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David Lissner
for restaurants

Sushi vs. kimbap and other ethnic culinary conundrums


Tokyo Lunch Boxes Hong Kong Dragon Roll © Leah A. Zeldes

Tokyo Lunch Boxes marks down pre-made sushi to two-for-one during the last half hour before closing.

My husband brought back sushi for our late supper the other night, from the Tokyo Lunch Boxes stand at Super H-Mart, the huge Korean supermarket in the ethnic-shopping mecca of Niles. It was all elaborate rolls, which is what’s left when you’re going for the end-of-the-day, two-for-one, markdown, pre-made specials.

Spicy mayo-based sauce figured in several of them, and while they were all tasty, we couldn’t always identify the individual ingredients. I commented that this was one difference between Korean sushi, or kimbap, and the traditional Japanese style, in which all of the elements tend to be discrete, even in complex maki.

Despite its slogan, “Express Taste of Japan,” Tokyo Lunch Boxes, like some 80 percent of Chicagoland sushi bars, is Korean owned, a fact that you could figure out from its food even without knowing that its proprietor’s name is Jimmy Kim. Korean sushi bars have a style all their own — not better or worse than the Japanese — but distinctive. The Koreans took this food from the invading Japanese and adapted it to their tastes, and then they brought it to the U.S. and adapted it further.

This always leads me to wonder why it is that they promote their restaurants as Japanese instead of as Korean. No, I lie. I know why — they do it because they think it makes for more successful marketing. And if you look at the customers in the typical sushi bar and compare them to those in restaurants that present themselves as Korean, you can see they’re right. (Another thing I wonder is why Korean cuisine isn’t more popular in the United States, when it’s delicious and healthful and so many Korean favorites — grilled meats, for example — mirror American tastes.)

Of course, this happens all the time in the U.S., where restaurants serve food they call Italian, Chinese, Irish or whatever, when it’s really an American-born hybrid. I’m not talking here about chefs like Rick Bayless, who recreate the authentic cuisine of other countries that don’t happen to reflect their personal heritage. Corned beef and cabbage is barely more Irish than I am.

As far as Tokyo Lunch Boxes will go is pan-Asian: “The sushi that our chef’s create not only taste good, but is an innovation of many cultures in Asia, thus, it can be said that our sushi is a fusion of flavors from Korea, Japan, Mongolia, China, etc.”

So there you go — food from across a continent: Buy one, get one free at closing time.