Sushi, the Japanese culinary export of note, has endured several incarnations since finding its way to the Johannesburg sprawl over two decades ago. But it didn’t really go mainstream until the start of the noughties, just under a decade after the country’s first democratic elections and hot on the heels of the Y2K scare. It was the cuisine of the millennium in South Africa, the poshest thing you could go out and order. It was food for the monied, then. But not anymore.
The sushi was good back then, righteously prepared and well worth its billing, says Andrea Burgener, a food journalist and restaurateur.
“The first time a piece of sushi wandered into my mouth…I was seated at the sushi bar of…Ohsho, a fine upstanding restaurant armed with the sort of sushi chefs you’re scared of.”
Ohsho, which opened its doors in the late 80s, no longer exists but it introduced the tastebuds of the city to its charms and its price tag. “Ohsho…[was] Johannesburg’s introduction to sushi; a formal introduction, with no sushi merry-go-rounds or California rolls. Very pricey. Very good. I spent every penny I had going there,” says Burgner.
But Johannesburg is a particularly fickle city, at least when it comes to sushi. After Ohsho and Daruma, the other sushi institution in town, faded into culinary purgatory, a new sushi convention followed – cheaper, mass produced, on-the-go sushi. What followed was a terrifying trend that Burgener christened as the age of ‘McSushi’.
“The Japanese chefs [at Ohsho or Daruma] would have thrown themselves upon their sashimi knives at the idea of putting cream-cheese and strawberries anywhere near a piece of sushi.”
But as the sushi trend continues to grow in Johannesburg, fusion has become the de facto status quo. Enter Vusi Kunene, proprietor of the city’s The Blackanese Sushi Bar in Maboneng. Kunene; not to be confused with the notorious Kenny ‘Sushi King’ Kunene infamous for eating sushi off of barely-clad models at his 40th birthday party a few years back, found his way to sushi while on a break from Jozi. Working in Cape Town, the former waiter found a passion in sushi. In the mid-2000s, returning to Johannesburg, Kunene decided to hedge his bets on a sushi operation. He teamed with other burgeoning sushi chefs in the city. Together they experimented at food fairs and held sushi classes across the city, eventually opening a restaurant two years ago.
Today, he’s the talk of the town, sushi and Kunene are almost synonymous. As the name suggests, there are no sushi purists at The Blackanese. But Kunene understands the sophistaction of Japanese sushi convention, although avocados and strawberries feature heavily in his creations. Kunene hopes to do something big with his sushi brand. But, for now, he’s happy with its success and all its perks. “I love the satisfaction of changing people’s lives through food,” he says.
The golden days are gone but the sushi apocalypse, imagined by Burgener as “curried sushi in a Tex-Mex wrap from a vending machine [or] free sushi enclosed with your favorite magazine”, is far from fruition. Hopefully, sushi innovators like Kunene will keep that reality at bay for a little while longer.