What You Don't Know About Sushi

By Andrea Karim on 18 June 2007 (Updated 21 May 2010) 20 comments
Photo: muratkoc

Think you know a thing or two about sushi, eh? Yeah, I thought the same thing until today. Today is when Trevor Corson, author of The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket made a guest appearance on my local radio station to dispell some commonly held myths about sushi.

Now, I've traveled to Japan, and I've eaten at some good sushi establishments. I'm not an expert by a long shot, but I thought I knew a thing or two about raw fish (sashimi) and the rice beneath it (sushi). But alas, 'twas not the case.

Fresh isn't necessarily better

No, I don't recommend you save money by buying week-old sushi or anything. That said, I was always under the impression that the freshest sushi was the most recently deceased. Not true. Like beef and lamb, fish actually has to age slightly in order to achieve a full, rich flavor.

The reason for this, according to Corson, is that the enzymes in fish flesh start to break down the muscle once a fish dies. And that breakdown actually creates smaller molecules that are detectable as flavorful by the human tongue.

Corson goes into a brief but fascinating discussion of glutamate (that's the G in MSG), a flavor that is designated as the fifth "taste" that the human tongue can detect. The Japanese call this flavor umami, which we translate into English as savory. Much of Japanese cuisine's flavor comes from fermented or aged produce — soy sauce, natto, bonito flakes, and miso are all created through some practices that we, as Westerners, might consider unsavory.

Fresh fish is delicious if you just caught some trout and cooked it over the campfire with some lemon and butter. But try to eat the same fresh fish raw, and you're likely to be disappointed.

Most of the sashimi that we eat in restaurants has been flash frozen using liquid nitrogen. This process kills many of the germs and worms that can develop in fish flesh, but doesn't cause any physical deterioration of the meat.

When you go into a fine sushi establishment and order the freshest daily fish, you aren't eating fish that was caught the same day, or even the day before. If you're eating good sushi, the fish is at least a few days old.

You're not supposed to use chopsticks

Dammit! The one skill that I can use across East Asia, and it doesn't even apply?

Lots of sushi that we eat in American sushi establishments comes in the "roll" format. Traditional sushi is eaten in the nigiri format — a little polyhedron of loosely-packed, slightly sweet and tangy sushi rice topped with a thin slice of raw fish. Ever notice that the sushi sort of breaks apart when you dip it in that little bowl of soy sauce and then try to pick it back up with your chopsticks? That's because you are supposed to eat it with your hands.

I kid you not. Traditional sushi lovers do exactly that. Corson has a guide of how to eat sushi on his web site. The sushi rice is not usually packed very tightly together, which is why it falls apart when you try to eat it with chopsticks. The method for eating sushi is more or less to hold the sushi piece like it's a computer mouse, slowly flip it over, and lightly drench one side in the nikiri sauce (soy, depending on where you are eating) provided.

By now you've probably seen that comedic video of Japanese etiquette that pokes fun at the traditions and mannerisms that surround sushi consumption. It turns out that much of the behavior is as baffling to the Japanese as it is to Americans.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Give the video a watch, but just note that the fact that they are eating the sushi with their hands is not meant to be a part of the joke. You're actually SUPPOSED to go in, sit at the bar, and eat with your fingers. I'm not saying you won't get some weird looks - I'm just saying that that's what the experts do.

The wasabi you are eating...isn't wasabi

Turns out that real wasabi is difficult to grow and even more difficult to properly package. So what you eat at Sushi N More is actually horseradish powder, mustard, and green food coloring.

Also, you're not technically supposed to be drowning your sushi in soy sauce. Good restaurants provide their own nikiri, which is like a house-brewed soy sauce that the chef should use according to what he (it's almost always a he, although this is finally changing) is preparing. In fact, your raw fish should be brushed with a flavored broth that needs no additional flavoring.

Now, if you are eating at an authentic sushi restaurant, these things matter. However, if you are at an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet, eating bricks of mealy rice with slabs of flavorless fish, then you'll be forgiven for soaking your sushi in a bucket of soy sauce and pseudo wasabi. Hey, I'm not passing judgment.

