Eighteen years ago Boaz Tsairi opened Sakura, the first kosher sushi restaurant in Jerusalem. But after five years of hard work in a small market, he went non-kosher.
"It was very difficult back then," says Tsairi, relating how, despite being the pioneer in Israel for Japanese food imports, he often asked El Al stewardesses going to Japan to bring back jars of pickled ginger because there was no other way to get it and no proper substitute.
"How can you run a business like that?" he says. "People don't realize what we tried to do at the time."
Years later, Sakura remains not kosher because Tsairi believes it's impractical to make "authentic Japanese sushi" with the available kosher products. However, his business has become a minority within a boom of kosher sushi houses springing up around the capital, as Jerusalemites are demanding a kosher stamp on the culinary treat.
In essence, a kosher sushi culture is unfolding in Jerusalem that is changing the way people eat and socialize. Just walk downtown on a Thursday or Saturday night, and many of the rowdy Israeli teenagers and American yeshiva and seminary students can be found eating sushi at a sushi bar instead of drinking beer at a pub.
Sushi is also competing with felafel and shwarma kiosks as a healthier alternative. And for singles on dates it's becoming the food of choice, since it's a relatively clean entrÃ©e - a consideration when trying to make a good impression. As one maitre d' at a mehadrin-certified sushi restaurant explains, sushi isn't rough like meat or heavy like bread. It's fish, it's rice. It's delicate, and delicate is sensual. The hardest part, she says, is using the chopsticks.
Kosher sushi has become such a hit that even some non-religious patrons prefer it.
Though kosher sushi chefs in Jerusalem agree that Japan is far from Israel and concede what's being produced here is an Israeli brand, it's not that far off from the real thing, since many Israeli-based chefs learned the trade from experienced Japanese chefs abroad.
Questions of authenticity do arise when some sushi houses serve sushi rolls under an abundance of sauces or other creative edible substances. Purists would have a field day, since for them the goal in making sushi is simplicity and excellence in order to bring out the fish's flavor and not cover it up like frosting on a cake. For better or worse, Jerusalemites looking for a kosher version of the seaweed-wrapped Japanese rice roll have easy access to both.
"A TRADITIONAL sushi menu does not deviate much from the likes of salmon, tuna and other fresh fish," says Matthew Mausner, founder of Nahlaot-based Sushiness, a biweekly kosher sushi night where locals are invited to his home to eat sushi at reasonable prices.
The former Wall Street business analyst and project manager-turned historian immigrated from the US in 2003 after learning the ins and outs of making good sushi from Japanese chefs around New York City. He soon discovered that sushi in Jerusalem was not only hard to come by but was made poorly and was too pricy for an Israeli salary.
"Several years ago there were just a few sushi restaurants in Jerusalem that were very expensive, and Americans were always complaining about the quality. I think the situation has improved but it's still pretty high-priced compared to your standard lunchtime special anywhere in Manhattan," says Mausner.
His one-man operation draws customers ranging from neighborhood acquaintances to commuters from Gush Etzion. "My prices basically cover costs and enable me to present this service to low-income Israelis, who happen to be the vast majority of people I know," he says.
Over the past year, several local sushi establishments also felt the economic pinch, cutting costs and in some cases lowering prices, trying desperately not to sacrifice quality. However, Anat Moalem, owner and chief sushi roller at the downtown sushi bar Osaka, believes the products are overpriced anyway.
"I don't think sushi has to be so posh. Unfortunately, throughout the world it's known as an expensive dish, giving restaurants in Israel credibility to charge more. In some places, a roll is NIS 50," she says. "I'm not interested in exorbitant costs. I like to make sushi, and I want to serve it to people at reasonable rates."
Moalem, who also rolls at CafÃ© Rimon in the Mamilla mall Thursday nights for clientele who only eat under the mehadrin kosher certificate, is a rarity in the Israeli sushi industry. Of the other kosher sushi bars that agreed to speak with In Jerusalem, only Omamy in Beit Hakerem and Taiku on Rehov Emek Refaim had native Israeli chefs.
"Originally we hired a female Japanese chef who previously worked in Beirut," says Taiku's manager Oshrat Dayan. "She worked all over the world and came to Jerusalem, where suddenly she couldn't make her special sauce and couldn't bring certain items onto the premises because they weren't kosher."
At the beginning, many comical misunderstandings forced Dayan to constantly separate the kashrut supervisor and the chef; but eventually the chef caught on, despite never fully understanding the reasoning. Since then Taiku has hired Israeli help, which has eliminated a certain cultural barrier.
Commenting on the choice of chefs, one restaurant owner - only willing to be identified as T. - says, "It's a rare feat for an Israeli sushi house to have an Israeli-born chef. In fact, it's an open secret that in Israel almost all Asian workers behind local sushi bars are not even Japanese but from Thailand or China."
According to T. there are two main reasons for the existing circumstances: Japanese don't come to Israel to find work, and Israelis don't like to roll sushi. T. also says that Arabs don't like to roll sushi and have recently brought foreign workers to Ramallah and Bethlehem, where sushi bars are also opening up. "It's good for the Arabs because they don't have to roll, and it's good for the foreigners because they don't have to deal with Israeli bureaucracy," says T.
