Although the appeal of eating sushi continues to grow in America, partaking can sometimes be a tricky maze of strange foods, dissimilar cultural traditions, and foreign languages. This guide will carefully launch you into the enticing world of this Japanese edible art.
Although sometimes misunderstood to refer to raw fish, the term
sushi simply means vinegared rice. The key ingredients in sushi rice are white, short-grained, Japanese rice; rice vinegar; sugar; and salt. A specific balance is essential for achieving the necessary stickiness and a delicate, sweet flavor that complements the fish.
Sushi rice is generally combined with other ingredients such as fish or vegetables. Fish is frequently, but not always, served raw and should be fresh and of high quality. Types of fish commonly used for sushi include tuna, mackerel, salmon, and yellowtail among others. Seafood used can include shrimp, crab, scallops, eel, squid, and more.
Sushi can still be enjoyed however by those to whom raw fish does not appeal. Restaurants often have many other choices containing vegetables or including smoked salmon, fried shrimp tempura, cooked eel with sweet sauce, etc.
Nigiri [pronounced nee-ghee-ree]
Nigiri-zushi (hand-formed sushi) consists of a small, oval, hand-pressed clump of sushi rice topped with an expertly cut slice of fish and sometimes a bit of wasabi. Nigiri sushi is very common, generally served in pairs, and meant to be eaten by hand in one bite. The rice is loosely packed, so eating with chopsticks can be tricky. For some people, especially women, eating a piece of nigiri in one bite can be a bit much, so a good sushi chef will adjust the size to accommodate the needs of each customer.
Maki [pronounced mah-kee]
Maki-zushi (rolled sushi) is a filled, cylindrical roll generally wrapped in nori (dried seaweed wrapper) and usually cut into six or eight pieces. Some maki-zushi rolls are made with the rice on the inside and the nori on the outside, but uramaki (inside-out rolls) can contain two or more fillings and is made with the nori on the inside and the rice on the outside. Temaki is a type of maki-zushi in which the filled nori is rolled into a cone shape and eaten by hand.
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Sashimi is sliced raw fish without rice and is therefore technically not sushi. It is eaten with chopsticks and often at the beginning of a meal before other flavors affect the palate. Like sushi, sashimi is available in many varieties with a wide array of flavors, so it is good to experiment to find preferred tastes.
The Sushi Restaurant
Eating at a sushi restaurant, or sushiya, is an experience that engages the senses by means of colors, textures, flavors, aromas, and even conversations with those around you. Therefore, be prepared to relax, take your time, and enjoy your meal.
When you arrive, you should greet the host or hostess as well as the itamae (sushi chef). If choosing to eat at a table, it is still acceptable to walk by the sushi bar to examine the displayed selections and ask the itamae for recommendations, although questioning whether something is fresh is considered insulting.
Sitting at the sushi bar gives you an opportunity to watch the chef prepare your food and can be informative as well as entertaining. At the counter, a cup of 'agari' (hot green tea) may be served for cleansing the mouth, and an 'oshibori' (a hot, wet towel) may be offered to use for cleaning your hands before touching the food.
If the bar is busy, you may order some edamame (boiled soy beans) or some Miso soup (from soy bean paste) which is often served before or during a sushi or sashimi meal. Miso soup (misoshiru) is consumed by holding the cup in one's hand and bringing it to the mouth. If you are not given a spoon, it is not necessary to ask for one as it is customary to use chopsticks to eat the pieces of tofu, seaweed, or mushrooms. A little slurping is acceptable with noodles or soup, especially if it's hot.
You may ask the sushi chef for special or seasonal items that are not on the menu; but remember to only order sushi from the itamae, and order drinks, soup, and other non-sushi items from the waitstaff.
The waitstaff may sometimes offer you a small piece of paper which lists all the types of sushi that the restaurant offers on which you simply mark the quantity of each type that you would like. Sushi bar customers may also sometimes order by indicating 'omakase' or 'okonomi.'
Omakase [pronounced oh-mah-kah-say] means
it's up to you. The order will be decided by the chef, giving him an opportunity to be artistically innovative with what he knows are the freshest ingredients. Most chefs however will be respectful of any allergies or dislikes that a customer may have. Ordering omakase is generally an indication that a patron is willing to accept a higher expense for his meal.
Okonomi [pronounced oh-koh-no-mee] means
what I like, and the order placed based on the customer's preferences. You may, however, request the chef's recommendations, a change in the amount of wasabi, or a reduction in the size of your sushi, etc.
