This is an eight-part series of blog postings from the now defunct Web site Bayosphere. I dug the postings out of archive.org. Since the Bayosphere sushi postings were relatively short, I combined them all into one article here.
Aug 4, 2005 posting at the old version of Toledo Talk titled How to eat sushi properly which pointed to the Bayosphere postings. That thread contains 23 comments. Here are a couple :
intrepid said : "Actually, jr, if you've read the [Bayosphere] series, you'll see that there's a lot of symbolism, tradition and etiquette in eating sushi. It's an experience - not a meal!"
babbleman said : "Despite the name, the series has almost nothing to do with "how to eat". It is really about the history of sushi."
Bayosphere blog series titled "How to Eat Sushi Properly" by Noriko Takiguchi, published between June and October 2005.
Read the Signs
I have several favorite sushi places in the Bay Area. Sushi Tomi in Mountain View is one of them, for example.
The experience of going to eat sushi in the US is quite nice because it is casual. You probably do not know that many people in Japan are apprehensive about going to a sushi restaurant, especially if they are new to the place. They worry because they are not sure their knowledge about sushi, and their manner in how they eat it, matches the earnest or sometimes rigid ways of the sushi chef who runs the place.
Sushi is among the most carefully prepared food to be served in Japan, together with soba (buckwheat noodle) and some kinds of coffee. Chefs who prepare sushi and run sushi restaurants need to be highly disciplined. After all, they are dealing with literally raw materials. (By the same token, the best soba has to be cooked to the exact al dente texture, and the best coffee has to be hand brewed to create super aroma from the most beautiful little ceramic cup.)
You see the signs of discipline everywhere in a sushi restaurant, even before you sit down and pick up the first piece of sushi. A very good sushi restaurant usually does not have red paper lanterns or menu outside the door. It is only decorated with a little curtain (called noren) which shows the name of the restaurant on a rough-textured bleached white cloth.
When you enter the place through wooden sliding doors, you are welcomed by chefs across the sushi counter. Their loud greeting sounds almost like "Russia!" But they are only saying the short version of "irasshai," or "welcome."
That short version is exact,and very important. It sounds crisp. And especially if the chefs say it as loud as they can, it shows that they are upbeat as they have been very busy from early hours of that day going to fish market, finding the best possible fish, rushing back as fast as they can and sharpening the world's sharpest knives.
You may notice that sushi chefs usually do not have hair on their arms. Every piece of sushi has to be produced from clean plain looking hands and arms. Chefs, I think, shave every day, unless there is some kind of industry-secret to deal with it. Also, you would rarely see chefs with beard, mustache, long hanging eyebrow or sunglasses. They have to look enormously plain.
Some historians say women have not been welcome behind the sushi counter because female body temperature is higher and not suitable for handling raw fish. When it comes to professional Japanese cooking, men seem to dominate the market today, especially in sushi areas.
The last part of today's lesson is the counter, which is the center piece of any sushi restaurant. You see signs there, too, about how serious the chefs are. If the counter is made of one big natural hinoki wood, the restaurant should be pretty good. And if the wood is not finished, meaning if it does not have any varnish on the surface, they are even more serious.
In good sushi restaurant, they serve sushi directly on the counter (without any plate). Since people use soy sauce, and might have some miso soup at the end, etc., if you are not careful, the counter will get a lot of spots. Here again is where the discipline comes in at a sushi place. Chefs have to keep wiping the counter top like crazy to save it from becoming dirty. The counter is usually for people who are not novices at eating sushi, so it is especially critical for them to keep it well attended.
My Sushi Lesson will continue next weekend.
Have you been to Pink Godzilla in Santa Cruz ? They have surprising variety of rolled sushi, many of which are new to me. The restaurant is very innovative in the combination of different fish and vegetables.
In fact, rolled sushi is largely an invention of the US, especially the kind like avocado rolls, hot spicy tuna rolls, and many more complicated-named rolls, and has now been imported back to Japan as a hot trend. This is adding another page in the long history of sushi eating.
