Chef Jiro Ono is always dreaming of ways to improve his sushi

Jiro Ono is the owner of of sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro.
Jiro Ono is the owner of of sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro.PHOTOS: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN
(From left) Tuna, kohada dotted gizzard shad and simmered anago conger eel from Sukiyabashi Jiro.
(From left) Tuna, kohada dotted gizzard shad and simmered anago conger eel from Sukiyabashi Jiro. PHOTOS: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN
Mix rice with sushi vinegar as if cutting it.
Mix rice with sushi vinegar as if cutting it.PHOTOS: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN

(THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - This series by The Yomiuri Shimbun looks at washoku traditional Japanese cuisine as it is now and its future. Renowned chef Jiro Ono, owner of sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, talks about his commitment to the profession. 

"I haven’t thought much about protecting or disseminating washoku. What I’ve been doing is just making sushi that everyone feels is delicious. That is my profession and I can do only that. It’s the way of an artisan. I’m 92 years old, but I stand in the tsukeba (a space behind the counter where chefs make sushi) every day.

How can I make sushi more delicious? I think about it all the time and repeatedly reflect on my work every day.

I never fail to eat ingredients served on the day to determine whether there is any difference in their flavour. I always tell staff members of my restaurant to think about how to make sushi tastier.

I also need to learn. On my days off, I eat at much-talked-about Italian and French restaurants and other places. I have continued to do this for many years. This is an effort to check whether my taste buds are consistent with what the public says is delicious. I should not let my sense deteriorate. I never go to other sushi restaurants, as I am not welcomed by them.

I serve only what I feel is delicious and what goes well with shari vinegared rice. One example is sea bream. Many of the fish available in Tokyo are farmed ones, which are inferior to renowned natural red sea bream from Akashi in Hyogo Prefecture in terms of flavour.

I never make sushi with unusual toppings. Even though customers ask me to make such sushi, I never do it because their flavours never go well with vinegared rice.

To have customers enjoy my sushi more, I changed the serving sequence of sushi toppings.

A long time ago, I served tuna and kohada dotted gizzard shad first, but later, I began serving white-fleshed fish first because if one begins with delicate flavours and then eats fish with rich and umami flavors, the person can enjoy the latter flavours more.

Then, I wondered when I should serve anago conger eel. Through trial and error, the current set menu of chef’s choices evolved.

Edomae-zushi - the style of sushi developed in Edo, the old name of Tokyo - has a history of about 200 years and some flavours have survived during that history, such as kohada marinated in vinegar and simmered anago.

Even though the times are changing, these sushi toppings are delicious and go well with vinegared rice.

Foreign customers also understand their flavours. What people instinctively feel to be delicious would be the same for Japanese and foreigners.

To offer delicious sushi, it is important to select good toppings and combine them with good vinegared rice. I calculate from the time when customers arrive at my restaurant and make preparations to serve vinegared rice at the body’s temperature and sushi toppings in the best conditions.

To have them eat the best sushi that is just-prepared, I make sushi rhythmically.

My restaurant has many trainees. I tell them to observe, emulate and absorb everything. I do not teach them everything. Restaurants founded by trainees I endorsed were soon given stars by Michelin and gained loyal customers.

Efforts will bear fruit. This may mean that the taste of Jiro is handed down.

I apprenticed at age seven and began a career as a sushi chef at age 25. I opened my restaurant when I was 39 and, since then, I have devoted myself to making sushi. There is no summit for artisans. I don’t think I have tried everything."

Mix vinegar with rice, then cool it

Chef Jiro Ono shared a technique to make shari vinegared rice that will softly and smoothly dissolve in the mouth. The point is to add sushi vinegar to rice, mix it as if cutting and let it cool.

If one mixes rice with vinegar while waving a fan to cool the rice — a common technique — the rice tends to become gooey. Also, a handai wooden tub is best for mixing the rice.

Prepare a wet handai and shamoji rice paddle. Put just-cooked rice in the handai and sprinkle vinegar evenly all over it. Then break up the chunks of rice and mix carefully. Turn the rice over from the bottom while carefully breaking up clumps. Spread the rice across the bottom of the handai.

Next is the process of “cutting vinegared rice”. Hold the shamoji horizontally and mix all the rice as if cutting. Carefully cut any clumps that remain. Repeat the process twice and each rice grain will become shiny and moist-looking.

After that, cool the rice by waving a fan or other means. Put the vinegared rice in a cooked-rice container or other vessel and leave it to cool to 40 deg C to 45 deg C, slightly higher than body temperature. Then your well-vinegared rice is completed.