Look–I’m no expert, but I have had my share of sushi both here and in Japan. Again, that doesn’t make me any more knowledgeable than the next guy, but I have learned a couple things that will help deepen your love for sushi. Or not. You can do whatever you want.
Fine. Don’t listen to me. Go ahead and keep eating those rolls doused in mayonnaise called something goofy like “Super Explosion Yummy Roll” if that’s your thing. Don’t let me stop you.
But for those of you who do care, you will thank me. Here are four principles of sushi-eating.
Fresh Isn’t Better
People love to talk about how “fresh” their sushi is–that it came from a fish that was alive moments ago, that the shrimp was still moving, that they bit right into the side of a squirming tuna.
A few years ago, I was in Japan to meet my then-girlfriend’s parents to ask for their blessings of marriage. I was doubly nervous because I didn’t speak much Japanese and I knew they were going to take us to a seaside onsen (hot springs) to celebrate. It was a great time–a traditional ryokan, amazing food and then a trip to their favorite seafood restaurant.
If your favorite sushi joint is promising “the freshest fish in town,” chances are they’re just playing to your predilections.
Her dad splurged on a giant platter of still-moving fish: a red snapper, delicately sliced along its side into bite-size pieces, still slightly squirming and looking me in the eye; a lobster, its antennae still searching for an exit despite its inability to move now that its tail meat had been recently severed from its exoskeleton; and several shrimp still jumping about, ready to be cracked to death and eaten. It was a grim affair, but also a rare opportunity to try what I knew was the freshest sushi I’d ever have.
The result was tough, stressed meat and a general lack of flavor. I relished the experience, despite the emotional trauma from said red-snapper-near-death eye contact.
While super-fresh sushi can be a fun–and expensive–experience, some of the best stuff has been relaxed and frozen to enhance flavor and assure that any parasites have been killed off. If your favorite sushi joint is promising “the freshest fish in town,” chances are they’re just playing to your predilections.
Room Temperature Is Good
It’s hot and humid outside right now. I recently suggested sushi as a lunch option to a friend and he just said, “In the middle of summer? Gross!”
Turns out he believes the hot weather means that the fish is going to be full of bacteria and kill him. In actuality, that bacteria was, for the most part, killed off during the flash freezing process. Meanwhile, any good sushi restaurant is going to keep its food prep area insanely clean because they have to follow the same exact food health laws as everyone else.
What’s more, your sushi is supposed to be eaten at room temperature, if you can believe that. Any good sushi chef will use his bare hands (if local laws allow it) to warm the fish and rice to body temperature. This helps with the texture of the rice while opening up flavors in the fish. If you’ve only bought your sushi from those refrigerated areas at the local deli, you’ve never had proper sushi.
If you go to a sushi restaurant, sit at the counter in front of the chef. If your sushi restaurant doesn’t have a counter, go to one that does.
You’re Using Too Much Soy Sauce and Wasabi
How to spot the sushi newb in the room: He or she immediately grabs the soy sauce bottle, dumps as much as possible into the little ramekin, plops all of the wasabi available into the same dish, mashes it into a greenish brown sludge, and proceeds to dip all sushi in there for as long as possible, rice side down.
If that tastes good to you, enjoy. But you’re really just overwhelming your taste buds with sodium from the soy sauce and pungency from the wasabi. You may as well just be eating rice.
If you want to do this right, use just a dash of soy sauce in your dish–just enough to make a little circle. Keep the wasabi separate, making a little “ramp” of the green stuff on the side of the same dish. Then, with your sushi fish-side down, drag it from the soy and through the wasabi. This way you’ll just lightly season the fish and let the rice do its thing unharmed.
Keep in mind that at a lot of the better sushi restaurants, the chef will apply wasabi for you and there’s rarely need for more of it in those situations. In many cases he’ll also brush on some soy or yuzu (citrus soy) for you as well, so that sushi can go right from the plate to your mouth without intervention.
You’re Sitting in the Wrong Place
If you go to a sushi restaurant, sit at the counter in front of the chef. If your sushi restaurant doesn’t have a counter, go to one that does. In short, you want to hang out with the chef, tell him what you like and don’t like, and let him come up with some great combinations just for you. It’s fun, it’s straight from the chef, it will taste better, and you’ll learn a ton about sushi, especially some items that aren’t on the menu.
When it’s all said and done, buy him a beer. Chances are he’ll appreciate the gesture. As you develop a relationship with your local sushi chef, things will only get better, and he’ll take you on a journey of taste and texture that will not only blow your mind, but also expand your palette. And save puppies.
All photos taken by the author at Kyubey in Tokyo