Soy Joy Sushi Rolls

Knoxville Eats: While we may lack an official cuisine, local original dishes like the Soy Joy taste like our hometown

MAIN INGREDIENTS: nori, sushi rice, spiced tuna, albacore tataki, cucumber, "a lot" of sauces


FUN FACT: Before coming to Nama, one of sushi chef Moon Yang's jobs was working as a sous chef at the Black Bear Jamboree.

Soy Joy sushi rolls are a bestseller at Nama restaurant, but they're not on the regular menu—and they won't be on the menu when owner Gregg White includes them in the repertoire at the Nama franchises in other cities he's planning for 2009, either. That's because Soy Joys were developed by sushi chef Moon Yang, not the Nama executive chef. "If Moon ever becomes executive chef, then we'll put them on the menu," says White. For three years now, they've gained a reputation mostly by word of mouth and are ordered by customers who know to ask for the "special menu."

Like most of the rolls on the Nama menu, Soy Joys are nothing like authentic Japanese sushi. Yang, in fact, moved to Kingsport, Tenn., from South Korea nine years ago, when he was 20, and then to Knoxville four years ago, and he's never seriously studied the sushi craft, though his mother and his deceased father were both restaurant cooks and he has a culinary certification from Walters State Community College.

The most popular of the rolls he's invented is definitely for American tastes, he says, kind of crunchy outside because of its soy paper, with the flavors of spiced tuna and albacore tataki drawn out with several sauces. "It includes a mild textured sauce, a sake-flavor sauce, and hotter wasabi sauce, but sweetness at the same time from the eel sauce—which doesn't mean it has eel. The sauce is to serve with eel, and has soy and sugar."

Part of the show at Nama, says Yang, is people coming in to request a "chef's special." Usually, they tell him what sort of thing they like, "and then I come up with something in my head," he says. "The most fun part is making good food for people, and being creative is the most important thing for me. At Nama, every day the food changes. Today, tomorrow, it is different."