gunkan poke cover-01

Gunkan-jima sushi

Slow Poke


 45 minutes and a little waiting


¥ ¥ ¥ ¥ ¥ 

Serving Size

2 adults or a platter for sharing


  • Very easy
  • Can be made ahead of time
  • Something to talk about


Sushi traditionalists are a funny breed, their myopic assertions akin to Kirk Cameron style “intelligent design” baloney. Sushi as we know it today was not dreamt by Jiro directly onto overpriced plates, but is inextricably entwined with, not only, the traditions of Japan, but also its modernization and the progress of a changing nation. Sashimi, along with pressed and rolled sushi versions, has roots deeper in antiquity, but many are surprised to learn that what is seen as the epitome of the “wabisabi” pared back aesthetic of simple refinement was popularized not so very long ago.


Silver week saw my better half and I on a road trip that culminated in an amazing meal in the fishing hub of Abashiri. For years, a good friend of ours was head chef at arguably the best restaurant in the port town. Just last month, though, he opened the doors to his own sushi bar, which we were excited to eat at. As is often our preference, we left the menu, and the paired drinks, up to the whim of the expert and the catch of the day. Sitting back at the bar, we waited to see what might appear on an “omakase” tasting menu prepared by a very forward thinking mind. Rare hay-smoked pork, raw “wagyu” beef and even “aburi” blowtorched aged edam cheese all made appearances, as well as the best chicken-fried steak I have ever eaten under the pseudonym “beef-katsu”. There was also, of course, amazing seafood, but that almost goes without saying.


We couldn’t help but be impressed, though it did fleetingly occur to me that were a chef outside Japan to serve some of the same menu items, critics might receive it very differently. The fish was fresh off the boats (or as aged as they should be for best eating) and the meats were all very local adding the true authenticity one feels when food has a link to place and time (a point mentioned in my last piece). Much of what Sushi Bar The End is serving definitely falls under the umbrella of “sousaku” (creative) sushi, but that is not to say that it shouldn’t be seen as linked to more established styles. In harnessing the best of what the landscape of the Okhotsk region has to offer and serving it simply, yet prepared to perfection, the food can’t help but shine.



All shapes and colours of sushi exist, however what has become elevated to the pinnacle of refinement was once a fast-food fix. In midst of the rapid 19th Century modernization of Tokyo (formerly known as Edo), many foods were popularized by street vendors serving workers in and around the burgeoning metropolis. The name Edomae, literally translates to “in front of Edo” in reference to the fact that the key ingredients were being sourced directly from Tokyo bay itself. Edomae sushi, like the city, later got a name change and is now known by the more general term “nigiri sushi” with fish draped delicately over seasoned rice.


Using your imagination with regard to the fact that the era in question was pre-portable refrigeration, food hygiene considerations and practices translated into the product itself. To this end, many toppings were simmered, such as shrimp, shellfish and sea eel. Where the raw texture was desired, as with tuna, the preservative nature of soy was brought into play where fish was submerged in the sauce in the “zuke” (pickle) style. Efforts in the area of food safety also helped develop other techniques such as using speciality wood cutting boards, wasabi root, pickled ginger and vinegar, all of which have sterilizing properties. Of course, along with minimizing risk, these techniques helped bring about the flavour profile so many around the world enjoy today.


For this very reason, the nowadays ubiquitous salmon traditionally didn’t figure into sushi or sashimi. Cooked or cured it was present in Japanese cuisine, but concerns about fresh water parasites saw it avoided raw. The Ainu of Hokkaido were lucky enough that their environment allowed easy freezing, which in modern times has become the norm for many fish intended to be eaten uncooked.


Along with sushi, there were other speciality foods in this era. Of specific interest to me was Edomae tempura which incorporates a heavier than normal batter, along with being fried in sesame oil. The strong flavour of sesame oil and its low smoking point make it a unique choice for frying (note: extra-virgin olive oil and sesame oil have smoking/flash points, after which they may catch fire, below the average deep-frying temperature of 180°C, whereas the likes of rice bran oil can be safely heated up to 260°C).



Nearly 300km south of Tokyo is the tiny island of Hachijo. Fascinatingly, while mainland sushi continued to evolve, the speciality of the island has remained strikingly similar to the edomae style. There are small differences, of course, like hot mustard and chilli being used in place of wasabi due to its scarcity so far from the mainland. Like its predecessor, “Shima-sushi” (island sushi) uses fish soaked in soy. The colour change from process also lends it another name “bekko sushi” due to the tortoiseshell colour of the fish after marination.