Traditional sushi doesn't contain tuna

Tuna and salmon, which are BIG sushi hits in the US, aren't traditional sushi choices because they spoil very fast. Fatty tuna, while melty and wonderful to American sushi lovers, is eschewed by the sushi snobs in Japan. Traditional sushi is technically whitefish, like halibut, snapper, or even clams and raw octopus (the Japanese sushi foodies, true to form, sometimes eat squirming live octopus - don't try this at home).

Spicy tuna rolls, never a favorite of mine, are one of the most popular sushi options in Seattle. They are also how chefs get rid of crappy bits of tuna.

Corson appears to be very open-minded, and avoids any judgment of those of us who occasionally get our sushi fix from crappy rice rolls at Safeway or Whole Foods. Although he lived in Japan and has eaten some of the finest sushi the world over, his fascination with sushi really stemmed from the fact that you can now get find this delicacy in small towns in Ohio.

As someone who vacillates between wanting the best sushi available, and wanting some sushi for under $10, dammit, I really loved listening to Corson talk about this cuisine. You can buy the book, or just peruse his web site and a few others to get a feel for what sushi is really about. As with most things here at Wise Bread, it's often about quality versus quantity.

Which doesn't mean that I won't still buy it, occasionally, at Safeway. But now that I know I can eat it with my fingers, I'll be so much more efficient.

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Lynn Truong's picture

does he say anything about the rice being warm/room temp and not cold and hard like most places? i found an awesome place in tustin, ca (Sushi Wasabi) where the servings are small, the fish are "fresh," the rice is warm, the wasabi is ground each morning, and it's always omakase (trust me style=no ordering).

however, it's expensive (duh)

so my bf found catalina offshore products (www.catalinaop.com) and now we order our sushi online. it's all very delicious, top quality, and a real value compared to dining out at a same quality restaurant.

you buy it by the pound (so split with friends) and you have to cut it yourself (sharpen your knife) but it's worth it.

for $200 we fed 9 people (w/plenty of leftovers!)

Andrea Karim's picture

But I haven't read the book yet - I just ordered it. :) But that's a key part of the sushi's taste and one of the (many) reasons why supermarket sushi tastes so meh.

Guest's picture
MJ

In the older days, Japanese culture allows only males to become chefs.

Andrea Karim's picture

That's changing! There are all kinds of reasons why women were not permitted to make sushi, all of them bogus. However, it is still very difficult for a woman to become a sushi chef these days, even in the US.

Guest's picture
Mark

I consider myself a connoisseur of fine sushi and I agree with most of what you said.

Wasabi can be found in the US and its grown in the northwest. Just like Shiso, that little green leaf that is often placed under Ika.

Most traditional Japanese do eat Tuna, but not as sushi, they traditionally eat it as Sashimi (sans rice) or preserved in soy sauce (salt)

Most of the rolls we get here in the US are not traditional, most of the time, traditional Japanese diners eat Maki (rolls) that are simple, not this Salmon, cream cheese, onion mixture that we here seem to like (yuch!)

If you really want to impress your local Sushi chef, don't put extra wasabi on the top of the Nigiri, or mix it in with the soy. Most traditional sushi eaters simply dip the fish side in the soy sauce and pop it in their mouth. The Wasabi is mostly for mixing into the soy sauce when you're eating Sashimi. Nigiri has wasabi between the fish and rice.

There are lots of wonderful traditional Japanese traditions and foods that are part of the sushi experience. Unfortunately most Americans are too squeamish. (Their loss and My gain!)

Some day ask for Ika-Shiokara (or sometimes just Shiokara) or Ika-Nato. One of my favorites is Yamakake (Yamaimo or Japanese Mountain Potato grated to a slimy consistency mixed with Maguro and a little soy)

Guest's picture
Erin

Mark, I have never gone to a restaurant hoping to please the chef. Why would anyone want to please their sushi chef?