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Generally it is recommended to begin with sashimi and lighter-tasting fare, gradually proceeding toward heavier, stronger flavored dishes and those with a higher fat content.
Sushi should be ordered in small amounts at a time and eaten as soon as it is served in order to maintain optimal temperature. When served together, maki-zushi rolls should be eaten before nigiri to prevent the outer seaweed from getting soggy.
Commonly, when ordering a particular sushi topping, the chef makes two nigiri, enabling you to enjoy your fish preference, but leaving room for variety. However, sushi should be eaten with moderation as too much can result in your tongue becoming coated and numbed to taste variations. And do keep in mind that leaving food on your plate can give the chef the impression that you didn't like it.
If you do not feel as though your sushi is spicy enough, you may use a little shoyu (soy sauce) which is served in a small, shallow dish beside your plate. Just pick up your sushi and dip the edge of the fish side only into the soy sauce. It is not common to pour soy sauce onto sushi, and it is considered wasteful to pour more soy sauce into the dish than you will use.
Be careful also not to dunk or dip the rice side of your sushi into the soy sauce, as the rice is highly absorbent and may fall apart or become too bitter. As well, you should not remove the fish from the nigiri to dip into the shoyu as this can be perceived as a deconstruction of the chef's artwork.
Nigiri-zushi often comes with what the itamae considers to be an ideal amount of wasabi placed between the rice and the topping. Real, fresh raw wasabi has a mild flavor and is unlike the often-served commercial paste created from powdered horseradish. However, depending on the flavor desired, extra wasabi can be requested or added to the sushi to suit your preference.
Though there is much debate on the subject, it is considered bad practice by many to mix wasabi into the soy sauce dish unless you are eating sashimi. To obtain maximum flavor of both the wasabi and the shoyu, it is better to add the wasabi directly to the sushi and then dip sushi lightly into the soy sauce.
Gari [pronounced gah-ree] is off-white or pink pickled ginger that is served with sushi. It is eaten with chopsticks to clear the palate between varying types of fish or sushi.
Sushi may be eaten either with chopsticks or by hand. Many restaurants provide single-use wooden chopsticks that you just snap apart to use. Here are a few guidelines:
Rub chopsticks together only if there is a splinter.
Use the thick end of the chopsticks (not the part you put in your mouth) to pick up food from a shared plate.
Do not pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks as it is reminiscent of a funeral tradition involving the handling of cremated bones.
Avoid stabbing food or storing chopsticks vertically in food, especially rice, as this is done at Japanese funerals for altar offerings.
When chopsticks are not in use, they should be placed on the holder, on the shoyu dish, or in front of you with the tips pointing to the left if you are right-handed.
Using Your Hands
To eat nigiri, pick up the piece like you would a computer mouse with your thumb on one side, your middle finger on the other side, and your index finger at the front. Flip it around (using your index finger to push upward), dip the fish side into soy sauce if desired, and place the whole thing in your mouth fish side down.
Green tea and beer have mild flavors, and each pair nicely with sushi. Since sake (rice wine) and sushi are both rice based, it is recommended that sake be reserved for eating before a meal, after a meal, or with sashimi to avoid an excessive rice load.
When drinking alcoholic beverages with sushi, do not serve yourself, as it is customary for table companions to serve one another. Check on tablemates and refill their drinks as needed. When you are offered a refill, drink any remaining amount in your glass and then hold it toward the person offering. And don't forget that it is polite to offer to buy a drink for the sushi chef.
Only after everyone at the table is served drinks, feel free to toast Kanpai! (dry glass), but do not give the Italian toast 'cin cin,' as in Japanese this refers to male genitalia.
Nyotaimori: Naked Sushi
Originating in Japan, and deemed illegal in China, 'body sushi' (eating sushi from the body of a woman) is considered risque but trendy these days. Nyotaimori (female body serving) models are covered with flowers and a few strategically placed banana leaves which serve to prevent the sushi from becoming warm. Completely shaved and washed with fragrance free soap, these women are expected to lie still sometimes for hours while patrons serve themselves sushi from the reclining woman's torso.
Considered both artistic and sensual, nyotaimori can be found at a few restaurants in the United States, but more often at private parties. Rules are strict however - no speaking, touching, or lewdness toward the models; chopsticks only are used to retrieve sushi; and usually no cameras without the host's permission.
And body sushi is an equal opportunity food play endeavor. While nyotaimori refers to the female body, 'nantaimori' is the art of 'male body presentation.'
While a few guidelines can serve as a general path through otherwise unfamiliar territory, in the end you should always enjoy your food and your life your way. So eat; drink; and above all, be merry!