Please have a seat at the counter…
Legend: o-toro / foodosopher ([food-o]) / shokutsu
[o-toro] Sushi is a topic which tends to stir a lot of debate due to its recent mainstream acceptance around the globe. We have (at times) been called sushi snobs, for having extremely high standards when it comes to this Japanese delicacy. So I figured it was about time that we (as a team) put in writing our honest thoughts on this topic – to start some dialog about the food itself.
[food-o] I’m excited to share a dialog about this with someone as knowledgeable as o-toro and shokutsu. I’m hoping it will help me solidify my less than certain opinions.
[shokutsu] With the large abundance of sushi-related posts on foodosophy, this is indeed a worthwhile effort, to help explain our in-post thoughts regarding this type of cuisine. Glad to join in on this group posting!
Where this all began for us and sushi today…
[o-toro] It has been interesting to watch sushi exponentially grow in acceptance from its infancy. As a child – maki-zushi options were usually limited to the basics: kappa (cucumber), kampyo (sweetened gourd), maguro (tuna), shake (salmon), or oshinko (pickled daikon). The fanciest maki was the futo-maki, which you rarely see anybody make properly anymore (let alone, even know what it is).
[food-o] Strangely enough, while I would eat anything as a child, I would not eat sashimi. Maki, yes. Sashimi no – something about rebellion and my parents telling me it was good for me, healthy, and tasty. I refused. My first taste was ambivalence. But sometime in high school, people were “grossed out” at the concept of raw fish. Showing the bravery of youth (I think there was someone I had a crush on in the group as well), I told everyone it was great, and proceeded to put down a lot of nigiri, just to prove they shouldn’t be scared. Strange to find I actually liked it! And the worst reason to start eating sushi I’ve ever heard!
[shokutsu] The evolution and growth in acceptance of sushi is truly striking. I believe it’s attributable to many factors including greater international travel, exposure to things via the Internet and general pop culture (which loves to feature anything food related). It’s amazing how much sushi has spread as a cuisine in places just ten years ago it might have been looked upon as something completely alien.
For me, I’d say my tastes and experiences have also shifted – I can recall as a youngster how I liked California rolls but would always poke out the piece of avocado which I disliked. Now that dreaded C-roll is taboo for me (even though now as an adult, I can eat avocado).
Experience with the source…
[o-toro] Having been to Japan a half-dozen times, I have been lucky enough to have been treated to some amazing sushi from both there and abroad. My CV includes time behind a sushi bar, taught by a Japanese chef – giving me a unique insight into what authentic sushi is.
[food-o] While I have been to Japan a few times, and been exposed to tremendous sushi, I recognize how much more I have to learn about this edible art form. While I feel like I am able to discern between high quality sushi and low quality sushi, I’m not entirely comfortable on all aspects of sushi. I hope to reach the level of familiarity that o-toro, and shokutsu have with sushi.
[shokutsu] I’m sure my colleagues above have personally experienced just as many sushi meals as I have, though I count myself as one of the lucky ones for having lived in the country for several years, and been witness to the good, the bad, and the great, when it comes to sushi offerings in Japan, and as well in other countries. Coupled with trips back to the islands since leaving, I have a greater appreciation for all the amazing sushi to be had in Japan and miss it dearly.
The impact of authenticity…
[o-toro] As with many food icons, the gain in global popularity often causes a drop in authenticity. Examples of this – Pizza, Indian curry, and the most hurt (in Canada) is probably Mexican cuisine. Blame this on human nature? I believe so – as we like to experiment, especially with food. There is nothing wrong with this, but I feel it is vitally important to first learn the basics of a particular cuisine, and to have a full understanding of the origins. It is just semantics – but when I see maki-zushi filled with tempura crumbs or cream cheese or fruit – please stop calling this sushi!
[food-o] You raise an interesting point. For me, this is the most interesting point about this discussion – and really, philosophically, a contentious question – even internally within myself! Does the evolution of a cuisine, especially outside the native country, mean it should be dismissed? While traditionalists usually have a problem with this, I’m not so sure it should be. From my perspective, as long as the innovations and adaptations are within the spirit of what the cuisine is trying to accomplish, I don’t have a problem with that. My issue is more when chefs try to “dumb down” a cuisine. While trying to make something more approachable is nice in the sense it exposes more people to it, sometimes the artistry and mastery of the original art form loses to “progress”. Not good in my books.
