Eating sushi seems like one of the most translucent dining experiences. You can actually see your food being prepared: (mostly) unheated, naked slices of fish lain on fresh vegetables and rolled as near as a foot away from your view. But this is the final step in a global cuisine with paradoxical roots: It's a centuries-old process of preserving fish from Southeast Asia, yet mere decades young for how Americans widely consume it now.
Take H2O sushi in Broad Ripple, which is just as famous for its homemade ice cream and salty-sweet Shagbark cookies as its inventive maki that can employ basil, Meyer lemon and capers besides the seemingly more traditional items like tuna, tobiko and avocado.
Let's examine that avocado, which is clearly not of Asian origin. It's the star of that iconic California roll, which is actually no more "authentic" or true to some nebulous, largely non-existent age-old method of consuming true-blue Japanese rolls than H2O's more innovative assemblies (Executive Chef Eli Anderson simply calls it West Coast style sushi).
Quick history lesson: Sushi, as is locally and currently eaten mostly in the form of quickly molded marriages of raw fish-topped rice, is only about 200 years old, made first by the son of a vegetable-market owner as haya-zushi ("quick sushi") for his increasingly industrialized and harried Edo-era clientele. Heretofore, sushi rice had traditionally been left to ferment and flavor fish for hours; sometimes the rice was discarded altogether after the processes.
Back to that California roll. It can at least claim seniority, and represent how sushi rolls have evolved and adapted in America. Sushi Chef Ichiro Mashita introduced the California roll in its namesake American state during the 1960s. Mashita discovered that avocado's fatty, unctuous texture would satisfy his bluefin tuna-deprived guests (the fish was then available only during the summer months).
Indeed, modern sushi has largely been disseminated around the world by transplanted Japanese sushi chefs adapting to local tastes. In Brazil, cheap, local mango is said to star in the equivalent of a Cali roll - and was put there by a Japanese chef.
This is a global food that has undergone a good amount of change in a short time.
The worldwide sourcing of sushi reflects this characterization. Consider that tuna was the black sheep of seafood in America in the mid 20th century - fishermen sometimes had to pay to dump it - until sushi enthusiasts and a means of transporting it quickly changed the sentiment.
Now Eli Anderson sources his much-sought tuna from Honolulu Fish Company or True World Foods, a conglomerate fish company that can get him a cut from about anywhere in about a day.
"They're a Japanese company, and I feel a little more comfortable in their selection and the way they grade the fish," Anderson says. "These guys are looking at fat content in a tail" - a hands-on process that has its roots in Tokyo's massive Tsukiji Market, where global prices are still sometimes set.
Primitive processes and a progressive global atmosphere: the paradox of sushi's sensibility.
On the Web: Eli Anderson talks about the next big things in sushi, from premium sake to the best fish you may have never heard of.