When asked about the perception that Thai or Chinese chefs make better sushi than the Japanese, the Osaka restaurant's Moalem says it's not about nationality, as she learned from experienced Japanese chefs in New York and considers herself able to roll with the best. "You just have to have the feel for it," she says.
Although Amnon Galo at RYU Asian Kitchen on Rehov Emek Refaim uses Chinese chefs, he agrees with the sentiment. "The Chinese know how to make sushi, but it depends on the person. Why? The person has to have the touch. With Israelis, the touch is generally missing," he comments.
MEANWHILE, ASIDE from rolling good sushi, the most challenging part of running a kosher sushi bar is keeping it kosher. With respect to food imports from Asia, major problems can occur rendering a sushi roll non-kosher, and in some cases wreaking havoc upon a business.
For example, when harvesting and processing seaweed, known as nori, many sea horses and crustaceans are caught in the oceanic vegetable. Also, many Asian-based companies use oil from non-kosher sea animals and animal fat to coat the paper-thin sheets. Taking these two concerns into consideration, a major ordeal occurred last year for several local sushi restaurants when part of the seaweed supply arrived infested and rabbinical authorities ordered sushi production halted. Taiku was closed for a night until the kashrut supervisor realized they were not using that brand; and RYU, formerly Yoja, was forced to use beet leaves as a substitute for a number of months.
According to some business owners and rabbinic authorities, the issue could have been resolved differently had the various authorities in Israel been communicating with those outside Israel.
"The seaweed we get in Israel is the same stuff used in American kosher businesses, and it's all manufactured in China and Japan, where it's dried, pressed into sheets, and packaged," explains Jonathan Kestenbaum, one of Taiku's owners. "Still, the most strict opinion in Israel would not even allow its usage, though in America you can go to the most hassidic wedding and see it there. In the case of our Israeli seaweed fiasco, the authorities suddenly realized the seaweed is black and crushed and it's almost impossible to tell if anything was caught in it, whereas elsewhere they already worked through the concern."
Taiku, whose kosher certification is mehadrin, started out under one certification and then switched to the predominantly US-based Orthodox Union (OU). Although the restaurant's original supervision was very strict, Kestenbaum discovered that the OU had superior knowledge of the issues involved. He believes part of the reason is the OU's rabbinic field representatives who travel to Asia familiarizing themselves with the situation. The results trickle back to Israel, where products under their supervision frequently have status changes from kosher to not kosher.
According to Taiku's manager Oshrat Dayan, the changes often force her to make adjustments to the menu, which keeps it "fresh." But she also says it would be a good thing if kosher Asian products made in other parts of the world were more attuned to the needs of the religious community, as it would save a lot of time and hardship.
DESPITE THE chaos experienced by some kosher sushi businesses, others have less drama. Osaka, which is listed under Jerusalem Rabbinate certification since it opened two years ago, has never had a crisis with its distributor or the rabbinate's daily supervisor or the mehadrin supervisor at CafÃ© Rimon.
On the non-kosher end of Jerusalem sushi, Sayuri's Katana restaurantis the only other sushi bar catering to that sector. Its owner, David Gerber, had always wanted to run a sushi bar and decided the logical approach at the time was to go non-kosher because of the slim competition. So far it's worked, as both Sayuri's Katana and Sakura are busy with mostly native Israeli clients, something the kosher establishments are still working towards.
It's not that native religious Israelis don't eat kosher sushi but many, such as Jerusalem-based Israeli rapper Rinat Gutman, only discover it after traveling abroad.
"Sushi is only now becoming big in Israel, but the first time I was exposed to it was in New York and since then I'm finding more places in Jerusalem that make it," says Gutman. She adds that Israelis always look for something different; and since sushi is not so common, it's becoming trendier. "It's a healthy choice but also a cultural staple infiltrating the capital from overseas," she says.
How this occurred is still up for debate. Although Jerusalemites are wondering if it came from the East or from the West, the bottom line is that immigrants are eating it up.
"Three years ago we opened what was then the only kosher sushi bar in Jerusalem on Rehov Aza and had at least 50 people in line every day, most of them originally from France and North America," says Nachik, owner of Sushi Bar Rehavia. Since then, Nachik has opened branches on Rehov Hapalmah in Katamon and most recently on Rehov Emek Refaim.
However, despite Sushi Bar Rehavia's expansion, its Rehov Aza location will always have a special buzz, as it is frequented by Knesset members with their bodyguards, apparently another community of sushi connoisseurs. Before Binyamin Netanyahu became prime minister, he would eat there often, relates Nachik. "But it would be next to impossible for the PM to drop by now, as it would create a logistical nightmare," he says.
Meanwhile, back at Sushiness in Nahlaot, the atmosphere is relaxed as Mausner serves salmon, tuna, spicy tuna and vegetable sushi rolls for his constituency.
"It's a serious thing, and I would never claim to be a real Japanese chef who studied for nine or 10 years in a hard-core apprenticeship, but nothing in the area has made me sit up and take notice of what I consider good sushi," Mausner explains.
However, fearing he'd begin to dislike rolling, he's not interested in doing it for a living. As far as he can tell, his customers are happy with his decision, as most couldn't afford such a bargain more than twice a month anyway.