[shokutsu] A few years ago, there was a stir surrounding what was dubbed the “Sushi Police”, although the heart of the matter lay in the desire to help improve the standards and understanding of Japanese food, and sushi in particular. This was done given the large international boom and subsequent culinary distortions that arose from it, by people preparing food that clearly did not represent anything “truly Japanese”. Local chef societies have sprung up in some cities where Japanese food is abundant, to help with training and build knowledge of the culture behind the food.
As extreme as the word “police” may sound, it is my understanding that has been blown out of proportion, and the real impetus behind the movement was to ensure that extreme bastardization was controlled and those truly interested in promoting the cuisine are given proper education and background on why Japanese food (sushi especially) needs to be held to a certain standard for the benefit of all. As with any “standards” development, the discussion on what truly would work is a difficult one, and it is my understanding that this is still an ongoing process, and perhaps one that has been scaled down from the initial government-led discussion in Japan.
Our key considerations regarding sushi…
SHARI (Prepared rice for sushi)
- [o-toro] This is just as important as the neta (topping). The balance of acidity, sweetness and salt is usually a fiercely guarded secret. No single recipe is the best – but balance is key. One of the unrecognized pieces to what makes sushi in Japan so different from sushi abroad is their obsession with rice. Much like how wine is treated around the world – Japanese put a similar importance to their rice. Harvesting technique, soil, water sources, and post harvest aging – all contribute to subtle differences, not only to flavour but also to its texture. With the recent jump in costs for rice and grains around the world – there was a subsequent drop in quality of sushi, as many restaurants switched to cheaper lower-grade rice.
- [food-o] All I would add here is sushi refers to the rice, not the fish. This should let you know where a lot of the emphasis should be in quality sushi. Fish is important, but it all starts with the rice.
- [shokutsu] Agreed. Bad rice can kill even the finest neta. If you’ve ever seen the reverence that rice farmers in rural Japan are given for all their hard work, I think you would understand where this all comes from.
NIGIRI(formation of rice ball)
- [o-toro] The rice-ball should be compacted together with just enough force to keep it together. A perfect piece of nigiri-zushi will melt in your mouth – not as mush – but with each grain of rice intact (like shrapnel) exploding in your mouth with flavour.
- [food-o] There is nothing I hate more than badly formed rice – hard as puck rice made from machines, or over-zealous strong-handed novices, to large clumps of rice falling apart when you pick it up. This is a sign of an inexperienced itamae. I’ve found many people are very forgiving about the rice – but it is an essential part of a good sushi experience. Next time you eat sushi, consider the rice before you pop it into your mouth. What is the temperature of the rice – has it been refrigerated, resulting in cold, unyielding rice. Is it extremely chewy? O-toro raises a key point here – the term “melt in your mouth” does not mean mushy. A good rice will command attention to the taste first, not to the texture.
- [shokutsu] I’d also like to point out that there is no way to hide bad sushi rice, even when hidden under a bed of toppings as in a chirashi-don. I’ve unfortunately experienced it many a time, where a place tried to cover the inadequacies in their rice by layering a lot of nori, or sprinkling an excessive amount of sesame seeds over top of it.
- [o-toro] As nigiri-zushi is meant to be eaten in one bite – size is crucial. Flavours need air to be fully appreciated, so a mouth-FULL is too big.
- [food-o] If I had one wish, it would be that sushi-ko’s would make nigiri-zushi the proper size, and not to North American standards of “bigger is better”. It is impossible to enjoy the balance of the rice and fish, the flavours, when you stretch your mouth to consume a huge chunk of both. Balance is a fundamental aspect of Japanese cuisine. No matter what ingredients and techniques chefs evolve over time, from my perspective, whatever they create must stay balanced, or it is no longer sushi, or true to Japanese cuisine.
- [shokutsu] I wish we’d gotten past the “size does matter” ideology prevalent in many North American places that offer sushi. The timing of this piece is impeccable, as just last evening, I had the biggest piece of tobiko gunkan sushi I’d ever seen! It would have taken me three full mouthful attempts just to get it down.
NETA (sushi topping)
- [o-toro] Different types of fish require distinct handling and knife-work, which makes this an easily distinguishable mark of skill. (i.e. scoring octopus aids in the nigiri form, but also makes it easier for the customer to eat). Freshness is important – but not everything is treated the same way. (i.e. Buri (adult wild yellowtail) is known to taste better after a couple days).
