‘Gaijin’ is a Japanese word that can mean ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ or even just simply “non-Japanese”. Despite living in my home city of Birmingham, I couldn’t have felt more like a ‘gaijin’ as I ambled towards the city’s latest (and very well reviewed) sushi spot. My lifelong dismissal of this alien cuisine where they don’t even bother to cook the fish had firmly taken up residence in my conscience but a couple of cold beers made me a little giddy with curiosity. If conversation in the past had ever drifted towards sushi my eyes tended to start rolling before the second syllable of the word itself had been spoken but deep down I lamented that I had never truly given it a fair shot until tonight.
Gaijin Sushi is a sushi restaurant that forms part of a handsome redbrick block of Victorian houses on an otherwise unremarkable section of Bristol Street on the cusp of the city centre. It’s small inside and only has seating for 10 customers around a chefs table where the chef himself prepares the sushi right in front of you. Its décor is minimalist and the focus is on the food.
After entering the restaurant with some trepidation, I was greeted by an excitable looking waiter holding an ipad who showed us to our seats close enough to the chef to make out the colour of his eyes as he handled and hacked at the ingredients in front of him. The chef is a tall serious-looking man with dark brown hair tied back into a ponytail with some stubble around his cheeks and jaw. The understated furnishings of the restaurant may have come straight from Japan but the people working there clearly hadn’t and this became clearer from the soft eastern European lilt on their accents.
I admitted to the waiter just how much of a sushi philistine I was and he patiently scrolled through the brightly coloured menu on his trusty iPad explaining to me everything I had missed out on over my previous 30 years. I chose a collection of assorted nigiri that included salmon, tuna, prawn, yellowtail and eel with a miso soup as a starter.
I felt a little ashamed at how intimidated I was by the chopsticks sitting innocently in front of me but when the smiling waiter returned with our food some 10 minutes later he gave a short demonstration of how to use these daunting knitting needles and all my worries floated away. I was humbled by the quality of the food and cursed myself for being so indifferent towards sushi for so long.
Feeling cheered by this new taste sensation, I asked the chef how he got started in sushi and he explained that it was really by accident. When he was working in a restaurant back in Poland some years before, the regular sushi chef called in sick one day and he was asked if he wanted take over that night. Naturally he jumped at the chance and hasn’t looked back since.
“So is sushi popular in Poland?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.
“Oh yes, there are over 70 restaurants in Warsaw. Sushi is really popular all over Poland” he replied.
“Why is it so popular?”
“Because it’s healthy.” I didn’t entirely believe this but I felt far too out of my depth to challenge him on it.
I sheepishly mentioned that my only experience of going to Poland was as part of a beer-soaked weekend in Krakow for the stag-do of a friend of mine a few years ago. He made a dismissive hand gesture and advised me to stay well clear of Warsaw and Krakow.
“I like Krakow” said the waiter brightly, clearly listening in on our conversation with amused interest.
“What is good about Krakow outside the city centre?” the chef spat back at him. “The big square is nice but that’s it.”
Initially I was a little taken back by this bickering but later found out that the chef and waiter had known each other since they were two years old and grew up in the same town. That town being Wroclaw, a place that I had as much difficulty pronouncing as confidently placing on a map. I then found myself on the end of a rousing sales pitch for Wroclaw, every street and square spoken of in the grandest of terms and with an earnestness that made it felt like it had been cruelly omitted from every credible European guidebook in existence.
Apparently there are three independent sushi restaurants in Birmingham and all of them are run by Polish people. In light of the serenade for their former home, I was happy for them to be based in Birmingham as the food was a joy and I’ll be back for more again soon.