The secret sushi chef

Akiko Ben-Zvi learned the art of sushi behind closed doors, then opened her Japanese kitchen to Israel.

Akiko Ben-Zvi (photo credit: ITIEL ZION)
Akiko Ben-Zvi
(photo credit: ITIEL ZION)
Akiko Ben-Zvi, 45, speaks fluent Hebrew with a lilting Japanese accent. Her two Tel Aviv eateries, both named Akiko Japanese Sushi Bar, serve sushi the way she learned to make it from a veteran Japanese chef.
In Japan, women aren’t allowed to apprentice in traditional sushi kitchens; but Ben-Zvi, already married to Shay, an Israeli, and mother of three, was determined to learn. She traveled from Tel Aviv to her home town, Kumamoto, a village in the southern island of Kyushu, and wangled an education in the art of sushi from a close friend of her father’s.
“My father’s friend has run a sushi restaurant for 40 years,” she recounts.
“I studied in his restaurant all day, every day, for four months.”
Sunrise would find her in the fish market, again with a mentor gained through a family connection. There, she learned to choose and cut fish professionally.
Ben-Zvi’s interest in food started at home.
“My mother is an excellent cook. I always gain a few pounds when I visit my parents,” she laughs.
Her father grows the family’s rice and vegetables on his inherited land.
“I’ve eaten and enjoyed dishes from many international cuisines, but to this day my mother’s udon noodles are my favorite food,” she says.
Ben-Zvi met Shay in Japan. He was studying Japanese in the building where she worked in a bank. They soon married.
When they decided to establish themselves in Israel, Shay remained behind to wind up his business. She made aliya with two young children, managing alone and pregnant part of the time.
She gave private Japanese classes and studied Hebrew in an ulpan.
“That lasted four years,” she recalls.
“They were very hard years. I didn’t know any Hebrew at first. I’d take a dictionary with me to the kupat holim (health clinic), everywhere. But I had time to go to ulpan, and I learned to speak Hebrew there. I converted to Judaism after my three children were born.”
The Ben-Zvis remained secular.
“My daughter wanted to convert, but the authorities made it very hard for her; maybe because we run a non-kosher restaurant,” she says.
Their son is currently serving in the IDF.
Ben-Zvi says that over the years she’s come to appreciate the Israeli forthrightness and freedom of expression.
“When I’m in Japan, shopping with my mother, I sometimes embarrass her with my Israeli ways,” she laughs. “I’ve also become more demonstrative. In Japan, families can love each other very much, yet everyone maintains distance as a matter of respect and never touch.
My family says I’ve become very Israeli because I hug and kiss everyone.”
Still, she keeps to many traditional Japanese ways.
“For example, in the restaurant I always hand the customer his credit card with both hands. A credit card is property, an important thing, and should be handled with respect. Food, too, is always served with two hands. Customers here aren’t used to that, and enjoy it,” she explains.
“I train my staff,” she continues, “but it’s hard to change Israelis’ behavior. For example, in Japan we never turn our backs on the customers. Staff is expected to stay attuned to their needs, noticing the minute they need something and moving to supply it even before they ask.”
The chef is very sensitive to the quality of her ingredients.
“I travel to Japan and bring back the exact seaweeds we want. It’s not like the sheets of supermarket nori. Customers can taste the difference. I’d like to import rice as well, to give the customers a taste of the authentic flavors. Rice is essential in Japan; we eat it three times a day.
Here, we make do with locally available rice, but it’s not the same. Yaki soba noodles and curry are also important items on my menus. In Japan, you eat them at least once a week,” she says.
She has also learned to be flexible in her menus, noting that in Japan, restaurants serve single items, like only sushi or only noodles.
“Here, people want to choose from a variety,” she notes.
What advice does she have for young cooks who want to learn Japanese cuisine? “Go to Japan and eat lots of the authentic Japanese food,” she says emphatically.
“It’s the only way to know what it really is. There are schools that teach Japanese cuisine to foreigners, but I don’t recommend them. Always have good quality soy sauce, sake [rice wine] and mirin [rice vinegar] on hand; every Japanese kitchen has them,” she says “You have to learn the differences between qualities of the same product.
Tofu, for example, is made with different textures and flavors. Fish and vegetables should be chosen in their proper season.
When cooking, take care to let the flavors come through. You want each ingredient to keep its distinctive flavor. If you cook potatoes, the taste of potatoes should dominate. You don’t want a mishmash of flavors, where in the end you don’t know what you ate,” she warns.
“The best way to learn,” she winds up, “is to go into a favorite restaurant and ask to work in their kitchen. Food is culture.
You should absorb the food as you do the culture, and absorb the culture as you do the food.”
Akiko Sarona
Not kosher
6 David Elazar Street, Tel Aviv
Deliveries and reservations: (03) 624-3624
Japanese brides are expected to learn how to cook this dish in order to feed their husbands with the taste of home.
Makes 4 servings
350 gr. sirloin (sinta or #11 cut of meat) 5 large potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes 1 large carrot, peeled and thinly sliced 2 medium onions, thickly sliced 2 Tbsp. oil 4½ Tbsp. sugar 4 Tbsp. sake (rice wine) 2 Tbsp. mirin (rice vinegar) 5 Tbsp. soy sauce Heat the oil over medium heat. Add the vegetables and fry for 4 minutes, stirring often. Add the cubed beef and stir-fry another 4 minutes.
When the beef’s color changes, cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook 15 minutes more.
Shake the pan every so often so the potatoes won’t stick. Don’t stir, as it will break the potatoes apart. When the pan liquids have thickened, turn off the heat, cover, and let the flavors merge for a few minutes before serving.
Akiko Sushi website (English): www. Akiko Ramat Aviv (flagship branch) Not kosher Schuster Center 17 Abba Ahimeir St., Ramat Aviv Gimmel Tel: (03) 641-7641