- [food-o] While I have been espousing the importance of rice, don’t get me wrong, the fish is critical as well. Nothing can ruin a dining experience quicker than bad fish. One thing I find extremely interesting is that in North America, I’ve observed an aversion to different textures. I’m not sure I can pin point why, but unfamiliar textures seem to be very disconcerting to people who didn’t grow up in a culture with diverse textures.
- Things like organ meats, cartilage will often taste good, but most people can’t get past the texture. However, understand that it is a critical component to Asian cuisines in general – that textures will vary. With the neta, not all fish are supposed to be the same texture. The ideal temperature, cut, and quality of fish all impact texture and taste. Be open to differences and varieties.
- Oh, and my personal pet peeve. Most Tuna is NOT supposed to be “melt in your mouth”. I’m not sure where this common misconception grew from, but my guess is that because rich fatty cuts of o-toro (from the hon-maguro, the king of tuna nigiri), are supposed to melt in your mouth from the high levels of fat, so people assume that is the indication of the highest quality of all tuna. Most tuna, especially those not from the belly, should be more firm than soft. Even Chu-toro, which runs along the side of the belly, is typically firm. The most common, Albacore and yellow tail, are firm.
- [shokutsu] Totally with you food-o on the misconception out there about very soft maguro. To me, anything that is limp, soggy, etc. is just an indication of bad quality, poorly prepared/stored, run-of-the-mill tuna. With regards to being more “adventurous”, I do wish that diners would go beyond the usual comfort zones of shake (salmon) and maguro (tuna).
- I find that many North Americans are adverse to those items that are “shiny” (in Japanese, hikarimono). Take for instance, aji (or mackerel). People will often say its more “fishy” or not fatty enough. Well, that’s how those items are in terms of flavour and texture! I can remember one of my first trips to a high end sushi-ya in Ginza (Tokyo), where I received instruction that it’s often preferred to start with the hikarimono first, and them move along to various other nigiri through the course of your meal.
- NORI (sheets of dried algae)
- Properly prepared nori is toasted by hand during preparation to enhance its flavour. When it is made into maki-zushi (sushi roll) or temaki-zushi (sushi cone)– it should be eaten immediately to appreciate this added flavour and crisp texture. Allowing it to sit, will quickly cause the nori to absorb moisture from the rice and will go limp. Inside-out maki (i.e. California-roll), was invented to hide the nori for Americans in the ’60’s as they did not like to eat it (or at least not see it)
- [o-toro] Hon-wasabi refers to the real Wasabia japonica root, is very difficult to grow, and thus very expensive. Unless you see the actual root being grated, chances are that you are being served a faux-wasabi, which is a mixture of horseradish and food coloring. Similar in effect, but actually much stronger than the real thing.
- [food-o] Real wasabi has a significant difference in flavour from the faux-wasabi. The nutty, subtle heat and freshness really help accentuate many of the best features of the fish. Once you try it, it’s hard to accept faux wasabi again.
- [shokutsu] I’ll stay off the wasabi angle since its been covered sufficiently, but wanted to drop a thought on the use of other truly non-authentic touches like the dreaded “spicy sauce”. Be it mixed in with negitoro in a maki, or dropped into a saucer of shoyu or even worse, directly on top of some beautifully formed nigiri, I cannot think of anything more disastrous. Spoiling and completely overwhelming the clean, subtle flavours of many of the fish involved, the “spicy sauce” does nothing but take away from the essence of what sushi is about. Let me put it clearly, sushi is not something that handles or requires any spicy heat to bolster its taste. And if you think I’m wrong, then we are clearly on opposite ends of the spectrum.
The sushi experience…
Now that you’ve got the perfect nigiri-zushi in front of you – to fully appreciate this treat, there are a couple of KEY things to keep in mind.
- [o-toro] Properly prepared nigiri-zushi contains a dab of wasabi between the fish and rice.
* Many sushi-ya (sushi eatery) are now skipping this step – as they have been burned too many times with a customers demanding complimentary meals because “I didn’t ask for wasabi on my sushi”. In any case – use wasabi sparingly! If you’re a wasabi junkie – save your money, buy a tube from the grocery store and put it on some crackers.
Wasabi is not meant to be the dominant flavour.
- [food-o] Just to emphasize o-toro’s point – Nigiri sushi is not supposed to taste like wasabi. It should not be drowned in wasabi. The predominant taste is not wasabi. I’ve found many less reputable places use a lot of wasabi to try and hide the taste of less that fresh fish. Don’t you want to taste the fish, the rice, and all the years of training it went into preparing that one perfect bite?
