Back in the 19th century when sushi was first popularized in Edo (Tokyo), it was merely a common street food. Earlier versions were focused on its fermentation aspect, as a means to preserve rice and fish before there were electric refrigerators to keep food fresh.
On the other hand, today’s sushi is often a gastronomic masterpiece, found in gourmet restaurants worldwide. While it’s true that you can get packaged norimaki at your local grocery outlet, sushi has also become an epicurean delicacy for the true connoisseur.
Thanks to the Western invention of the California Roll (which features the non-traditional ingredient of avocado and hides the seaweed, which is sometimes unappetizing to Westerners), a plethora of crossover versions of sushi appear on menus everywhere—helping to spread its popularity globally.
In the film East Side Sushi, a Latina woman (Diana Elizabeth Torres) is obsessed with becoming a sushi chef. Living with her father and young daughter, Juana is up at the crack of dawn to operate a fruit cart on the blue collared streets of East Oakland. But an incident with armed robbers causes her to look elsewhere for work. She tries being a janitor, but her real love is cooking. Slicing, dicing, and cutting up everything from succulent fruit for her cart to scrumptious Mexican meals for her small family, she longs to cook full-time.
One day, Juana passes by a restaurant with a “help wanted” sign in the window and is instantly mesmerized by customers delightfully dining on something she’s never seen up close before: sushi. Before long, she’s washing dishes and working as a prep cook there.
Timid at first, Juana soon grows confident as she comes to the rescue of the head chef, Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi) when he’s overwhelmed with sushi orders. Quickly learning to blend harmonious flavors, she passionately prepares her own concoctions. But boss, Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama), stubbornly sentences Juana to the kitchen, refusing her request to work at the sushi bar where patrons interact with the venerated male chefs. Told that a woman’s slightly higher body temperature transmits to her hands and ruins the taste of sushi, Juana finally confronts Mr. Yoshida. Besides being teased about being female, she also has her ethnicity questioned. Addressing accusations that her Mexican roots impedes her from possessing a natural talent for making sushi, Juana points out that Yoshida is Korean and another chef, Chinese.
At last, Juana spots her opportunity in a sushi-making competition when she’s selected as a contestant. Experimenting with culture crossing tidbits, she majestically creates sushi with habaneros and other Mexican peppers.
Director Anthony Lucero, who also wrote the script, grew up in Oakland’s East Side, exposed to diverse cultures. It shows in his storytelling style, the way he easily interchanges the languages—Japanese, Spanish and English—that his characters speak. Those scenes are both fun and educational, like when Aki and Juana toast each other with sake and he says “salud!” (Spanish) while she answers “kanpai!” (Japanese). Juana’s even given the nickname “Konnichi-juana.”
The film also offers painstaking details in scenes where Juana and her father buy fresh fruit, dicing it and squeezing fresh limejuice on it. Lucero uses the same approach with the showy preparation of sushi.
Actress Torres, who hails from Sinaloa Mexico, plays Juana with genuine emotion and a sincere determination. Takeuchi, who’s been in the United States for 15 years, also does an outstanding job in his role as head chef, Aki. Initially, a concerned co-worker, he gradually becomes Juana’s affectionate friend.
However, the story’s central argument that Juana is denied the chance to be a sushi chef because she’s a non-Japanese female seems a bit exaggerated. After all, an unspoken Japanese rule dictates that everyone equally must pay their dues. There are no overnight sensations when it comes to mastering any art form, edible or not. As noted in the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, any well-respected chef first suffers as an apprentice for years before being allowed to put their hands on a single grain of rice. Still, East Side Sushi is an entertaining film that features likeable characters. Most of all, for foodies, it’s gorgeously appetizing to look at.
Look for actor Lane Nishikawa as the sushi competition announcer, Jimmy Nishida. Nishikawa wrote, directed, and acted in 2006’s Only The Brave, a drama about the all-Nisei 442nd during WWII.
‘East Side Sushi’ plays November 13 to 19 at Sundance Cinemas Seattle and Ark Lodge Cinemas.