Clear across the Pacific, in Hawaii, is a dish with a very similar flavour composition. Poke (poké) is a traditional Hawaiian dish made with raw marinated fish. Served on rice, it is very similar to a chirashi (bowl) sushi, but where the ingredients have been combined with sauce and left for their flavours to slowly combine. This may bring ceviche to mind, however, due to the low acidity of the dish, the fish proteins do not denature in the same way. It sits somewhere on the continuum between the two dishes. Fast food sushi slowed down to relaxed island pace.


Many modern versions of poke incorporate soy, chilli, ginger and garlic, along with the iconic Maui onion that is so very sweet and low in tear-inducing sulphur, due to being grown in Hawaii’s fertile volcanic soil. At times other vegetables and other flavourings are also added, but that is a good base. It seems to be one of those dishes where everyone has a secret ingredient, so nailing down a paradigm is tough.


Japanese flavours in Hawaii are actually not at all surprising. There is a long history of emigration from Japan to Hawaii. In the 1920s “local Japanese” made up over 40 per cent of the population and in the lead up to World War II Japanese, while decreased slightly, still accounted for around 30 per cent. Poke is served over a bowl of rice or as salad, and is wetter than your average “neta” sushi topping. Thankfully, there is a modern style of sushi that is perfect to combine the two.


Gunkan Island 

The Ginza Kyubey sushi restaurant is one of Tokyo’s most famous. Kyubey was amongst the first restaurants in Japan to receive a Michelin star, though since expanding into somewhat of a high-end chain, it seems to have been left off the list. If you were ever a JET or have been to the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, you may even recognize the name as being one of the restaurants in the hotel. With the original store opening in 1935 just a stroll from Tsukiji fish market, Kyubey’s main claim to fame is being credited, in 1941, with the invention of gunkan “battleship” style sushi. This is where nori is wrapped sideways around nigiri rice to form a bowl that is used to hold softer than usual toppings such as roe, milt, sea urchin, oyster, whitebait or raw yolks.


For most who have heard the term “gunkan” the association is usually with the famous deserted island just off the coast of Nagasaki, Gunkanjima, though officially it is named Hashima. At the height of coal mining, this tiny walled island was the most densely populated place on the earth with more than 5000 residents living in less than 1km2. If you search for images you may recognize it from the James Bond movie Skyfall as Javier Bardem’s base of operations.


The term gunkan itself refers to a warship. It is not my intention at all to imply some kind of conspiracy theory, or odd nationalist creation myth surrounding this sushi, but I did find it incredibly interesting that another event from late 1941 was the bombing of Pearl Harbour. If I offend anyone by bringing up such themes in a piece of food writing, I apologize. It does though strike me that Hawaiian poke, as a form of “island sushi” would be a perfect topping for a gunkan roll, together forming Gunkanjima Sushi. If my bringing these two topics together is in any way poor taste, I hope that my recipe is good enough to make up for it.


Towards Home 

In the spirit of edomae sushi it would make sense to use a widely-available fish and one that is used in both Japan and Hawaii. The most common fish used for poke in Hawaii is yellowfin tuna, though the status of “ahi tuna” (kihada in Japanese) as a depleted fish stock makes me think twice about using it. Bluefin tuna (maguro) or “big eye” (mebachi) also would be contentious choices for very similar reasons. So I settled on the plentiful Skipjack. This smaller variety in the tuna family (also known as bonito, or katsuo in Japanese) is abundant and used across cultures in all manner of foods.


Please, do not be put off just because you are “not a fan of katsuobushi”. As a fermented, smoked and dried product, its flavour is enhanced and altered significantly. The raw fish is, by contrast, quite delicate and meaty. In Hawaii it is known as “aku” and is sometimes used in poke or as is my preference, seared and served in the “tataki” as a rare sliced steak. If you are still not swayed, perhaps noting that 70 per cent of U.S. canned tuna is in fact “katsuo” might convince you that it’s worth a go. In the end, the choice of fish is up to you. Poke even sometimes incorporates salmon, though I will not, because, as discussed, it is not quite era appropriate.


With Maui onions unavailable to me (and perhaps much of Japan) I am going to take a leaf out of my last recipe and use the sweet and salted vinegar that we will later use to flavour our rice to create a quick pickle to sweeten the onions. This will also impart some onion flavour back into the “brine” we will add to our rice. It’s a win/win situation, using the vinegar to flavour the onion and vice versa. That said, because of the heightened acidity this adds, I have chosen to omit soy, opting rather for the “softer” soy alternative miso. Alongside this, some sesame paste for my own spin on combining these two classic dishes. What results is like a sesame satay, of sorts. To enhance this and as a nod to edomae tempura, I will sear my tuna using sesame oil. The oil, taken above its usual recommended frying temperature, will add a slight smokiness to our dish.