Taste is subjective. I'm always eager to visit authentic restaurants, but if it's done right, a fusion dish like the smoked salmon rolls you refer to can be amazing. Good chefs know this: a dish need not be standard or traditional to be worth consuming; what is necessary is a balance of flavors. A good artist (chef) can do this with the most bizarre combinations.

I love a good Westernized version of an ethnic dish as much as I love authentic Chinese food.

"Yuch"? I'm not sure how credible that statement is.

Guest's picture
foodnerd

The reason sushi chefs are traditionally male is because women were thought to have "hotter energy" and would thus cause faster spoilage when handling raw fish. I've had raw fish cut from a still living fish in both Japan and Korea and it was spectacular. Flavor improvement as a result of post mortem aging only applies to certain fish. Toro or fatty tuna is absolutley, without question highly prized by sushi enthusiasts, in Japan or otherwise. Salmon, expecially white salmon, is very popular as sashimi in Japan (salmon has been an important food source in Japan dating back to the time of the indigenous Ainu). Exceptional tuna specimens still command 5-figure prices at the Tokyo fish market auctions, and these are most certainly used for sashimi. Finally using chopsticks is never discouraged except in the obvious case of temaki (hand rolls), and a diner eating sashimi with his or her fingers would draw disapproving glares at the very least. I am disappointed to find such erroneous information being disseminated by a published author on the subject.

Andrea Karim's picture

The reason sushi chefs are traditionally male is because women were thought to have "hotter energy" and would thus cause faster spoilage when handling raw fish.

Well, anyone who knows anything about anatomy knows that this is bullshit. If anything, men have higher temperatures in their extremities than women.

Tuna: sashimi these days? Sure. But in the past, not so much - tuna has only recently taken over as one of the most popular seafoods in the world. Spicy tuna rolls, not so much. I'm interested (and, frankly, repulsed) that you've tried hacked-from-a-still-gasping-fish sashimi. I'm curious about the flavor - was it markedly different from other sashimi you've tried?

As to using your fingers - sorry, but people do both. Afficianados tend to use their fingers when eating nigiri - I've seen it done in Toyko and Kanazawa. Corson is not the only person to make that claim.

Guest's picture
Muzz

An interesting read, didn't know about those finer sushi eating details!

Guest's picture
77

Speaking as someone who has worked at 2 real Japanese restaurants (owned by actual Issei with real sushi chefs from Japan) in Ohio and northern KY, I would like to make a plea on behalf of all employees to the midwesterners who claim such intimate knowledge of Japanese food and etiquette:

1. The point of sushi is absolutely and completely not to pour twenty-five gallons of soy sauce all over the tray. Period. If you can't enjoy Japanese food without enough sauce to choke a saltwater fish, stay home and order pizza. Same goes for ginger. The food is the point, dammit!

2. Edamame does not need to a: be served warm and b: have soy sauce dumped all over it--those things are practically basted in salt already.

3. American customers are invariably the messiest, sloppiest, most demanding pack of bums who walk into a Japanese restaurant and always compare unfavorably with the almost always soft-spoken, kind and undemanding Japanese customers. If you don't want the wait staff bitching about you in the kitchen, be polite, don't pour soy sauce all over the damn place (like the veritable lake of the stuff I mopped up after one particularly memorable evening), don't freak out if you find out that sushi and Japanese food taste differently from what the American palate has come to expect, and get over how elite, sexy and intelligent you are for being willing to eat OMG RAW FISH! There are sushi places in the most backwater tiny towns in Japan, and farmers eat that stuff. Eating it and drinking a fine delicate wine, then heading out to see the latest artsy film at the independent theater doesn't raise your IQ or your general worth as a person, and chances are your server with her 2.50 an hour paycheck and fake smile plastered on her face knows ten times more than you do about sushi and washoku in general, so get over yourself. Seriously. It's just food.

4. Forchrissakes don't rub your chopsticks together when you split them--that's really rude and the only people who do that are those who want to show off how incredibly knowledgeable they are about Japanese culture, while in fact they are simultaneously displaying an incredible lack of that very same knowledge. Look around you--do you see any of the Japanese customers doing that? No? Wonder why...

