In the discreet charm of the suburbs I was born into in the 1950s, the suggestion of consuming raw fish would have been revolting (and, just as bad, foreign). Nobody regarded smoked salmon as raw, though it was. But then, in the days before fish farming, nobody could afford it anyway. In 1980s London, when I first began to explore sushi, Tottenham Court Road had one such restaurant – now it has eight. No self-respecting supermarket or takeaway is without its sushi offering and it has become my favourite quick lunch option – unlike bread sandwiches, sushi rice doesn’t put you into a hyperglycaemic trance in afternoon meetings. Time for a tasting.
This column is also celebrating its 50th tasting, so we’ve made the panel a strictly FT affair. Joining me (PB) are Rowley Leigh (RL), our FT Weekend Magazine chef-neighbour, and Emiko Terazono (ET), the FT’s online commodities editor, who brings an admirably culinary approach to her job, closely monitoring the likes of salmon futures. The only member of our regular panel who has taken part in all of the 49 tastings so far, the Gluttonous Pig, was rather put out not to be invited – until he discovered it was sushi, a foodstuff he regards as distressingly ascetic.
We had nine nigiri and maki roll sushi sets from takeaways and supermarkets. Our first, obvious conclusion is that freshness is critical: supermarket offerings, which have to survive a bit longer in their supply chain than made-on-the-premises stuff, suffered.
The common fault is that the rice hardens up in the chiller cabinet and becomes aggressively al dente. We also all agreed we’re rather fed up with horizontally sliced cooked prawns because they taste of nothing – a sort of banal protein on top of the sushi rice.
All three supermarket offerings, while just about acceptable, came in the lower reaches of our comparison. Sainsbury’s offered its somewhat eccentric Fusion Sushi medley of nigiri, which included smoked salmon (why?) and roast pepper: “ridiculous but edible” (RL). Waitrose Taiko Sushi included slightly muddy-tasting fish (much like farmed fish) and extremely chewy brown rice: “maybe good for wholefood warriors but hard work for me” (PB). Prêt a Manger’s Salmon, Prawn & Crab Sushi had a more unusual selection including hot-smoked salmon but it too was probably not quite so fresh as our winners: “rice slightly rubbery” (ET); “avocado is a bit browned off” (PB).
A word about Nobu: we ordered a takeaway from the famous Mayfair restaurant which found favour with some of us, particularly its California roll: “tender langoustine and ripe, indulgent avocado … hold me back” (PB). But Rowley and Emiko were disappointed by the dark red, pungent tuna.
Itsu, a London-based healthy-food chain, came third with its Slim Salmon set: “seductively soft, glutinous rice”(PB); “crab and cucumber roll a good combo”(ET). But Rowley regretted that it had turbo-charged its roll with something other than wasabi: “strange deployment of Tabasco”. Second was another London mini-chain, Wasabi, whose California roll in the Rainbow set contained a tasty morsel of crabstick and some tamago egg: ; “fish is firm and fresh” (ET); “enterprising” (PB); “decent rice and little shrimps [in the Hana set] are a bonus” (RL). And our winner, by a goodish margin, was Tsuru, a chain of three restaurants in London, with its Salmon and Tuna Boxes: “yes, nice sweet tuna” (RL); “soft sticky rice and fresh, fresh, fresh!”(PB); “the best”(ET).
To mark the anniversary, we also asked each of the panel to nominate a food product that has never been on the market but ought to be. Rowley wants to see sandwich bars offer hot fish finger sarnies in white bread with lashings of tartar sauce (Leon does this but in a wrap). Emiko is longing for a Welsh rarebit spread. And I want to see a kedgeree scotch egg, where the egg is surrounded by smoked fish and rice rather than minced pork. I ate this at the Beachhouse in Thurlestone, south Devon, and it’s wonderful. Food industry, get to it.
1. Tsuru Salmon Box and Tuna Box
£3.95 and £4.25; tsuru-sushi.co.uk
2. Wasabi Rainbow and Hana sets
£7.49 each; wasabi.uk.com
3. Itsu Slim Salmon set
Six pieces, £5.29; itsu.com
Photographs: Felicity McCabe