Gunkanjima Sushi

Step 1: Sushi brined onions

  • 1 large red onion (or white if you prefer)
  • ½ cup premixed sushi vinegar

Thinly slice onion and in a small pot, bring to boil with vinegar. Transfer to a clean lidded plastic container, leave to cool, then refrigerate. If you have any leftover after making the poke, they go well with cheese on crackers or in sandwiches.

in the pot

in the pot

Step 2: Poke sauce

  • 2 tbsp sambal oelek (if unavailable replace with ½ tsp of grated crushed garlic and ginger mixed through sweet chilli sauce.)
  • 1 tbsp white miso paste
  • 1 tbsp “nerigoma” sesame paste
  • 2 tbsp mirin
  • 1 tsp “yamawasabi” or horseradish (can be omitted or replaced with a small portion of regular wasabi or “karashi” hot mustard, or even extra chilli)

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate until needed. For a more traditional poke replace miso and sesame paste with soy sauce. Use the sauce sparingly when serving, but do not fear if you have some leftovers, as by mixing in a spoon of two of coconut cream powder, you end up with a sesame satay sauce perfect for saucing chicken skewers (as pictured below).





Step 3: Katsuo-tataki

  • 1 x 200g fillet katsuo (aku) skipjack tuna
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

Brush sesame oil on all sides of the tuna. In an extremely hot preheated pan, sear all sides of the tuna fillet (each side for not more than 5-10 seconds). Have your extractor fan turned on ahead of time, as the oil will smoke. Remove from the pan and leave to rest. For best results for cutting, refrigerate beforehand. Once cool, cube into 1cm chunks. Mix with enough poke sauce to coat and refrigerate again if you’re not going to serve and eat immediately. If pre-prepared tataki is available, by all means feel free to use it.


Just a quick sear. Underdone is better than over.

Step 4: Sushi Rice

  • 2 cups Japanese sushi rice
  • 4 tbsp onion brining vinegar (above)
  • 8 gunkan sushi nori strips
  • Black and brown sesame seeds

Rinse rice in cool water to wash away excess starch. There are tutorials on making the “perfect” sushi rice, which, if you wish, you are welcome to follow. I cooked mine in a rice cooker as per normal. When done, remove from pot onto a wide plate or bowl and add vinegar. With an electric fan pointed at the plate/bowl mix rice until cool, shiny and the vinegar is evenly distributed. With lightly wetted hands, grab about a regular cereal spoon of rice and form into a squat cylinder. I found placing the rice flat, and then wrapping 3cm high strips of nori sideways around my rice to be the easiest construction method. To finish, squeeze the sides to make an oval and to ensure the nori sticks well. Top with as much poke as can sensibly be fitted in your mouth for one giant mouthful or two sensible ones if you are the type who finds it acceptable to bite sushi in half. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds or even chopped chives and togarashi chilli threads to garnish.


an electric fan makes this cooling a lot easier


Of course, this dish does not have to be served as sushi. As a bowl of poke, it will be a satisfying meal, or, as a bento, a great protein-packed lunch. As an amuse-bouche or if you’re watching your carbs, it could be served by itself on spoons (pictured) or with just fresh baby salad greens.


With talk of seasonality and so on, a chilled dish like sushi may seem like an odd recipe for me to be posting in the latter half of October, as the nights are cooling and nature’s hue set afire. The mountains here in Hokkaido are already beginning to be peppered with snow. I post this recipe now with it in mind that the anniversary of Pearl Harbor is December 7th. It is not a nationally observed holiday anywhere that I know of, though an official day of remembrance is observed in the United States.


If you are the type of person whom likes to match food to special occasions, that would be perfect. It could also be a talking point at for a U.S. style Thanksgiving, or served as a treat Japanese Labour Thanksgiving, both of which fall within a fortnight beforehand.


served as more tradition Bowl Poke

served as more tradition Bowl Poke

Served as an "amuse bouche" on soup spoons

Served as an “amuse bouche” on soup spoons

Leftover sauce used to make sesame satay chicken the next day

Leftover sauce used to make sesame satay chicken the next day

Chicken-friend steak "beef katsu" at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Chicken-friend steak “beef katsu” at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Rare smoked pork at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Rare smoked pork at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Raw local saroma wagyu beef at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Raw local saroma wagyu beef at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Whitebait gunkan maki at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Whitebait gunkan maki at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

aburi aged edam cheese at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Aburi aged edam cheese at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

even some salmon, oh so buttery

Even some salmon, “oh so buttery” at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri















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Author Bio
Simon Daly

Simon Daly

Simon is a New Zealander who kept the good times going after finishing his five years as a JET in the far northeast of Hokkaido. As a culinary school graduate and chef, he has worked in the UK and NZ, though he rediscovered his passion for food in Japan's intimate eateries.


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