Guest's picture
Guest

"Eating it and drinking a fine delicate wine, then heading out to see the latest artsy film at the independent theater doesn't raise your IQ or your general worth as a person, and chances are your server with her 2.50 an hour paycheck and fake smile plastered on her face knows ten times more than you do about sushi and washoku in general, so get over yourself. Seriously. It's just food."

Man, you've got a lot of pent-up hostility. That must really suck.
Experiencing a good film may not "raise your IQ", but it very likely will reduce your ignorance. Give it a try. Sounds like YOU are the one obsessing about/judging HOW people are eating. Seriously; it's just food. Get over your "Kentucky-fried sushi" self.

Andrea Karim's picture

I have to stand up in defense of the chopstick rubbing folks - I picked up this habit in China. I might have my issues with China, but mouth splinters are never a problem there because no one gets mad at you for rubbing your kauizi together. And to be fair, doing so shouldn't be offensive to the restaurant, but rather, to the chopstick manufacturer.

My dad immediately pours soy sauce over any bowl of rice presented to him, causing a massive faux pas in any Asian dining establishment. :) Wish I could break him of the habit, but alas, it's set for life. Then again, I guess I kind of appreciate the lack of pretense with which he regards his food. It's there for his enjoyment, not anyone else's sense of tradition. Call him a slob of an American if you will (he's Canadian) but at least he's free from worry and stress over things like soy sauce.

Guest's picture
hipcheck

Nice piece, but I must take exception with the first item. The rest of it I would say is fairly well-known to real sushi lovers (not just sushi junkies, but the real snobs that take the whole thing seriously).

The white person that I consider the most well-versed in Jp. culture insists that the best place in the world to eat sushi is on the Tokyo docks, where the fish is served right off the boats. He says it's a popular destination, so I wonder if it's just a matter of taste (as in tastebuds), or if it really is superior when eaten at its most fresh.

Guest's picture
Barbara

I read somewhere awhile ago that when you're sitting in a sushi restaurant where the chef can see you, you're not supposed to eat the first bite of anything with any type of extra flavor (ie wasabi, soy sauce, etc). It is supposedly considered a respect thing to try the sushi and the chef's skills first before adding extra flavor. It's a little like tasting your food at someone's house first before pouring table salt all over it. But besides respect, I think that's always a good idea because you may find that the food is absolutely wonderful without additions.

Guest's picture
Barry

Mia Detrick in her book "Sushi" said "salmon is never served raw in sushi bars; it is lightly smoked or cured . . ." I have seen her quoted in some places but contradicted in others. What are the facts?

Andrea Karim's picture

I've seen it smoked or cured, but it is most often served raw. However, it has likely been flash frozen to kill the nematodes and other icky things that live in fish flesh.

Guest's picture

Hey,
It was totally factfull!
I loved it
I love sushi too!
At school, I'm studying about japanese and the teacher
told us to do a topic about Japan stuff.
So I chose sushi.
i'm still working on it...:)

Thanks for your info! :)
I loved it1
Carry on with the hard work!!
Keep smiling!! :) hehe!!
From Sheuk-yeeng!! Tan!! :) hehe lol

Guest's picture
Brian McEwen

I'll have to keep this article with me the next time I dig in with my hands... enlightening. Thanks!

Guest's picture
Erin

You forgot to mention that it isn't (or at least wasn't) a delicacy. It started as a sort of 'fast food.'

Guest's picture
Guest

I wanted to clear up some things about the liquid nitrogen flash freezing. The overwhelming majority IS NOT flash frozen with liquid nitrogen. Nor is some of it even frozen in order to kill pathogens and parasites. I had to find this out the hard way. Upon talking with actual wholesale suppliers to US restaurants. I discovered that the FDA only "suggested" the freezing. If there is an actual FDA regulation regarding this IT IS NOT enforced! in fact many high end sushiya PREFER unfrozen fish.

Also I find it weird that a Japanese sushi chef could look down at someone rubbing wooden disposable chopsticks together. In a high end sushiya they use REAL reusable chopsticks.