The history of sushi goes back as long as to B.C.400 in South East Asia, where people used uncooked rice to marinate raw fish for preservation purposes. Fish was sprinkled with salt and buried in rice. Rice’s fermentation helped fish last long, and provided a rare source of protein at that time. Only fish was served and rice was thrown away.
When this kind of preserved fish came north to Japan around 8th century, people started eating both the fish and the rice. The rice was soft and slightly sour due to the fermentation. This sourness was later replaced by just adding vinegar to cooked rice, when people in Edo era (17th century to mid 19th century) wanted to eat sushi quickly without waiting the fermentation time. But this was not yet the sushi as we know it. The vinegar rice was served not only with fish but also with some vegetables and cooked dried food. We still see developed versions of this kind in many parts of Japan.
The sushi of today -- a small ball of rice and a slice of raw fish on top with wasabi (the spicy green paste) in between -- is actually called ‘Edo sushi’ because it was strictly invented there in Edo (now Tokyo). The Edo era gave birth to many avant-garde cultures and free-wheeling ways of life. A man named Yohei Hanaya is said to have started this particular sushi style as fast food in 1822 or 1823.
Edo sushi consisted of five important elements: vinegar, sashimi (raw fish), wasabi, nori (sea weed) and soy sauce. Soy sauce became available in large quantities only in the Edo era, and people found how delicious it was to eat sashimi with soy sauce. Wasabi also began to be grown around the region in Edo era. And fish was abundant in Tokyo Bay. Yohei put all these elements together to make one-bite snack which was served at a stand. It became quickly popular and many more sushi stands were seen along many streets in Edo.
Edo sushi is said to then have spread all over Japan after Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 (Taisho Era), which left 143 thousand people dead or missing in the greater Tokyo region. Large number of sushi chefs fled devastated Tokyo to other parts of the country in order to survive. Later, sushi spread all over the world, thanks to curious gourmets everywhere.
Where You Should Sit
In the US, many sushi places are huge and theatrical. One is Ozumo in San Francisco, which serves pretty good sushi, but the dramatic atmosphere is typically American. In Japan, sushi places are more private and personal. This is exactly why you wonder where you should sit when you step into a sushi restaurant.
I told you already that the counter is not for people who are novices in sushi eating. This is because the counter is where you see the chief chef eye-to-eye across the counter, so you should be ready to make most out of that location. If you sit there and just order something overwhelmingly ordinary like tuna rolls, you will not impress the chef or other knowledgeable customers.
Even deciding where to sit at the counter is important. If I were either new to the place or not knowledgeable about fish, I would not sit at the center of the counter because it is too much the center stage. Part of the Japanese manner is that you always accept little less than what is offered. Similarly, you can also enjoy "upgrading" yourself slowly from sitting at a table first, to end of the counter, and then some day at last to the counter center as you become comfortable with the chef at the restaurant and learn much about fish and sushi.
As you might know already, you can order sushi pieces one by one at the counter, whereas you would usually get a set plate at the table. You can ask for sushi a la carte also at the table, but you should do so maybe three or four kinds at a time (not one by one), so you will not trouble the chef too much.
Once you do sit at the counter, if you are a wise sushi eater you will first look to see what is in the glass case. You see what fish are in season, and find the best-looking fresh fish. Then you ask the chef for those fish in a meaningful order and at reasonable timing as the dinner proceeds.
I will talk about the myth (or non-myth) of the right order of sushi eating in my next lesson. First, though, I will look at the non-fish elements served at sushi restaurants, such as gari and tamago.
Gari is the pink sliced pickled ginger that comes with sushi. It is made of ginger with sweet vinegar. and has been served with fresh fish as long as Edo sushi has existed, maybe even longer. It is called gari because of the sound it makes in your mouth, "gari gari," a way of describing the sound of your teeth biting into a fiber-full substance.
Gari is served with sushi for two reasons. The older one is because ginger has sterilization effect, in case the fish is not completely fresh. In Edo era, it was very important that sushi stand had this kind of remedy for the customer, not so much for curing but preventing any future upsetting stomach.