GARI (Pickled Ginger)
- [o-toro] The gari is used to cleanse your palate between different types of fish. Eat it – especially after particularly strong flavoured or oily fish. The color (pink/yellow) makes no difference.
- [food-o] I guess I’m getting militant now, but please, don’t eat a big wad of gari with your nigiri or maki. The predominant flavour is not supposed to be pickled ginger. It’s like eating sorbet with each dish served in a western-style tasting menu.
- [shokutsu] If I may add one more thought on palate cleansing, please dear readers, a good (not overly hot) cup of green tea will do the trick as well. I cringe when I see people chasing a good piece of nigiri with a cupful of Coca Cola, using it in a mouthwash kind of way.
SHOYU (Soy Sauce)
- [o-toro]Shoyu is used to enhance the flavours of the fish – not the rice. So lightly dip the fish-side into the shoyu, then place the sushi in your mouth with the fish-to-tongue. I personally believe this is the primary reason many people don’t know the difference between good or bad sushi – as the primary flavour they are eating is soy-sauce soaked rice-balls!
- Tip: When faced with gunkan-zushi (literal: battleship sushi), or the individual nori-wrapped sushi used for ikura, tobiko, masago and the like – use a single slice of your gari as a paintbrush. First dip the gari in your shoyu, then dab it on the top of your sushi.
- Not all nigiri-zushi is meant to be dipped in shoyu. Some pieces will have already been dressed with a sauce (i.e. Unagi/Anago). Tamago (sweet egg cake) doesn’t need wasabi or shoyu – and is usually eaten last in sequence.When in doubt – ASK! The itamae will be glad to teach you how to appreciate the food they have prepared.
- [food-o] The last of the big 3 faux-pas. Soaking the nigiri in shoyu. This is wrong on so many levels. The rice, if perfectly formed, now falls apart from the added moisture. The subtle sweet acidity of the rice is now completely drowned out by the saltiness of the soy. And with enough soy, the fish is no longer discernible flavour-wise. It’s not sushi any longer.
- Now, I know this sometimes happens by accident, as chop sticks and awkward shapes can make it challenging for even seasoned chop stick users, but let me tell you a little secret. It is acceptable to pick up nigiri-zushi with your hands. Pick it up gently with a light grip on the rice and fish, turn it over and gently dip the soy on the fish only. Pop the entire piece in your mouth. Though i personally feel large pieces are acceptable to eat in two bites (assuming the rice and fish have been prepared properly).
- These three customs and traditions are at the heart of the contention between traditionalists and many modern day diners. People will argue that it does not matter how a person consumes what is prepared, as long as they enjoy it. Like adding HP to a dry aged steak, or adding hot sauce to a subtle broth, the diner who pays for the meal should eat it any way they wish. I really struggle with this, as I don’t understand why someone would pay for high quality ingredients, and superior skill, only to mask everything the itamae is trying to convey.
- For me, a meal is a form of communication between the chef and the diner. The chef tries to convey his interpretation of the flavours through what he serves you. While as a paying customer you are entitled to do things as you wish, if we are paying for their expertise, should we not try things the way they intended? I used to fall on the side of the customer is always right. I have to admit, I’ve become a lot more rigid in my thinking lately – I feel that you should find people you trust to bring you a good experience – a bartender, a barista, a chef, an itamae, and you trust them to teach, to demonstrate, to excite you with their vision. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you view the diner-chef relationship? Should the customer do as he or she pleases?
- [shokutsu] The use or rather over-use of things such as wasabi and shoyu, just means to me that there is still a lot of education to be done. On top of that, diners need to give, when it’s earned, greater respect to the person creating their sushi. If they are knowledgeable, trained, and are truly passionate of what they do, they will KNOW what is best for you. Again, revisiting my memories of legendary sushi-ya in Tokyo, where the men behind the counter have dedicated decades of their life and still say they are seeking out perfection when it comes to their sushi, they will often serve you as they would eat it themselves.
- That may mean no additional shoyu provided, adding special sauces or toppings as the itamae deems appropriate to go along with the neta in question, taking into account the freshness and quality of what they may have procured that very same day. I’m of the school of thought that if you as the diner truly are more knowledgeable than the person serving you, fine, go ahead and do what you THINK is right. But I cannot fathom for the life of me, if you were to do that in a deserving place with a qualified chef, that you would even imagine doing it. And if you ever have any questions, just ask. The answers you will get will astound you with both their rational logic but also the passion behind it.
