Masatoshi Tsujimura looks across the counter of his North Raleigh sushi institution, Waraji, and smiles knowingly, as though he’s intuited a secret.
“You’ve never been here before, have you?” Tsujimura asks, guessing correctly.
“Well, have you ever had nattō?” he continues, glancing down at the thin white strip on which I’ve ordered nearly every vegetarian sushi roll his restaurant offerscucumber and plum, seasoned kelp salad, pickled radish, avocado, egg, Japanese pickle, tofu skin and, finally, fermented soybeans, or nattō, the Marmite equivalent of Japan.
When I shake my head, Tsujimura frowns, not out of disappointment but out of concern for my well-being. He reaches beneath the corner and pulls out a clear plastic tube, no bigger than a pouch of cake frosting, and squeezes the end until a pale brown mound forms in an alabaster saucer. He quickly wipes his hands, daintily grabs the dish by its edges and swiftly extends his arm across the counter. He leans back, distancing his nose from the dish.
“Here, I’ll let you try a little bit,” he says, his face now expressionless, as though to tell me he really means it. “And if you like it, I’ll make it for you.”
And then he walks away.
Fermented soybeans resemble over-boiled pinto beans that have been allowed to dehydrate in the summer sun, shriveling to a quarter of their size until they curl inward as if in shame. The beans, however little, produce a big smell, like a mixture of ammonia and sulfur simmering on a stovetop. And the beans hang together with translucent, gelatinous threads, as thin as spider web but twice as strange; pluck one away from the rest, as I did not long after Tsujimura stepped away, and you’ll have to lift and pull for a few feet until the strand finally snaps.
But it does, and I eat one, two, then three. When Tsujimura finally returns, he looks at the quarter-empty dish and agrees to go ahead with the order. Though he was born in a fishing village in Japan, where nattō is something of a superfood, and has been making sushi in America since 1982 and at Waraji since opening the place in 1997, Tsujimura admits he has never eaten nattō, not even gotten it past his nose.
But I have passed his test, and he will roll it. Hey, if I’m going to try Waraji’s vegetarian sushi options, I might as well try them all.
Vegetarian sushi sounds strange, of course, since our standard operating definition of sushi often runs something like “raw fish wrapped in rice.” But it’s as easy to roll the rice around produce as it is seafood.
Though the incorporation of vegetables in sushi is a somewhat recent Western pastime for the millennia-old Eastern technique, it’s not without its historical precedents. Tamagoyaki, the sweetened and layered egg omelet that’s often considered an ultimate test of sushi chefs, dates back several centuries. (If you’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you’ve seen one of his apprentices try and fail to make it to the master’s standards more than 200 times.)
Indeed, vegetarian sushi has been around for so long that at least two distinct camps have emerged. There are those chefs who, like Waraji’s Tsujimura, keep it simple, delivering basic ingredients in tight, crisp rolls. And there are those cooks whose postmodern zeal for everything all the time (or perhaps that belongs to their audience instead) compels them to stuff an entire pantry of ingredients between the grains; the small chain The Cowfish features a mushroom-and-basil-and-peppers creation called the “Birkenstocky Shiitake Maki.”
The possibilities of sushi as a form have inspired vegetarian and vegan chefs, too. At Raleigh’s Fiction Kitchen, for instance, chef Caroline Morrison approximates sashimi by slicing tofu in uniform pieces, searing it cleanly and coating it with sesame seeds. The strips accompany bits of sushi, with a mix of greens and grains and root vegetables bound by nori; somehow, the moist mix suggests the sea.
Like sea-based sushi, though, herbivore sushi hinges largely on the freshness and flavor of the featured ingredients and the chef’s particular combination of imagination and concentration. And so, it can be maddeningly boring or bad.
During a recent weekday lunch, I settled into a bar-side seat at Basan in Durham, a chic space sandwiched between the city’s entertainment jewels, the ballpark and the theater. Consistent with a menu featuring specialty rolls bearing titles such as “Screaming O” and “Sharkbite,” the plant-based options were either audacious or elementary. I opted for a little of both, selecting a cheap lunch-only roll with roasted red pepper perched atop rice bearing cucumber and avocado along with two more ostentatious offeringsthe $10 Bonsai and the $9 Garden.
