My girlfriend at the time found it utterly barbaric that I had never eaten sushi before. Back then I was an uneducated heathen on all levels of sophistication, especially in the areas of anything fashionable. I faintly remember asking if they had any ‘cooked sushi’ and getting a blank look in reply.
What I recall most from that eating experience was my girlfriend’s chopsticks ability (or lack thereof) and her dropping a whole piece of sushi from mouth height into a dish of soy sauce. A small soy sauce tsunami took place and the white shirt that she was wearing looked like it had been the victim of an octopus attack. I laughed. She cried. That was my first sushi experience.
That land-locked Canadian sushi experience must have had some influence on me, because now not only do I have rice paper doors and like cartoon samurai movies, but I also live, eat and breathe in the sushi wonderland that is Japan. Here the sushi is so good you really can’t compare it to anywhere else.
It is believed that sushi originated in South East Asia as a way to preserve fish and rice and made its way through China and then onto Japan. In Japan today a similar style of sushi still exists and is called Narezushi, which is basically fish that is fermented by being wrapped in fermenting sour rice. (Mouritsen 2009)
There are many different types and styles of sushi but the main two that most people are familiar with are, Nigiri-sushi or hand pressed sushi (握り寿司), and Maki sushi or sushi rolls (巻き寿司). The Nigiri sushi that we see today started in the 19th Century (Edo era) to meet the needs of the ‘Edokko’ fast paced Tokyo clientele. (Shigenozushi 2011)
The word Sushi comes from ‘Su’ (vinegar) and ‘Meshi’ (rice) and is vinegared rice (known in Japanese as Meshi or Shari), wasabi and Neta (fish or other topping) plus soy sauce and sometimes nori (dried seaweed). (Nagayama 2011)
The rice is extremely important when making sushi and in Japan people take rice very seriously. Japanese rice is a short grain white rice that has a difference in consistency to any other rice in the world. (Mouritsen 2009)
Japanese rice when cooked has a higher absorption of water and is slightly more glutinous and sticks together more when cooked but there is still a nice amount of space between the grains. The Shari (rice), when eating sushi, must be the correct temperature and must have just the right amount of air in between each grain – this is why you sometimes hear sushi chefs clap when making sushi – they are pressing the rice. (Mouritsen 2009)
Of course after Banff I had various sushi train experiences and was even partial to the odd chicken teriyaki sushi roll from chain stores like Sushi World, but it was not until I traveled through Asia and lived in Shanghai, where I met my wife, that my real sushi education began.
She was studying there as a student from Japan and we met through a mutual friend. There are a lot of Japanese people in Shanghai as it is a main business hub in the APGC (Asia Pacific Greater China) region and there is a huge Japanese restaurant scene there as well.
The sushi story really began when a sushi chain opened near our house in Shanghai. The place was called “Gaiten Sushi” (as opposed to Kaiten Sushi – which is Japanese for rolling sushi or sushi train) and it literally was a machine. On a busy night there would be about 8-10 sushi chefs all at a controlled warp speed, clapping rice together and slicing fish but still able to call out the greeting of ‘irrashaimase’ whenever a customer strolled in. With sushi so good you had to go at least once a week.
The place pumped 7 days a week, lunch and dinner, and it was here that my wife taught me how to eat sushi properly. I thought I knew what I was doing – the wasabi went into the soy sauce you mixed it up and then the sushi was dunked in that and it then you ate it – simple. But I soon learnt that I still had so very much to learn.
Rule Number 1 – Soy Sauce: Is Salty.
Soy sauce should really only be applied to the actual fish. If you can do it the sushi should be turned upside down and only the fish should touch the soy sauce. (You may also use a piece of pickled ginger to paint the fish with soy if you are no good at the flip.) The Soy Sauce is not for the rice (Japanese people go nuts when they see foreigners put soy sauce on rice.) When you dip the rice into the soy it absorbs way too much sauce and the taste is unbearably salty. Like I said before Japanese rice is important and has its own taste. The rice acts as somewhat of a balance to or a neutral ground in which you can gain a better taste and understanding of the fish or other topping.
Rule Number 2 – Finger your food.
If you are not a ninja with chopsticks then it is perfectly okay (and quite often preferred) to pick sushi up with your fingers especially if you are eating it at a sushi bar.
Rule Number 3 – Gingerwash
The ginger is used as a mouth freshener or palate cleanser in between different types of fish and should not be put on top of a piece of sushi EVER.
Sushi is unusual in the world of food in that its flavour can be transformed by the attitude and ability of the individual diner
After a while, when I was out eating sushi, I found myself looking at how other people ate their sushi – I shook my head in utter disbelief at these uncultured sushi heathens who had rice floating in their soy sauce and had ginger stacked on their fish. These people knew nothing. In order to eat good sushi you need to understand good sushi.
My wife had now deemed me ready to accompany her to a ‘real sushi restaurant’ and it was here that I realized I still knew nothing. This was a place that had to be booked and we could not be late. Can’t upset the sushi master. We arrived and took our places at the counter which over looked a glass cased, iced array of ocean creatures some still moving and all undoubtedly fresh. Cat sushi art donned the walls. The menu was all in Japanese and Chinese Kanji characters and I would have had better luck speaking in binary to a computer modem that being able to understand the Asian hieroglyphics in front of me. I let my wife order.
