefs Japanese?
  • How many Japanese are eating there?
  • Is there a buffet (DEFINITELY not a good sushi place if so)?
  • How many "exotic" entries are there, vs basic stuff like california rolls and crunchy shrimp?
  • As codinghands pointed out, fish freshness is really important. The best sushi chefs I know go through great pains to get fish as close to the source as possible.
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The last is true not just for sushi chefs but any chef worthy of the name. The best Dutch game restaurants for example will buy directly from hunters and only serve what's available at the time, rather than buy say deer in bulk when they can and store it frozen for months before serving (of course many dishes call for the meat to "cure" for a period, sometimes months, which effectively means letting it rot in a hole in the ground for a while). –  jwenting Nov 19 '13 at 9:29

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