Sentori: Umami Sublime

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Just over a decade ago, scientists officially confirmed what renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier and Japanese chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda deduced around the turn of the 20th century: the human tongue can detect not four distinct tastes, as had been believed since the days of Aristotle and Plato, but five. An elusive sensation not encompassed by sweetness, sourness, bitterness, or saltiness, this fifth taste is called umami.

Kazuhisa Yoshida, 3rd-generation owner and head sushi chef of the restaurant Sentori, understands the importance of umami in his craft. After nearly 60 years of providing Kanazawa’s aficionados with superb sushi, Sentori knows its fish–and how to satisfy its loyal customers. During a recent interview with AJK staffers, Yoshida shared his philosophies on fish, taste, and what makes a sushi experience truly memorable.

The most important thing, he emphasized, is to maintain high standards. This means no cutting corners anywhere, not even with the gari (pickled ginger) and kanpyo (pickled gourd ribbons). As for the rice, a seemingly simple component, it’s actually quite complex. Early winter poses the greatest concern, as rice freshly harvested in the fall doesn’t work well for sushi due to its high water content. Yoshida must find a careful balance between this fresh rice and stocked rice to achieve a precise and consistent texture. Communication with the local rice shops helps eliminate this worry, allowing Yoshida to find the perfect ratio of rice to water.

Above all, regardless of the season, is the quality of the fish. Kanazawa’s fish market opens early, and Yoshida arrives in time to chat with the workers about what’s coming in and to begin placing his orders. In the case of buri (yellowtail), the fish are caught in the middle of the night and the auction gets going by 3:30 am, a good two hours ahead of Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji market. However, Yoshida points out that the freshest fish is not necessarily the best tasting. Though it may seem counterintuitive, fish that has been caught and immediately butchered can be chewy and hard. This unfortunate texture occurs when the fish has not had time to mature; in addition, it’s the maturing process that gives fish its umami. In the case of hirame (flounder), generally a farmed fish, it’s not left to mature, giving it a certain bite but denying it umami. Chefs often fill this flavor vacuum with salt and a citrusy ponzu sauce. While that bite may be preferred in Tokyo, Kanazawans are keener on taste, which makes farmed hirame unacceptable, as even when left overnight it will tenderize but not develop umami. Only wild, properly matured hirame–both tender and rich with umami–is welcome in this city of epicures.

Another difference between Kanazawa and Tokyo sushi is the temperature of the rice. While typically served cold in Tokyo, warm rice is the Kanazawa standard. According to custom, Kanazawans believed that serving cold rice to guests under any circumstances was extremely rude. This custom made its way to the city’s sushi restaurants and has endured ever since. Because of these regional differences, Yoshida enjoys having customers from Tokyo as it gives him an opportunity to prepare dishes they may not have had before. In those situations, he also gives tips on how to eat something “like a local,” although as a rule, he refrains from making corrections of his clients’ techniques. “Today there are lots of intimidating sushi restaurants where the chef will tell you if you’re eating something wrong and correct you. I don’t agree with this. I’m often asked by customers how to eat something, but sushi is not a complicated food. I don’t care how the customers eat, just as long as they’re enjoying it.” He will, however, make suggestions to enhance the experience, such as saving the maguro (tuna) to eat after the white fish so that the rich flavor of the tuna doesn’t obstruct one’s enjoyment of the lighter fish. For Yoshida, the meal flows with the conversation, and he will decipher what piece to serve up next based on the banter.

Fudo is a Japanese word referring to climate and geography. Phonetically, it’s very close to the English word food, and Yoshida feels that it’s vital to harmonize the two concepts, emphasizing that a delicious food eaten in one place may not have the same effect elsewhere. As an example, he offers, “Maybe the easiest explanation is Orion Beer made in Okinawa. In Okinawa it’s wonderful to drink, but anywhere else it’s just bad beer.” Kanazawa and its cuisine are particularly well suited to this idea due to the city’s relative remoteness and the considerable abundance of fresh ingredients indigenous to the area.

Sake is also considered one of Kanazawa’s finest local products and is a natural component of many sushi dinners. Yoshida agrees that while sake can enhance such a meal, it’s important to stay clear of strong flavors in order to allow the taste of the fish to have center stage. “I want the customer to taste the fish more than the sake. Something light and dry is best.”

In the end, it all comes down to Sentori continuing to serve the highest quality fish consistently and with confidence. It’s what customers rely on, and so far, they haven’t been disappointed. Yoshida sums it up, saying, “When the customer says, ‘That was good! I’ll be back,’ that’s the best feeling.” Yoshida’s dedication to traditional technique and devotion to quality ingredients will assure that customers will keep coming back for another sixty years.