You've come a long way, sushi.
From Japan. To the West Coast. To the East Coast.
And, now, to the supermarket, America's newest melting pot. Sushi chefs are becoming as commonplace as the neighborhood meat butcher and produce buyer. "Sushi's very popular," says Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food World, a Columbia-based trade journal. "It's pretty hot right now. It's something new and different."
But we were curious. After all, it's one thing to grab a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store for dinner, another to pick up a plastic tray of seaweed and fish with strange-sounding condiments like wasabi (green horseradish paste) and pickled ginger.
We turned to nine veteran sushi lovers in our office to taste supermarket sushi, with what some thought were surprising results. The top choice in a blind test came from a large chain store, beating out several gourmet food shops.
There were no losers -- and we aren't just saying that because those guys behind the counter wield really sharp knives. One taster, with an experienced palate, was unimpressed with all of the choices. But the rest of us generally found redeeming qualities in the samplings from Fresh Fields, Graul's Market, Eddie's of Roland Park, Giant Food, Super Fresh, Sutton Place Gourmet, Metro Food Market and Safeway.
And, for you naysayers out there, no one got sick -- although we were really full. In fact, one devotee went out for sushi the next day.
Sushi essentially are little shaped rolls made with rice that has been flavored with rice vinegar. They can be filled with a variety of seafood, usually raw, and shredded vegetables, and typically are wrapped with bright green nori seaweed. The rolls then are cut into smaller pieces.
We concentrated on California rolls for two reasons. They were universal in the stores we tested. And they are a good introduction for anyone who may be squeamish about eating uncooked fish, or sashimi, since the California rolls contain cooked crab as well as cucumber and avocado.
Now, the envelope, please.
The new Super Fresh in Timonium won our taste buds, with Eddie's of Roland Park on North Charles Street and Graul's in Ruxton, second and third, respectively. The others fell closely into line behind the top three in an unscientific point-rating system.
A disappointment was the sushi at the Safeway store in Canton. It was reversed rolled, with the seaweed sheet on the exterior. The detraction seemed to be its size. Some taster comments included: "Don't like roll that big." "Sloppy, pieces too big." "Shape is poor."
But another sampler said, "Jazzy. Perky taste. Very large pieces make for awkward eating but great to have so much sushi with zing!"
So much for statistical margins of error. This taste test was very subjective.
Here are some other remarks, which also vary widely.
* Super Fresh: "A nice blending and medley of tastes." "Variety of color makes the roll attractive."
* Eddie's: "Fresh tasting." "Uneven shape."
* Graul's: "Mild but good flavor." "A little chewy but fresh."
* Metro in South Baltimore: "Tastes better than it looks." "Limp."
* Sutton Place in Pikesville: "Nice balance of rice, crab and avocado." "I liked this. Avocado was melting in your mouth with other ingredients."
* Fresh Fields in Mount Washington: "Good taste." "Bland."
* Giant: "Fake crab meat is a bit different, so some might enjoy the different texture." "Overwhelming crab flavor."
We learned that sushi is prepared fresh every day in the area markets, sometimes multiple times. We found it helps to ask questions.
For instance, while daily sushi is offered at the Giant store in Lutherville, it is made at the nearby Hunt Valley store. So if you want to watch the chef in action, you have to go there.
Also, not every store in a chain has sushi. Super Fresh has been providing the dish in 13 of its 48 stores in Maryland since late 1997. Giant sells sushi in 95 of its 175 stores, with plans for more. "We are always looking to expand sushi," says Barry F. Scher, Giant vice president of public affairs. "It's very popular."
Prices for the California rolls range, too. For instance, a six-piece package cost $3.50 at Eddie's, about 58 cents for each piece. A nine-piece pack cost $4.29 at Super Fresh, about 48 cents for each. And two dozen pieces (ordered by phone, although smaller amounts are available at the sushi counter) cost $20 at Fresh Fields, about 83 cents each.
Also, the markets usually contract with a purveyor to provide the ingredients and trained talent to make the rolls. It is definitely a skill. After all, in Japan, where sushi rolls can be traced to the early 1800s, sushi-chef hopefuls typically spend the first two years just learning to make the rice.