Sitting at the sushi bar of Sushi Zen in New York City, I am mesmerized by the sushi chef’s skill and artistic abilities. These gentlemen are true craftsmen and while I’m sure they appreciate the pay, I venture to guess they love what they do because each plate they deliver to the counter is prepared with the utmost attention to detail. The others at the counter near me marvel at the chef’s culinary prowess as they quickly and precisely slice, dice and chop their ingredients to prepare different kids of sushi and salads for onlookers and those seated at tables scattered throughout the restaurant. The guests not at the sushi bar are missing the show. They don’t get to see these chefs draw their foot long knives to gently julienne vegetables, cut seaweed or the flesh of fish.
As a vegan, watching the show can be difficult as the culinary artists go from cutting one slice of fish after the other to prepare plate after plate of sushi and sashimi. The interesting thing at this particular restaurant however was the care and pride the chef’s show in their preparation. Each piece of fish was stored in a separate plastic Tupperware style container and then wrapped in either a white or green meat paper, depending on the amount of moisture needed for the specific type of fish.
These chefs are likely used to cutting whole fish and prepping them in a variety of ways but in my two hours sitting at the sushi counter I didn’t see a single whole fish. Instead, the sushi masters worked with pieces of fish. This likely makes it easier for the chefs and the visitor because as ingredients are pulled from individual containers each ingredient is it’s own entity. It’s not a fish, or a vegetable, but simply an ingredient. Of course the chef’s know what each ingredient is and they will gladly tell you about it as they prepare or serve it to you.
The menu did not have a large variety of vegan dishes but the staff at Sushi Zen was very accommodating and eager to please any customer. They greeted everyone with a smile and a boysterous “Irasshaimase”, which means “please come in”. I ordered several pieces of vegetable sushi and each one was as good as the next. I also ordered the vegetable tempura (pictured above) which arrived as a beautifully prepared plate of deep fried delicacies to include: mushrooms, Japanese eggplant, baby carrots, taro root and the pièce de résistance, a fig, placed perfectly in the center of the plate atop a paper with some Japanese characters. The tempura was accompanied by a green tea powder and a curry powder as well as a soy dipping sauce with fresh milled radish. I have to say this was the best tempura I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating in the United States.
As the plates were small, and I was in no hurry, I made a conscious effort to enjoy my meal piece by piece, with slow deliberate effort. As I slowed my chewing, my breathing and put my chopsticks down between each bite, I found myself thoroughly enjoying each moment to its fullest. I also noticed that the music which was being played gently on the speakers above was calming, quiet and supportive of my desire to dine slowly. After finishing my meal I was treated to a small bowl with a sorbet trio; passion fruit, melon and pineapple. My meal was great. I appreciated the great care that these chefs and those in the back of the kitchen went through to create an enjoyable experience for everyone there. They seemed to enjoy their jobs which made the encounter that much better.
Sushi restaurants are typically staffed by people who care about their craft. They generally care about providing a great experience for their customers as well. I encourage people to patronize these restaurants which are typically locally owned and operated. Ask for vegetable based sushi, tempura, salads and dishes and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Sushi chefs can create beautiful and delicious dishes that are vegan friendly. A compassionate plate is good for you, good for the animals and good for the world.