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SADA HOSHIOKA: “I Am Like a Cultural Ambassador,” Says Pioneering, Leading-Edge Sushi Chef

Some of you readers may know him already as Sada-san, the personable owner and chef at the popular sushi restaurant Octopus’ Garden in Vancouver’s Kitsilano area.

But when he was only about four years old, growing up in a seaside town in his native Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku, Japan, Mr. Sada Hoshioka, now age 54, used to sit atop a hill behind the town looking out toward the water horizon, wondering what Osaka City out there might look like. For him back then, Osaka was the “big world out there.”

“Maybe that was the primal experience that eventually brought me to Vancouver,” he reminisces. Fast forward 50 years, he is widely considered to be one of the pioneering sushi chefs (itamae) who have made Vancouver, arguably, the “sushi capital of North America.”

According to Mr. Kuni Shimamura, the veteran chef and owner of Koko Japanese Restaurant, there were only three sushi eateries in all of Vancouver back in 1976 when his dad started his establishment. Now there are well over 600 sushi outlets of all kinds, from small take-out types to luxurious sea food restaurants. Estimating the city’s population at around 3.5 million and adding to that the several million foreign visitors and tourists that visit annually, this number really stands out. This number-per-capita must be a lot higher compared to Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay area, Seattle, and other bigger cities.

Having lived in Vancouver for the past 18 years, the writer has discerned a certain pattern in the spread of sushi outlets (i.e. Japanese restaurants) in Vancouver. I remember how astonished I was once back in 1994, when we were still visiting from Singapore, at the ohitashi (quick-boiled spinach) served in a small eatery on central Robson Street. Out came fresh spinach chopped up like rabbit feed and sprinkled with dashi (liquid stock) straight out of a bottle. The correct way of course is to steep spinach in boiling water for seconds, bunch it up and squeeze out the water, then cut into equal-size chunks and sprinkle with katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings) and seasoned with soya sauce to one’s taste.

As such amateur operations quickly disappeared to be replaced by more professional outlets, many Japanese immigrant and Japanese Canadian outlets ran into a problem. To a Nihonjin, a sushi restaurant (sushiya) has to offer a set variety of fish and other fare—not just the popular tuna, salmon, toro, and hamachi, but also anago, akagai, uni (sea urchin), etc.

But what if most customers on a given day only order the usual favourites of non-Japanese sushi lovers, like tuna, salmon, and toro? The anago, akagai, uni, and other delicacies would no longer be fresh enough to serve the next day. How is one going to turn a profit, with half the inventory going to waste? Personnel, utility bills, and other overheads are already big enough for sushi restaurant operators.

There is something I have learned as an up-and-coming guitarist (at a tender age of 71, no less), that one has to have “the three H’s” in order to make beautiful music. It was explained to me way back in the 1980s by Jeremy Monteiro, one of the top international piano players and probably one of the best from Southeast Asia, over hamburger lunch.

The first H strands for Head, i.e. all the tunes and ideas of how to play them inside your brain. The second H is for Hands, i.e. one’s so-called “chops” or manual dexterity enabling you to execute all those ideas.

The third H is the most important and also the most difficult to define. One has to put one’s “Heart” into it the same way as in baseball, ballet, basketball, boxing, etc., etc. The point is, no matter how great your ideas and how good your “chops,” it doesn’t sound as good as if one also puts your heart into it. As a performer, I have oft times experienced the difference in the audience’s feedback when the musicians’ hearts are also in it. Just like jazz, sushi making has that “ad lib” aspect. The itamae turns out a variety of sushi and other a la carte items quickly as the orders come in one after another.

Incidentally, back around the mid-1970s, when there were only three Japanese eateries in Vancouver. The daily diet of Canadians in general was by and large the traditional “meat and potatoes” fare. Thereafter, along with the steady increase in the number of immigrants, Japanese eateries and Chinese restaurants began to spring up everywhere in and around Vancouver. As a result, while the young generation around the age group of my son, 25, and daughter, 23, is used to, say, Japanese cuisine including sushi and sashimi, many of their parents’ generation, especially if they happen to be Caucasian, still tend to stick to the “meat & potatoes” diet, eating only the likes of steaks, burgers, hot dogs, chicken, bread and butter (or margarine), potatoes, and some vegetables. (OK, OK…they would eat fish & chips too.)

Waiting in our neighborhood supermarket’s check-out line, I would often see seniors buying such items and they, especially men, tend to be obese. …Why don’t they switch to delicious sushi and other seafood…and tofu, miso, and fresh vegetables…and, and… I would muse on such an occasion. It would make them slimmer and add years to their lives. Of course, it’s none of my damned business, and they wouldn’t switch anyway, not at their age.

There’s not enough space here to do justice to Sada-san’s uniquely “punny” sense of humor, but in closing, I’d like to mention his ever forward-looking attitude. Adding to the Japanese and English words in his famous puns, he is nowadays using words in Mandarin, Cantonese, as well as Korean. In the beginning his clientele were probably Japanese, Japanese Canadians, and Canadians in general with a weakness for sushi and sake. Then came, probably, Cantonese-speaking Hongkong and Hongkong Canadian sushi lovers. More recently, the eatery is packed with Mandarin-speaking Chinese and Chinese Canadian folks. “Every night, they make up around 80 percent of our customers,” he notes. This is a reflection of the rapid increase of late in the number of Chinese immigrants, as well as of Sada-san’s progressive stance toward different cultures.

Octopus’ Garden will most likely continue to prosper as one of the most popular spots in Vancouver’s sushi world. Having arrived here with not much more than his well-honed sushi knives (hocho), he has by now carved out a position to aspire to be, as he says, “a cultural ambassador of Japanese tastes and flavors.” How can we not cheer him on as one of our Nikkei pioneers? Oh yes, he will also be applying for a Canadian passport in the not-too-distant future.


*This article was originally published on The Bulletin: A Journal of Japanese Canadian Community, History & Culture on September 8, 2016.


© 2016 Masaki Watanabe

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