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Sushi Blues

Side Dishes: Japanese chefs cope with crisis on multiple levels

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The fisheries along Japan’s northern coasts were devastated by the March 8 earthquake and tsunami. Combined with the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, the disaster has affected Vermont’s Japanese eateries on personal, business and culinary levels.

At the Old Town Farm Inn in Chester, chef Michiko Yoshida-Hunter can’t always get in touch with family in her hometown of Tome, 55 miles north of Sendai, near the quake’s epicenter. But they are OK for now, she says, and their 140-year-old restaurant, ToKai-Tei, appears to be still standing. “I’m relieved, but still worry about the nuclear situation,” she says.

At home in Chester, Yoshida-Hunter and her husband, Aleks Hunter, are facing another worry: a noticeable lag in business. It could be seasonal, says Hunter, but customers who come in “definitely are asking about the food.”

Sushi-grade fish can come from various places, says Hunter — except for hamachi, or yellowtail, which originates from farms along the coast of the Sea of Japan. That’s on the other side of the island from the tsunami and nuclear crisis, and so far supplies haven’t been slowed or halted. “It is very high quality to begin with, and Japan is good about inspecting it,” Hunter says. Though the United States has stopped some Japanese food imports, for now it is simply scanning Japanese seafood for radiation contamination.

Even so, the Hunters are shifting their menu toward more local meats and cutting back on fish. “It’s to make life simpler and cuts down on costs,” says Hunter.

At Sakura Bana in Burlington, chef-proprietor Ron Takahashi is also gripped by the events in his native country. Takahashi is from Niigata Prefecture and says his family is safe, though he remains concerned about a sister who lives north of Tokyo. Spotty phone coverage prevents most conversations from going beyond moshi moshi, the standard Japanese greeting.

Sakura Bana donated one fifth of its March 29 sales to Japanese relief efforts. “People are missing. People are scared. We cannot control what happens, but we can support them. It is about the human heart,” says Takahashi.

The chef expects the prices of Japanese fish to go up and its availability to go down, but he emphasizes that he serves fish from all over, and his broad menu also encompasses meats and vegetables.

True World Foods, a global fish purveyor that sells fish to many restaurants in New England — including Sakura Bana — confirmed the statements from the Hunters and Takahashi: Sushi comes from all over, including New England waters. But everyone expects the supply of fish and other items from Japan to tighten as the nuclear crisis shakes out.

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