The Bonsai certainly sounded intriguing, with a wrapper made not of rice but soy paper-lined cucumber, carefully curled around a core of avocado and broccoli, tempura green beans and asparagus. Soy-soaked salsa came ladled over the top. The Garden also held promise, with a wide, tempting smear of mustard-heavy dressing above red peppers draped around rice that tucked tomato, avocado and cucumber inside. Likewise, the tamagoyaki looked fascinating, with long, thick, tempeh-like strips of the egg ingeniously bracketed to a pillow of rice with a band of nori.
Maybe two pieces into each roll, though, I began peeling the layers apart, digging into the innards to discover that the produce simply didn’t have much character. The pale tomatoes and limp asparagus, pallid cucumber and withered broccoli suggested a discount salad bar, not a pricey lunch. And the tamagoyaki was cloyingly sweet, as if I’d ordered eggs and pancakes at an IHOP and allowed the maple syrup from one to flood out the other.
The rolls were slipshod, anyway, with uneven construction and layers that started to fall apart long before I began pulling them asunder. I turned my attention, instead, to the delicious edamame, wrenched in a wet bath of peppers and garlic. I devoured that as if in a trance, wondering whether or not Basan treated its fish with the same disregard for quality control. For its sake, I hoped not.
Perhaps Basan should take notes from An, the upscale but only slightly pricier Cary restaurant that often aces its uncanny fusion of Asian roots and Southern geography. An has but one vegetarian roll on its sushi menu, the Vegetable Mango; it alone is worth the trip. The usual combination of avocado and cucumber joins lotus root and the carrot-like yamabogo, or pickled burdock root. On top, spiced slices of room temperature mango provide a sweet slick for crispy ginger pieces, perched atop like prawn exoskeletons.
And when I asked the waiter if the kitchen had any off-menu vegetarian options, he replied with delight, as if he’d been waiting all night to be asked. The resulta sans-rice, daikon-wrapped assemblage of meticulous greens and pickled vegetablesexecuted Basan’s basic Bonsai idea with attention and acumen. It was a delight, as was the tamagoyaki, which balanced the essence of the egg with the sweetness of the omelet.
An takes such care with its ingredients that I, as a vegetarian, could even eat the roe, which the chefs guaranteed had been harvested from living fish. (If you want to see an Internet brouhaha, read up on that debate, or don’t.) When the meal was done, I longed for that nameless, daikon-wrapped roll but decided against ordering another one.
Closing time seemed near.
I don’t know that I’d make the same off-menu request of Tsujimura, though Waraji’s vegetarian sushi wooed me like no others. Simplicity is his key.
His cucumber and plum roll, for instance, wraps the crisp vegetables and savory purple sauce in a mild Japanese mint that he even attempts to grow at home for the restaurant. It’s irresistible. Likewise, his tofu skin sushi uses the outermost layer of tofu like a pigskin for soft rice. That’s what it tastes like, too, with the tofu suggesting a more pliable, less greasy version of cracklings. Each bite balances sweet and savory with the precision of an Olympic gymnast. If the chefs at An are fusion-minded dreamers, he seems to be a reality-based doer, consistently executing familiar dishes rather than pushing them into flights of fancy or whimsy.
Perhaps that pragmatism is why, at meal’s end, he looks over the counter and chuckles at the strings extending from the half-eaten nattō order. A few beans by themselves were fine, maybe even appealing, but concentrated inside a rice wrap? Each piece was a fight to swallow. He knew that might happen.
In Japan, Tsujimura says, people claim it fights cancer, that those sticky tendrils wrap around and paralyze the cells. But here tonight in North Raleigh, they only stick to and stain our hands with an acrid smell.
“Hey,” Tsujimura says, “you tried.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Surfing the turf”