TURNING JAPANESE

sushiSomething fishy is happening in the restaurants of this nation. Matt Chesterton gives the raw truth on the sushi craze.

             Rapacious consumers of flesh and fowl, Argentines are surprisingly restrained when it comes to fish. This strikes most visitors as odd. With 3,100 miles of coastline and a culture rooted in Mediterranean habits, you’d expect the catch of the day to figure strongly on restaurant menus. But in another way it makes perfect sense. Immigrants who made it across the Atlantic in the 1890s could be forgiven for looking back at the ocean and thinking, ‘You’ll never get me on one of those again.’

            So cattle it was and cattle it has largely remained. The best beef in the world, but a breakfast, lunch and supper staple nonetheless. A varied diet has traditionally meant eating different parts of the cow at different times of the day. There may have been an occasion when an Argentine male has looked at his plate, sighed, and muttered through his teeth, ‘Christ, not bloody sirloin again,’; but it’s not on record.

            Times, however (and I’m sure you saw this coming), are changing. Young, fashionable, globetrotting porteños, always keen to be individualistic so long as they can do it en masse, have, in recent years, made a conscious effort to challenge their palates. Chinese, Armenian, Scandinavian, even English restaurants have sprung up all over Buenos Aires, their success underwritten not so much by what they serve but by what they don’t. An eaterie that doesn’t have grilled intestines on the menu is, in the eyes of the BA fast set, doing at least something right.

            In the vanguard of the anti-tripe movement are BA’s many sushi restaurants. This sudden switch from overcooked meat to uncooked fish seems startling, but is consistent with the general Argentine suspicion of incremental change. While it took the English 500 years and a number of bloody wars to realise that garlic could be safely eaten by Protestants, porteños have gone wasabi virturally overnight. (There could be some kind of cultural quid pro quo at work here, seeing how passionately the Japanese have embraced tango.)

            The phenomenon is only partially represented by sushi restaurants per se. In addition, there are sushi stalls in most major supermarkets, sushi TV shows, sushi delivery companies, sushi schools, and so on. And then there is celebrity sushi. It’s imposible to get anywhere in BA showbiz unless you like sushi, allow yourself to be photographed eating sushi and then tell the journalist how much you love sushi. Even if you’re just a backstage ligger, don’t think you can mill around at a fashion show or exhibition preview without popping a couple of California rolls and a few slivers of seaweed..

            As crazes-out-of-Japan-that-have-reached-BA go, this one is easier to account for than, say, Pokemon. Trusting in the axiom that you are what you eat, porteños have long searched for a cuisine as sexy and sophisticated as they. Steak is just fine for family and friends but no food that comes with a side order of toothpicks can ever be an aphrodisiac. Pasta goes smoothly down the throat – and smoothly down the shirt. Pizza is cheap, delicious and impresses no-one. Sushi, by contrast, is stainless, odour-free, picturesque, exotic, expensive and, if nothing else, a great conversation starter. For porteños, many of whom ponder the art of flirting with almost Confucian intensity, these are important developments.

            Oh, one minor point, barely worth mentioning. BA sushi, with a few notable exceptions, isn’t very good. Style triumphs over substance and imported Chilean salmon triumphs over everything. Perhaps it needs to go out of fashion before it comes into flavour. Or perhaps the Japanese got the best end of the deal?. Can you guess who the world’s biggest importer of Argentine beef is?. Next month: steak and sake.