Sushi being my chosen trade a fair few of my posts will center on the subject, though my interest in seafood expands far beyond it. One of the most fascinating things about sushi – and food in general – is people’s desire to appear they have knowledge about it, whether they are accurate or not.
The number of confidently made, incorrect statements about sushi that I hear customers make over the bar lead to my writing this post. You’d be surprised how many people even attempt to challenge my master’s knowledge, of which she has thirty plus years. While I do not claim to know everything, there is about sushi – that can take a lifetime – I do make a point of learning all I can each shift.
As another note, cuisine by nature is a game of cultural fusion. Recipes, their ingredients, the customs and traditions under which they are consumed all shift with time. The information I am providing here is influenced by traditional Japanese knowledge provided by my master and collected outside research. Do with it as you will. What matters is that you’re enjoying your food.
Wasabi, Ginger, and Soy Sauce
When it comes to wasabi, most people in the U.S. have it wrong. That green stuff you’ve been using…is actually a mixture of horseradish, mustard, tapioca starch, and green food coloring. Real wasabi comes from grating a unique little root called Wasabia Japonica – mentions of which have been found in Japanese botanical books dating back to 794 CE. Unbeknownst to the majority of wasabi eaters, the leaves of plant are edible too – raw in salads, pickled, or fried into chips. Traditionally the root is grated against shark skin, and should be eaten within fifteen minutes to maintain the strength of its heated herbal taste.
In Japan, sushi chefs will apply wasabi to the nigiri themselves, depending on the taste balance they desire. They also mix their own soy sauce, called nikiri, and brush it onto the fish based on its richness. To add more is an insult to the chef. Many will stop giving you the best cuts of fish if they see this behavior, because they know you won’t be able to tell the difference. Sashimi is an exception. Get a little wasabi, put a small bead on each piece, then dip into the soy sauce.
In my opinion, the biggest faux pas is mixing wasabi into the soy sauce dish. First, soy sauce lessens the spiciness of wasabi, so if you like the heat you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Second, if you’re using real wasabi and a house made nikiri, it degrades the flavor of both.
When it comes to gari, or sushi ginger, it is meant to be used as a palate cleanser between bites of fish. The acidity and slight spice of ginger prepares the taste buds to better experience the different flavors of each fish; it is also known to aid digestion.
Raw Fish During Pregnancy
There have been a handful of pregnant American women who frequent the sushi bar I work at who needlessly torture themselves through nine months without their favorite Hamachi belly or toro, because there is a widespread belief in the US that raw fish is harmful to the baby.
There is NO conclusive scientific evidence that eating sushi has adverse effects on the fetus or progression of pregnancy.
Women and doctors here rarely seem to stop and think about the thousands of Japanese moms eating raw fish every day who birth extraordinarily healthy, intelligent children.
Of course, there are risks when eating any raw protein (namely parasites), but these risks are the same for any human doing the consuming.
Two things pregnant women should be on the lookout for: mercury levels and shellfish.
A quintessential example of Uramaki is the California roll. Rice on the outside, then seaweed, with ingredients wrapped inside. While sushi does have historical roots that stretch back to the 8th century in Japan with narezushi, sushi as we know it today only began to develop in the mid 1700s, and wasn’t brought to the United States until the early 1900s.
There are competing theories about who first created the California roll, but both don’t occur until the early 1970s in North America.
Narezushi is the ancestor of modern sushi, and began as a way to preserve fish in fermented rice. At this point, the rice was discarded and only the fish eaten. During the Edo period, some 800 years later, haya-zushi appeared and was the first time that rice was not used for fermentation, but rather assembled with vinegar, fish, and vegetables and consumed at the same time.
In the 19th century street vendor carts became popular in Japan, during which time what we now know as nigiri sushi was invented. A mound of oblong rice, with a slice of fish draped over it, easy for eating with the hands, while on the go.
Makizushi, sushi utilizing nori, appeared around 1750 with the invention of the sheet form of seaweed. From there we get every inside-out, upside-backward, mayo-covered, fish-egg sprinkled, deep-fried roll out there in the world today.
Needless to say, if someone tells you that a California style roll is “traditional” sushi, you should turn and say, “you know nothing John-san.”
What’s that “fishy smell?”
Alright, if you ever find yourself in a sushi restaurant that smells “fishy,” please turn around and walk right back out.
I’m constantly fielding comments from people about how my hands must smell all “fishy” after working a ten-hour day, or how they can’t handle the taste of sushi because of how “fishy” it is. This is a misconception that has spread to the point it seems to be a placebo effect.
Good quality fish should have no smell at all, or if anything a clean, icy smell, almost like a cucumber or a faint whiff of the ocean. It is only when fish hasn’t been cared for correctly, and begins to decompose that it will develop that fishy odor everyone is concerned about. This occurs because ocean creatures have amino acids and amines in their cells that help counter the salinity around them, particularly trimethylamine oxide (TMAO).
When fish are killed, bacteria and enzymes break the TMAO down into trimethylamine (TMA), which gives off the characteristic fishy odor.
It is a daily occurrence watching customers stare intimidated at a pair of chopsticks, or make some kind of offhand “oh, I still haven’t figured these things out,” comment. We do provide chopstick “trainers” for those who ask.
The best sushi chefs take great care to press the pieces of nigiri together in such a way that the ingredients will fall apart and mix together in your mouth. Often if they see customers using chopsticks, they will pack them too tightly and the effect will be ruined.
So, if precise use of chopsticks isn’t in your repertoire, do not fear, it is generally only with sashimi - and palate cleansing ginger - that their use is suggested.
That is all the sushi truths I will attempt to impress upon you for now. In the future, as more myths pop up in my restaurant, I may write another post along these lines. Stayed tuned for a species profile on my favorite of fish, the salmon!