A feast for the sensei

Rachel Walker visits the annual Sushi Awards at a mobbed Hyper Japan Christmas Market to find out what it takes to be a sushi champion.

Platform boots got higher and bunched hair got pinker as I neared East London’s Tobacco Docks, joining the crowds who were flocking to the Hyper Japan Christmas Market, the festive outing for Britain’s biggest celebration of Japanese culture.

The converted Docklands warehouse was heaving with anime, kawaii and martial art enthusiasts, many wearing the outfits to prove it. From origami gift-wrapping classes to ramen workshops to a barnstorming performance by J-pop metal band LADYBABY (above), there was something for every fan of Japan. I was there for the food.

The highlight of the day (for me, at least) was the Sushi Awards, an annual event that lays claim to being one of the longest-standing sushi competitions in the world, celebrating the wealth of sushi-making talent in Britain. Unlike most awards, which are judged by a panel of experts, this competition is decided by a public vote: the chef that wins over most visitors on the day, wins.

A long work bench stretched the length of a room, where the five shortlisted chefs were each preparing their sushi, specially conceived for the occasion. We’re not talking your standard maki roll, though: think lotus crisps, yuzu brines and tuna emulsions, handled lovingly by chefs wielding blowtorches and tweezering microherbs to put the finishing flourishes on their creation. Throughout the day, hundreds of visitors flowed past the work benches, picking up a piece of sushi from each, and ticking the box alongside their favourite on a voting slip.

Some of the sushi entries were ornate twists on a classic. Shengjian Lin from eat TOKYO, for example, served a combination of rolled tuna and salmon, which was paired with an unusual but delicious sliver of pear. Other entries were more conceptual: Tomokazu Matsuya from Sozai Cooking School’s entry, entitled “Snowdrop”, used mashed potato alongside sushi rice that had been cooked with coconut and paired with gorgonzola.

Once all the entries were tallied up, the winner was announced: Henryanto Aloysius from Kensington sushi restaurant Genji. His entry, a spicy tuna crunch roll, had the traditional flavours of hoisin and teriyaki, alongside more unusual textures of shredded cucumber and dark quinoa. A real result, both for Henryanto and this visitor, who was delighted to have picked the winner!

The winner: The Spicy Crunch
Ebi tempura, tempura crunch, shredded cucumber and quinoa brown rice wrapped in soy wrap. Topped with spicy yellow fin tuna with spicy mayo, mixed hoisin and teriyaki sauce.

Henryanto Aloysius x150Chef: Henryanto Aloysius
Aloysius followed an unconventional path in becoming a sushi chef, starting off as a construction engineer back in his native Indonesia. In 1997 he followed his passion for Japanese food and relocated to the US where he trained at various high-end Japanese restaurants. Quickly gaining advanced sushi certificates awarded by the All Japan Sushi Association (AJSA), he joined Genji and later moved to the UK.

Restaurant: Genji
Starting as a small-town sushi restaurant in the US, Genji Sushi rapidly expanded when it was picked up the Whole Foods Market chain, which began to place outlets in its locations worldwide. Today, Genji is a major name in “grab-and-go” sushi and has 158 sushi bars in the US and UK. Its sushi is available in Whole Foods Market stores across London, including Kensington, where it also operates a sushi and shabu-shabu bar.

And the rest…

Tosho
Rolled tuna, pear, spring onion, salmon, avocado with rice and special sauce. Topped with tobiko (flying fish roe) and radish sprout.

Shengjian Lin x150

Chef: Shengjian Lin
Shengjian’s path is a traditional one, beginning his career as a sushi chef in Osaka. After seven years of training in demanding izakaya restaurants, he relocated to the UK in 1999. Continuing his training at Saga and Arigato, he began working at eat TOKYO in 2010, where he continues to adhere to the golden rule he learned back in Japan: “Customers are gods”.

Restaurant: eat TOKYO
The eat TOKYO Group has five branches across London and a reputation as one of the capital’s most formidable Japanese chains. Drawing on more than 40 years’ experience in the catering trade in Tokyo, its authentic offering includes freshly prepared sushi, bento boxes and an izakaya menu. Keenly priced too.

Tuna “Toro” Gunkan
Rolled tuna emulsion, sushi rice and wasabi with daikon sheet marinated in yuzu brine. Topped with quail egg marinated in rice Koji and beetroot marinated lotus crisp.

Gohei Kishi x150

Chef: Gohei Kishi
Gohei began his training in Japan where his talent was recognized by the Michelin-starred Shinjuku Kappou Nakajima restaurant. After spending five years under the exacting standards of Nakajima, he moved base to London where he currently is head of Asian concepts at Maze.

Restaurant: Maze
The brainchild of Gordon Ramsey, this playful and innovative Grosvenor Square establishment provides world-class dining with French and Asian influences, plus a sushi bar, all under the keen eye of executive chef Michael Nizzero.

Maki Sabroso
Ginger tempura marinated for five days in Amazu sauce, rocket, and sun-dried tomato rolled in bonito flakes. Topped with spicy mushroom foam, parmesan and tasted Sakura Ebi.

Alvaro Cano Comino x150Chef: Alvaro Cano Comino
As a young boy growing up in Seville, Alvaro always dreamed of coming a chef. When he entered culinary school, he became particularly fascinated with the many different varieties and ways of preparing fish. After moving to London, he started training in Japanese cooking in earnest with Yashin Ocean House. Clinching the top spot at an in-house contest, he now turns his attention on the Sushi Awards, determined to show how his Spanish roots can merge with Japanese culinary traditions.

Restaurant: Yashin Ocean House
A sister restaurant to the original Yashin Sushi and Bar, Yashin Ocean House is entirely focused on seafood and espouses a “head to tail” approach, using every aspect of the fish – from roe, to flesh, to skin – so that nothing goes to waste. The two restaurants were founded by the sushi powerhouse duo Yasuhiro Mineno (ex-head chef at Ubon by Nobu and renowned Europe-wide for his knife-skills) and Shinya Ikea (ex-head chef at Yumi). Both are in Kensington.

Snowdrop
Mashed potato, Shio-koji (Koji that has been fermented in salt), and sushi rice cooked with coconut, with sprinkled coconut powder and gorgonzola sauce.

Tomokau Matsuya x150Chef: Tomokazu Matsuya
After graduating from culinary school, Tomokazu travelled all over the world as a chef in the Japanese army. After 13 years of service he came to the UK, where he became head sushi chef at SO Restaurant. He is now a sushi cooking instructor at Sozai Cooking School, where he gives cooking classes and trains students to become professional sushi chefs.

Establishment: Sozai Cooking School
Sozai is the first cooking school in the UK dedicated to authentic Japanese food. It offers a wide variety of classes covering dishes such as multi-course kaiseki, vegan shojin, as well as ramen noodles and savoury okonomiyaki pancakes.

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