Having eaten enough sushi in the last couple of weeks for my blood to bleed pea-green wasabi, I have learnt a thing or two about eating sushi properly.
I am horrified that as someone who has eaten Japanese food for years; cooking it, attending classes on it, have friends who are sushi chefs, that I had it all wrong.
Studying those around me from conveyor belt restaurants to top-end kaizeki dining to tiny sushi bars in the Tsukiji market, I realised that while I may have looked like a local person, my sushi eating skills were completely …foreign.
Something has gone wrong in the translation of sushi eating from 8th Century Ancient Japan, where it all began, to the Yo sushi bars and Californian rolls in the West since the 1950′s.
So here are some key differences between Japanese and Western sushi and how to do it properly.
Japanese sushi has a lot less choice than we have seen in the West. The most popular form is nigiri which is basically raw fish on top of vinegared rice and sashimi which is raw fish without the rice. That’s right. Forget the mini-swiss rolls of colour and crunchy bits. Sushi is simple. Just like with Chinese food in the West, many of the most popular dishes actually originated from outside of Japan!
I hardly ate any sushi in Japan that had seaweed around it or stuffed with avocado, usually it was just plain (but very tasty and fresh) fish on top of some moist, cotton-soft rice. I was told that the use of avocado and seaweed is used quite often in the West to make the sushi less intimidating to eat.
The size of the sushi in Japan is smaller and made up of fewer ingredients. So just with much of Japanese cuisine it is low in calories and fat because of the fewer ingredients – just fish and rice. In the West, stuffing them with avocados, deep-fried tempura soft shell crab and mayonnaise is so common that sushi is quite often a heavy, colorie-rich meal in the West than its lighter origins.
London seems to have an abundance of sushi classes – the new thing for corporate team-building, after bowling lost its shine. Everyone seems to be able to learn how to make sushi, which is why the quality in restaurants in the UK at least can be a bit hit and miss! In Japan, an apprentice sushi chef will spend two years learning how to cook and season the rice plus another 3 years learning how to prepare the fish. Only after 5-6 years training are they allowed to begin working in a simple sushi bar in Japan.. and another 10 years before they can consider working at a top one.
SOY SAUCE AND WASABI
In the West, we love to dunk; chips with ketchup, carrots with houmous, spring rolls with sweet chilli sauce (don’t get me started on that one…) but in Japan, less is more. I watched a man of about 50 years old eating sushi on his own in a small sushi bar in Tokyo Station. He dribbled a tiny pool of soy sauce and a small chickpea size wasabi into this porcelain dish and stirred it quickly with his chopstick. He then took his nigiri and dipped it in the sauce so quickly, it merely skimmed the surface, like checking the temperature of the bath. He then savoured the whole nigiri with his eyes closed, enjoying the delicate flavours of each component of the fish, the rice and the slightest soy flavour. Don’t over-dunk and certainly don’t double dip!
I quickly downed tools when I realised that everyone was eating sushi with their hands and each roll was popped into their mouths in one go – that’s why they are made small!
Much as I obviously LOVE miso soup, I noticed that most diners would have theirs after the sushi to aid digestion and not as an appetising-tomato-soup-amuse-bouche kind of way. Resist temptation and enjoy it at the end.
This post is dedicated to Malcolm, who simply loves sushi.