Sushi: big in Latvia…. and Shanghai

You wake up from a coma in a strange city and ask yourself the “when the sleeper wakes” question: where in the name of God am I? If it’s Europe, you might want to narrow it down to “Western Europe” or “former Soviet country.” There are several ways you could do it: public transport running late? Congratulations, the dog shit you’ve just stepped in is probably British (or Irish.) There’s one sure fire way though to know. Walk around, count the number of Chinese restaurants, then count the number of Japanese restaurants. If there are more Chinese restaurants, you’re in Western Europe. If there are more Japanese restaurants/sushi bars, you should start singing the opening song of the Beatles’ White album to yourself.

When I first arrived in Riga, bleary eyed from the early morning Easyjet flight, there were only a couple of sushi places like Kabuki. Over the years, their number has spread faster than the speed of light. Soho, Samurajs, GanBei…you name it, as I type this there are a few poorly paid Latvian guys rolling sushi. It’s now normally sold in Supermarkets like Stockmann and Rimi. Hell, even chains like Double Coffee and Cili Pizza have now added sushi sections to their menu, can you imagine Costa Coffee in the UK doing that? I mean, who goes to a pizza place to eat sushi?!

Against that background, I recently came across this eyesore


Old Shanghai, a restaurant supposedly representing China, a country with a really rich culinary history. Yet what do they promote?Obviously it has to be that most Chinese of dishes…. sushi! Yeah, there are arguments that sushi started originally in south east Asia, before spreading to China and eventually Japan, but these days it’s generally seen as a Japanese food, so this is the equivalent of a French restaurant trying to attract customers by pushing their spaghetti menu, it just feels *so* wrong. It just shows a lack of imagination on the part of the owners and a lack of adventure on the part of the customers. I mean aren’t there more than enough other places which sell sushi? The message I get is that the owners don’t have confidence in the quality of their own country’s food and therefore have to pack food from other countries on to the menu just to draw customers in.

Sadly, this is a problem across Riga’s restaurant scene. It seems to be the done thing these days for many restaurants to have sprawling menus with lots of dishes representing different cuisines, trying to be all things to all men. In reality, the best restaurants usually have limited menus, focusing on quality not quantity and mass produced stodge.

The cynic in me thinks that the reason sushi has become so popular here is because it’s not a million miles away from traditional Latvian food. Raw fish has always been part of the Latvian diet and therefore raw fish wrapped in rice isn’t that much of an innovation. In truth, the sushi sold in Latvia, just like in most of Europe, isn’t really all that Japanese. Many sushi purists insist that it shouldn’t have raw fish, as that often wouldn’t happen in Japan. In the same way, if you order a paella in Valencia, the home of the dish, you’ll get a dish with chicken and rabbit and without seafood. Latvian restaurants skip those nuances.

Overall, while Riga’s restaurant scene has a competent enough selection, the variety trends towards the conservative element. There are lots of Italian restaurants, but only one Spanish and, as far as I know, no Greek, North African or Turkish restaurants, except a few dodgy kebab places, which have also grown like weeds in the last six years. There are very few exotic options, a couple of Indian ones, which actually do pretty good food and the standout for me, Soraksans, a Korean restaurant selling kimchi so spicy you’d be best avoiding naked flames for a couple of hours afterwards.

Among all that lot is the local cuisine itself, tending towards the same pork and potatoes stodge you’ll find across Ireland, the UK and the rest of Northern Europe. The Lido at Krasta Iela is so touristy these days that I almost expect to see t-shirt sellers outside it flogging “My boyfriend went to Lido Krasta and all I got was this crappy t-shirt!” Maybe that should be my new business plan?


8 thoughts on “Sushi: big in Latvia…. and Shanghai

  1. I am not sure if you are talking about fast food “restaurants” or real restaurants, because obviously, if you had been to Kaļķu vārti, Burkāns, Benjamiņš, Trīs naži, Cotton, Eco Catering, Cydonia gastropub, Bibliotēka nr.1, etc. etc. you would get a lot of variety and excellent Latvian food. You don’t come to Latvia to have Spanish food or go to Italy for Icelandic cuisine. But of course those cafes who show up on every corner are just a convinient and fast vay to get food. And in that matter – Japanese might be the healthiest of all that junk food. Try visiting some real restaurants rather than cafes.

    • Hi Zane, thanks for the comment. I’ve been to a few of those that you mention and they aren’t so bad. As for not going to Latvia to have Spanish food, I agree…. if you’re a tourist. But if you live here, you don’t want to eat Latvian food all the time and it’s nice to have a bit of variety and sometimes that doesn’t always happen. I had a very nice dinner today in Agenskalns at Fazende and in the past I’ve had good meals there in Fabrikas and (longer ago) in Vinogas, but I just find the variety in Riga at times to be a little limited.

  2. There’s a really nice Indian place on Antonijas as well – Spicy Affair. At least I hope it’s still there!
    I’ve been noticing this trend more and more as well 😉 Nice to see I’m not alone!

  3. That corner is forever changing its restaurants, there used to be a Ukrainian place there and then it changed to Paparazzi, an Italian place. Spicy Affair was still there in August, but I’ve never made it there…. yet!

  4. Actually both their sushi and Chinese food are pretty good. Latvians (unlike, let’s say, the French) do not dine out too often, and they cannot afford to, so I guess this is a necessary business decision to attract more clients.

    • I went there several years ago and don’t remember the food being that bad, but just think that they (and other restaurants) should stick to doing one type of food well rather than doing lots of different types of food to an average level. The best restaurants attract customers because they have a good product that no one else is selling. Sushi can be bought everywhere in Riga now, so the fact that Shanghai is selling it is hardly a plus point in their favour.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s