TOKYO (AFP) - A Brazilian chef won the World Sushi Cup Friday, bursting into tears of joy after his knife skills and artful preparation of salmon roe, tuna and shrimp delicacies wowed Japanese judges.
With the country's UNESCO-recognised cuisine enjoying an explosion of global popularity, the competition - sponsored by Japan's agricultural ministry - aims to improve sushi standards overseas.
Dressed in white coats and hats, 27 chefs from countries ranging from France, Brazil and the US to Pakistan, nervously prepared fish and made traditional "Edo" style sushi, in tightly timed rounds.
Their techniques were closely watched and evaluated by a panel of Japanese sushi masters, with 20 chefs making it through to the finals on day two, where they had to show off their own original styles of sushi.
"I had fun," said cup winner Celso Hideji Amano, 38, a Brazilian of Japanese ancestry who shone in the traditional sushi making round, before busting into tears.
"It's not an easy competition," Usman Khan, a 32-year-old Pakistani chef working at a branch of the prestigious Nobu restaurant chain in Cape Town, told AFP.
"You're under a lot of pressure," he said on Thursday, the first day of the competition.
The annual contest was first held in 2013 and Khan, who has competed twice and made it through to the finals this year, said it was a good challenge.
"What better way to test your limits by competing against other chefs in the same profession in Japan," he said.
Khan first encountered sushi after he moved to South Africa from Kuwait 13 years ago.
"I couldn't believe people could eat raw fish," he said.
"I was disgusted initially but I got intrigued." As of July 2015, there were 89,000 Japanese restaurants outside Japan, up from 55,000 two years before, according to the ministry.
But many establishments outside the country serve sushi without proper knowledge and skills, competition organisers said.
"Quite a lot of people are learning from the internet and books," said World Sushi Cup chairman Masayoshi Kazato, who has worked as a sushi chef for more than four decades.
"Improvement of the level of cooking and hygiene through this competition - that's what we're aiming for," he said.
One of the contestants, French chef Eric Ticana Sik, 31, said his goal in participating was simply to learn more.
"We are one of the countries that eat the most sushi in the world, but there is really a lack of training," he said.
"Only Japanese can teach us the basics." Sik, whose signature sushi brings together elements of Japan and France by combining salmon and brie cheese, said he wanted to meet other chefs from around the world to "discuss and share" views.
The origin of sushi dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185), when salted "funa" fish were fermented together with rice, according to the ministry.
The current style was developed in the Edo Period (1603-1867) when the public began using vinegar mixed with rice.