There were a few other people in the restaurant and I was getting the odd surprised glance every now and again (who’s the white guy – what’s he doing HERE) and even the Sushi master was just a bit wary of the foreigner sitting at his sushi bar. But that all changed when we ordered a very sizable pre-set sushi course (Okimari) as well as whatever the chef recommended for the day (Omakase) – it was then that he knew we were serious. All the fish here was flown in from Nagasaki Japan and the prices reflected it – but tonight we were lashing out, I was overwhelmed with excitement – this – was – — awesome.
Two of the largest oysters I have even seen in my life appeared in square wooden sake cups in front of us – balancing on a mound of shaved ice in a miniature scene that depicted a winter forest in Japan. Then the sushi came, piece by piece. First with the lighter white fish like iwasii, shirokisu, shirauo and Tai (sardine, whiting, ice fish and snapper) and then into tako, ika, sumika, hotategai (octopus, squid, cuttle fish, scallop) before finishing with uni, ebi, toro, katsuo, and chu toro, (sea urchin, prawn, tuna red meat, bonito, medium fatty tuna). We had about 12 or 15 pieces each in the end and it was more like a gustatory journey of taste rather than eating dinner.
At a sushi restaurant like this the correct amount of wasabi and soy is applied to the sushi by the chef, you do not do anything; a piece is put in front of you on the glass case above the counter, you wait until the sushi master says eat – and you eat. That is all. I felt like George from Seinfeld in the Soup Nazi episode. I also wanted to take the cat sushi art home.
By the end of the night I was feeling pretty happy with myself. The Sushi Chef had a contented smirk on his face as well and, as corny as this sounds, somewhere inside I knew it was because he knew he had pleased one more customer.
In the intimacy of its connections between people. i.e. the combination of the chef’s individuality and human qualities, and the match between customer and chef, the world of sushi strikes an unorthodox note that sets it apart from other cuisines. (Nagayama 2011)
In addition to making perfect sushi a good sushi chef is like a great bar tender and is able to establish a rapport with customers and make them feel at ease. Dining at a sushi bar is an experience in itself, you see the ingredients from beginning to end, you get to talk with the chef, you are able to interact, and ego is left at the door.
The texture of the fish is just as important as the taste. What it feels like in the mouth is something that is combined with taste in the West but in Japan it is a separate thing all together. An example to illustrate this properly is something called Konnyaku. Konnyaku (know in English as Konjac) is often found in Japanese foods such as Oden and is a gelatinous grey jelly with no taste. It is eaten for its texture only. Ika (squid) is one such fish that is prized for its texture as well as its taste. Good quality ika should make your mouth feel a little floury but should still be easy to bite through.
This texture is something that maybe a bit difficult for non-Japanese to get their heads around but in Japan everything has a place and a reason. The same level of importance is placed on presentation.
The dinner tray seems a picture of the most delicate order: it is a frame containing, against a dark background, various objects (bowls, boxes, saucers, chopsticks, tiny piles of food, a little gray ginger, a few shreds of orange vegetable, a background of brown sauce) and since these containers and these bits of food are slight in quantity, but numerous, it might be said that these trays fulfill the definition of a painting. (Bathes 82 in Ritchie 1993)
Colours when serving Japanese food must be artfully opposite. When numerous pieces of sushi are served together the colours must contrast each other. The pink and red of tuna has to contrast the light green of the wasabi and the darker green of a shiso leaf. The yellow or orange of Uni (sea urchin) is often served with a small slice of green cucumber to give it that colour and texture contrast. The food must ‘fulfill the definition of a painting.’ (Ritchie 93)
After 6 years in Shanghai my wife and I decided to move to Osaka Japan to be closer to her family and start one of our own. Of course previously over the years I have traveled here and eaten sushi on various occasions and it has always blown my mind but recently I have started to feel a little content and possibly even bored with eating sushi. I need to reignite the fire. I need to take it to the next level.
I need to go to an AMAZING sushi place and I am sure that as soon as set foot in there, I will be back at square one all over again. I am now at a stage where I understand enough about Japanese culture and can speak enough Japanese to be able to somewhat appreciate what sushi has to offer, but also to know, that I have come nowhere near full circle with sushi – yet.
I want to travel to Tokyo and visit Daisan Harumi Sushi. The owner, Mr Kazuo Nagayama, has been making sushi since 1965 and I have also included many quotes and pictures from his only book ‘SUSHI’ in this essay. I am sure it will be a completely mind bending and unexplainable experience. To say that I am looking forward to it is an understatement.
You cannot get a type of food that is so simple, yet so amazingly and intrinsically crafted than sushi. In Japanese there is no such thing as perfection – there is only the act of trying to get as close as possible. I still have a lot to learn – it is a journey that is ongoing and I am enjoying every fishy little bit of it, piece by piece.
1. Barthes R, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982
2. Kubo K & Enomoto N (2007) Japan日本 JTB Publishing. Japan
3. Mouritsen Ole G (2009) Sushi for the Eye, the Body & the Soul. Springer USA
4. Nagayama (2011) Sushi. Pie International. Japan
5. Richie D (1993) A taste of Japan. Kodansha International Japan