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Work: Koga Toki, sushi chef 

click to enlarge JORDAN SILVERMAN
  • Jordan Silverman

Shoppers at the Price Chopper in South Burlington are just as likely to be wheeling carts filled with boxes of unagi and tai as with Huggies, Spagetti-os and Pepsi. The Shelburne Road supermarket features a sushi bar where four Japanese “chefs” prepare such eel and red snapper snacks-to-go. One of these men, Koga Toki, is handy with everything from inari to taka maki — for the uninitiated, that’s fried bean curd and a combination roll blending bits of shrimp, smoked salmon, cucumber and lettuce. The 23-year-old native of Kobe knows his way around mirugai (giant clam), hirame (halibut), saha (mackerel), ika (squid), taka (octopus) and more than a dozen other denizens of the deep.

Toki is a lot less familiar with the English language, however. A chat with him was made possible through the translation efforts of Christina Mager, an Essex Junction resident who lived in Japan for a few years.

Sushi is elegant eating: silky raw fish or seafood and sticky rice that are seasoned with vinegar, soy sauce and ginger root, bundled with seaweed, and made pungent by a horseradish mustard called wasabi. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth: The rolls are often arranged in a decorative manner, sometimes to suggest the natural habitat of marine life.

Toki came to Vermont four months ago, riding the cuisine’s current wave of popularity in the West. The American craze may be recent, but this sophisticated cuisine dates back centuries in the Far East, and Price Chopper’s personable young fish-handler boasts a life-long devotion to sushi:

SEVEN DAYS: What made you decide to do this for a living?

    KOGA TOKI: When I was little, I wanted to eat sushi all the time. So, I was always thinking how to make it my job. About seven years ago, I started learning after graduating from high school.

SD: Were there courses you could take?

    KT: I was an apprentice in four or five different restaurants. I learned the different types of fish and how to find fresh fish in a market.

SD: Was it a challenge?

    KT: I thought it was difficult, but after one year it became easy. Learning to filet was the hardest part.

SD: When and why did you come to the United States?

    KT: In 1999. I wanted to experience America. I was wondering, ‘How is it?’ I worked in a Japanese restaurant in Albany and visited New York City on my days off. The lifestyle is so fast. The skyscrapers are so tall. After six months, I went to Miami because I had friends there.

SD: Did you make sushi in Florida?

    KT: Only part-time. I lived there for a year and a half. I met Johnny [So Sun], the sushi manager at this store, through mutual friends in Albany. He asked if I wanted to work in Vermont.

SD: Do you enjoy living in this state?

    KT: Yes. I didn’t like the hot weather in Miami. I like cold. I like snow. I like mountains. Your earthquake here is not as bad as in Kobe.

SD: What are the differences between sushi in Japan and sushi in the U.S.?

    KT: We have more kinds of fish at home. There’s less variety here. We have to change sushi to suit what Americans like. In Japan, we only use a tiny bit of wasabi. Here, they ask all the time for more, more, more.

SD: Are there other sushi habits in this country that seem unusual to you?

    KT: Yes. The Japanese people love natto — a fermented soybean with a very strong taste, but Americans hate it. California Rolls, with avocado, crab and cucumber, are the most popular; it’s the bestseller. We don’t have those in Japan, and we don’t have sushi sandwiches like they do here.

SD: Is making sushi in a supermarket different from making it in a restaurant?

    KT: I don’t have to filet, so it’s easier. There’s no kitchen. I just assemble the sushi.

SD: How do you spend your spare time?

    KT: I like to watch “Iron Chef” on TV. I watch cooking shows so I can become a skilled master. And I practice the teppanyaki that they do in Japanese steakhouses. They toss knives in the air.

SD: Do you ever get tired of sushi?

    KT: Never. My favorite is nigiri — a roll with tuna, rice and seaweed around it.

SD: Have you been able to visit Japan?

    KT: I went back a year ago.

SD: Did you eat sushi?

    KT: Yeah.

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