Jeremy Tilokee: raw passion

How are Caribbean sushi chefs reinventing the Japanese delicacy using local ingredients? Franka Philip asks Trinidadian chef Jeremy Tilokee

Chef Jeremy Tilokee’s Joe-San (steak roll) includes beef, asparagus, and avocado. Photography courtesy SamuraiTilokee’s vegan roll combines eggplant with mushrooms. Photography courtesy Samurai

I have many Caribbean friends who used to vigorously resist the idea of raw seafood. “I eh eating dat!” But after some coaxing, and a few visits to good sushi restaurants, the blend of rice, seafood, wasabi, and soy sauce has become something of an addiction.

Sushi is a Japanese delicacy that has evolved over hundreds of years from being a simple method of fermenting meat and fish. According to the online Sushi Encyclopaedia, the sushi that is common nowadays around the world is known as Edo sushi. It was introduced to the United States by Japanese businessmen who moved there in the late 1970s, and for a while, it was eaten only by the small Japanese community there.

When you visit a sushi restaurant, you’re likely to see sashimi (slices of raw fish), nigiri (raw fish slices served on balls of rice), and maki, sushi that is rolled up using a bamboo mat. Maki sushi is usually wrapped in nori (dried seaweed) and cut into six or eight pieces, which you then dip in soy sauce and top with the spicy horseradish condiment wasabi.

When Japanese chefs first tried to introduce sushi to Westerners, it was difficult to persuade people to eat raw fish. This was the spark for so-called “fusion sushi,” in which other ingredients are substituted for the fish. The ubiquitous California roll is an example of this, where fish is replaced with avocado. The great thing about sushi is that, wherever you go, there are local variations on the theme. In Norway, for example, chefs use halibut, Norwegian salmon roe, and quail egg yolks in their sushi. In cities of the Brazilian Amazon, you’ll find sushi made with freshwater fish found nowhere else in the world. And in Trinidad and Tobago, snapper and shark feature on some sushi menus.

 

To find out more about how chefs reinvent sushi to suit local palates, I visited young chef Jeremy Tilokee, who works at the upmarket Samurai restaurant in western Port of Spain. Watching the 33-year-old at work is a joy. He moves deftly and with great precision as he spreads the white pearly rice, adds the fillings, and rolls up the nori. It’s like watching an artist at work.

“Trinis aren’t very adventurous at first,” he says. “They tend to go for what they know, or what they think they can find familiarity with.” When he first started making sushi seven years ago, Tilokee says, he spent his first week getting to know all the ingredients. And while he enjoyed most of them, one particular ingredient took some getting used to. “I couldn’t understand what people saw in the prickly one, sea urchin,” he says, laughing. “When I first tried it, it tasted like mud! It is definitely an acquired taste.”

Tilokee was trained by Chef Shiyo Jujin at Port of Spain’s More Vino/More Sushi restaurant. He describes Chef Jujin as a tough but warm mentor with extremely high standards, who stressed professionalism at all times. “I got introduced to sushi-making by a friend who knew my creativity in the kitchen,” Tilokee recalls. “He urged me to learn it, and said with my skills, it would be a walk in the park.

“It absolutely wasn’t,” he continues. “Jujin is an intense teacher, but I’m glad he was hard on us. He made me the way I am today. I could go into any restaurant, face any crowd, and maintain my composure.”

One of the things Tilokee is keen to stress about sushi is the quality of the rice. “Rice is fundamental — if the rice is cracked, it becomes a mess when you cook it. As a chef, you have to become one with your rice, so that when you’re washing it, you can gauge when it’s ready to be cooked, and you know exactly how long to cook it for. It’s not guesswork,” he explains.

“Then, when you’re making the roll, you must treat the rice delicately. The secret is not to squoosh the rice in the roll, because you won’t be able to soak up the soy sauce. In good sushi, the rice has texture, and when you eat a roll, it shouldn’t feel like you’re eating mush.”

When asked about making sushi to suit a Trini palate, Tilokee says that more than anything, Trinis like hot, spicy rolls. “Everywhere I’ve worked, people like rolls where we use a lot of Sriracha [Thai hot sauce] and jalapeños,” he says. “I had a customer who liked her food so hot, she used to ask for extra heat on the Maracas roll. The roll consists of tuna, cucumber, jalapeño, and Sriracha. She always wanted more jalapeño, so we had to dice the jalapeño and mix it with pepper jelly and put it on top the roll. She was in her glee.”

One of the recipes Tilokee has invented to showcase familiar local ingredients is a vegan roll, which uses eggplant — better known to many Trinis as baigan or melongene. “I stripped down the melongene, added olive oil, fine thyme, salt, black pepper, and a bit of ginger, and baked it to lose some of the water,” he says. “Since I also like pairing things that might not seem to go together, I combined the baigan with mushrooms. It tastes good when combined with the vinegar in the rice, and to round it off, I put tomato salsa. The lime and basil give it a refreshing and clean taste. The customers love how they can taste the mushrooms all through the roll.”

But that’s not his only creative departure. “I’ve even experimented with jerk pork in a roll,” he says, “with carrot, cucumber, some sweet potato, and a dot of garlic sauce. People loved it, but I don’t think it’s ready for the menu just yet.”

Although sushi has Japanese origins, Tilokee believes it is like pasta, universal in its versatility. “The way you can use pasta in different styles of cooking, you can adapt sushi to bring out different flavours,” he explains. “That’s what we do here all the time.”

At Samurai, the fresh fish used for sashimi makes for an appetising display. Customers can sit at the sushi bar and watch the chefs prepare the rolls, who are keen to answer questions about the ingredients. This is a restaurant where the sushi rolls have names like Dynamite, Godzilla, and Dragon. Of course, you can get a California roll too — but where’s the fun in that?

I want to sample one of the maki sushi rolls, so Tilokee urges me to try the Dynamite — he would, wouldn’t he? And what an explosion of flavour it turns out to be. It’s a rice and nori roll topped with sashimi ends that have been marinated in lemon juice and sautéed in light oil with pepper and a pinch of salt. There’s also spicy mayo, tempura bits, and masago (roe).

What wine goes with this? “White wine goes best with salmon, hamachi, and snapper,” Tilokee says. “A wine like a chardonnay really complements the flavour of the fish. If you were having tuna, beef, or octopus, you’d drink a bold red wine.”

Tilokee is just one of the young sushi chefs in T&T winning praise for their innovative use of local ingredients and flavours. At restaurants like Luce at the Hilton, Kaizan Sushi, More Vino, Kava at the Kapok Hotel, and at the Hyatt Hotel, people are lining up to have an adventure with sushi.

As Tilokee says, making sushi is a passion. “Sushi is about energy, it’s about passion. You don’t choose sushi, sushi chooses you.”