What are your thoughts on whether a sushi chef must be Japanese?
[o-toro] The one resounding comment that I’ve heard over and over again from many Japanese, on the topic of non-Japanese establishments – is that they are fed up with people passing-off Japanese food without a clue. Let me try to explain…
Almost every Japanese restaurant owner will have a story where a customer comes in, orders something off the menu – then proceeds to complain, because what they got is not what they ordered. When they ask the patron what they are complaining about – they usually answer with “I’m a regular at (restaurant), and their (dish) is nothing like this”.
I’ve personally witnessed this twice. First time over miso soup (patron believed miso should have been Chinese egg-drop soup), and the second time was over teriyaki chicken (as the patron demanded that traditional teriyaki chicken is deep-fried).
While humorous (to me) at the time, I have come to realize that the root of this issue stems from Japanese pride. They are proud of their heritage, culture and especially proud of their food. This issue may seem petty from an outsider’s point of view – but the reality is – that they care about you (the customer). They want you to experience REAL Japanese food, prepared properly – so you don’t think poorly of the cuisine they are so proud of.
[food-o] In an earlier post about Wa’s, i stated that “Japanese people like eating at places run by Japanese Chefs. I cannot explain why, but in many ways, this is true of most cultures. They prefer to eat from their own. From an authenticity standpoint, this makes sense, but in an era of globalization, I am not sure if this is true any longer. Does a native chef offer better cuisine than an import? Does growing up in a culture make one more aware of a specific food culture than someone with a great palate, a passion for the food, and the energy to learn?”
It’s interesting to hear the other side – I would understand why that would be frustrating. But to me, clearly the places they have been dining (Japanese run or not), have not presented traditional Japanese choices. This, to me, speaks more to the quality of the establishments they eat at, rather than ethnicity (though I will concede it is far less likely someone of Japanese descent would serve customers egg drop soup as miso). There are many Chinese and Korean run places that do not make these mistakes.
[o-toro] Another comment that frequently comes up in this conversation, has to do with tamashii (soul/spirit) of Japanese cuisine, and sushi specifically. This one can seem a little ‘out-there’, so I’m going to refer to a quote from a recent (direct-to-dvd) movie called ‘The Ramen Girl’.
“The food that you serve your customer becomes a part of them.
It contains your spirit.
That’s why your ramen must be an expression of pure love.
A gift… from your heart.”
[food-o] I think this addresses my overall thoughts perfectly. In every case you’ve stated regarding things that bother you, you’ve usually mentioned something that deviated from the spirit of Japanese cuisine. I feel more comfortable now drawing the same conclusion – which is the spirit of Japanese cuisine should be maintained in what is served – regardless of whether it is in Japan, or North America. For me, that is the critical element in the foodosophy of sushi.
[o-toro] I know that many Japanese people find this spirit to be of the utmost importance. While traditionalists will feel that only Japanese chefs can infuse sushi with the spirit of Japanese cuisine, I believe I am more lenient. My leniency does come with some conditions:
- You must have spent some amount of time in Japan to experience authentic sushi.
- Have a full understanding of the various types of fish
- Understand the seasons in which the various fish are good/bad,
- Know how to properly prepare the fish you serve (removing prepared fillets from pastic cryovac excluded)
- Most importantly have a true passion for what you are doing.
[food-o] That sums things up nicely. I’m not sure being in Japan is necessary, but it would certainly help accelerate things. But I agree, the other aspects are critical in serving good sushi. For me, sushi is a continual learning experience every time I sit down to eat, or read about the subject. In the spirit of sharing, I’d like to share a series of websites that do a great job discussing sushi – Shizuoka sushi (and affiliated sites). This guy is both passionate, and informed on the topic, and teaches me a lot.
I hope everyone found this as entertaining as we did writing it. I can understand if our occasional militant attitude can be off putting on this particularly sensitive subject, but I hope you understand that it comes from a passion for Japanese food, and the hope and desire that everyone will be able to appreciate all the nuances, and skill required to produce great sushi. The skill and training needed to serve great sushi is immense. Sushi deserves to be understood and appreciated as much as molecular gastronomy, or a seasonal tasting menu would be.
[shokutsu] These two fellas wrapped it up so nicely, I honestly have nothing more to add.
[o-toro] Thanks for your time guys – this was fun! Kampai! (Cheers!)