SUSHI is a cuisine I never fully understood, or at least, the western version of sushi, I should say.
The made-up trays stacked in fridges would often taste bland, and the cold, stiff rolls have never been considered a comfort food of mine.
Whenever I dined in restaurants, I was never wowed. If the most exciting part of the dish is the selection of condiments, such as soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger, then the dish itself must be an insipid one, I felt, and I could never justify the craze that surrounded it.
That is, until I tried Chris’s sushi.
Chris McGinley is a Corkonian raised on lungfuls of salty, sea air that would sweep over his home village of Guileen in East Cork.
After a childhood spent fishing, he naturally ended up plying his trade as a boatsman with intervals spent working as a chef.
Picking up such skills took him to places all over the world, like Australia, Canada and Germany. When he was 24, he answered a job advertisement in a local paper and a few weeks later he found himself in the city of Nikolaev, Ukraine, as production manager in a boat manufacturing plant.
As he meandered around Eastern Europe, he ended up in Moldova, where he met a Japanese lady who was to be his future wife, Junko.
Junko and Chris backpacked around the Balkans and Italy together and eventually Chris brought her to Ireland. They parted ways until Chris went to visit Junko in Japan. When travelling around there, the unusual delicacies from region to region didn’t perturb Chris one bit —unlike the typical westerner.
The sight of raw fish or the unfamiliar ingredients appearing on menus failed to faze him. “I think my willingness to try different foods impressed Junko a lot,” he says. “It even impressed a waitress a one point.”
That was that. They were to wed in Ireland and took over the kitchen at the Blackbird in Ballycotton for a spell, as Junko has very strong culinary skills also.
Chris and Junko cooked traditional Irish pub-grub but also infused Japanese dishes into the mix.
With the help of Junko, this is where Chris began to dabble with Japanese food professionally, and after the birth of their first son, Sato, they decided to go back to Japan for a year.
Chris immediately enrolled in the ‘Tokyo Sushi Academy’ upon arrival and found himself a job in a traditional sushi restaurant. I, too, have a culinary background so I found myself particularly intrigued with this process. A sushi academy seems so specific, in Ireland we don’t have a ‘Roast Dinner Academy’.
“The thing about Japan is, you choose which kind of food you’re going to do — and that’s it.”
Chris explained to me that food specialisation is taken very seriously in Japan. You choose udon, ramen, soba, sushi, etc. and then you spend your life achieving mastery in that specific discipline.
Chris began to learn from sushi masters in Tokyo. Every aspect of traditional Japanese sushi was taught to him, from when the fish arrives to when the plate is served, from the cooking of perfect rice to the curing of different fish, to the many variations of slicing.
The entire process is a deeply considered one, and Chris learned this first-hand whilst working in a 10,000 yen restaurant (which means every meal was a minimum of approximately €80).
Although Chris isn’t strictly a farmer/producer of a product, I wanted to include him in this series because for four to six months of the year he actually catches his own fish for his sushi.
During the winter months, when he can’t fish locally himself, he’ll buy from trusted suppliers. His most common catch would be mackerel, and he explained to me how that needs to be heavily cured because it’s so oily, whereas a salmon needs nothing at all, as long as it’s good quality, it’s best to eat it sliced to perfection and raw.
Eggs from his backyard chicken coop are used all year round, also, to make tamago for his sushi, which is something akin to an omelette.
I have always found the tamago that’s served with his sushi to be delicious and peculiar, as I haven’t encountered it so commonly. I wondered, was it an invention of his own? On the contrary, top sushi restaurants in Japan are judged by their tamago because it’s so difficult to do well.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a perfectly cooked egg, to be honest, as it’s cut into precisely rectangular, bite-sized chunks. He adds rice mirin, fish sauce, soy sauce, salt, sugar and water into his egg before cooking it on a high heat in his square pan and flipping it. No trimmings are wasted and the egg isn’t scorched at all.
For anyone who has attempted to cook the perfect omelette, you would appreciate the difficulty of this little masterpiece.
His colleagues in Japan — being the specialists they are — actually suggested to him to open an “egg restaurant” in Ireland, because they were so impressed with his egg cooking skills.
He laughed and explained to them: “That probably wouldn’t go down well back home.”
Chris went on to explain to me that the key to delicious sushi is “warm rice and cold fish. It’s the contrast of temperatures that’s so important.”
This made sense. The sushi I’ve almost always eaten has been stone cold to the point of chewy. Chris’s sushi is very soft and his nigiri will actually crumble on you if you use chopsticks as it isn’t stuck together like a block.
The Japanese don’t use chopsticks when eating sushi for this reason, they pick it up with their fingers. The warm rice texture compliments the fish so well.
I was never a sushi lover, but I love Chris’s sushi. His is a step above and now I understand why.
Chris, being a man that walks to the beat of his own drum, doesn’t use a smartphone, hasn’t got a website and doesn’t use social media. It’s for this reason his sushi is Cork’s best kept culinary secret. His stall, ‘Okawari Sushi’, can be found at Mahon Point Farmers’ Market every Thursday and Douglas Village Farmers’ Market every Saturday. He tends to sell out, so swing by early if you’re feeling like great sushi. Oh, he’ll build and fix a boat for you, too.
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Next week: Ahern’s Raw Milk.