What You Don't Know About Sushi
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.
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.