The new reason is because gari has neutralizing effect on taste when your tongue becomes numb in eating series of fish. This helps you taste a new piece in a sensitive way.
The same reasoning applies to tamago (omelet) served at any sushi restaurant. The omelet, cut into small pieces, is made of eggs, fish broth, some mirin (sweet sake) and salt, and it is slightly sweet. After eating several pieces of sushi with soy sauce, you might want to pick up a piece of omelet and "reset" your tongue. You can order the omelet by itself or on a rice ball.
I hear many chefs now buy omelet at market. But the great chefs still create home-made omelet with their own broth. Many connoisseurs of sushi even say that it is the omelet, and not sushi itself, that determines the grade of a sushi restaurant. So, I suggest you never underestimate that tiny omelet.
The Order of Sushi Eating
Many people miss Toshi Sushi, a popular and vibrant sushi restaurant that used to be on El Camino Real in Menlo Park. But I wonder if everybody knows that Toshi has since opened a fabulous Japanese restaurant, also in Menlo Park on Sharon Park Drive, called Kaygetsu. He has sharpened his intricate style and created an upgraded restaurant which serves a full course kaiseki (a meal served in tea ceremony) as well as la carte dishes and sushi. Looking at him make sushi in a smooth rhythmical way, I almost feel that I am back in Tokyo. Although he has also upgraded the price of sushi, it is worth having such a meal in a nice and calm setting once in a while.
There are many controversies about whether sushi is a formal meal or a casual one. I already described the history of sushi in my Sushi Lesson Part 2, which explains that sushi started as fast food. This proves that it has been a casual food.
However, low or popular culture can creep up to become high culture. Think of kabuki, a traditional Japanese all-male theater which also started in Edo era (17–mid 19 century). The name kabuki comes from a word "kabuku" which describes a state not standing straight up but leaning. People called it so, because kabuki actors were regarded as transients and outside of a normal way of life. It was no high culture. When people went to see a kabuki play, they would eat their box meal during the play, talk with a friend about which actor has what mistress, etc., and yell at the stage if they liked or did not like the acting or the story. So, it was a very noisy atmosphere.
But now, going to see a kabuki play is a formal thing to do in Japanese cultural life. If you are sitting closer to the stage, you would wear something nice, and all the people have to be quiet and appreciate what is going on on the stage.
The same "trading up" applies to sushi, which, after almost two hundred years of time passing, has gained much respect. In this time, some rules have emerged. One is the right order of eating sushi.
Regardless of whether you want to follow it or not, there are some good reasons for this order. The idea is that you should proceed from plainer to richer tastes.
You might want to start with some white fish like bream, red snapper or flatfish, then try what is called “fish with shiny skin” like mackerel, sardine, halfbeak, and dark colored meat fish like bonito, tuna and salmon. You then proceed to squid, octopus and shellfish. Closer to the end, you might want to add sea urchin, salmon roe or some cooked fish like eel or conger that come with thick sauce. To finish, some people order rolled sushi wrapped in fragrant nori (the black sea weed) or even tamago (omelet) as almost like a dessert.
This order allows your tongue to taste every piece delicately. If you eat very rich fatty-tuna in the beginning, your tongue might become too numb to enjoy the sensitive taste of red snapper after that. I hear some sushi chefs are quite keen about in what order his customer eat sushi, while others say you should eat sushi as you like in the order you feel like.
As for myself, I cannot pass up having tuna in my first order as an earnest tuna lover, but I might try a more strict order soon, to see if I taste things differently. I once sat next to a man in Tokyo who kept ordering fish I have never heard of, and I wish I knew as many fish kinds as he did. He looked like an exact sushi connoisseur and must have had a much-extended arena for sushi eating.
About Soy Sauce
Although California is abundant in fresh fish, you might want to try Sakae Sushi to experience fresh fish airlifted from Tsukiji, the large fish market in Tokyo. In this season, you can enjoy seared bonito or Japanese shad. The atmosphere is that of a typical Japanese neighborhood sushi place with some interesting table wares, including soy sauce pot shaped like a little persimmon.
Soy sauce is actually a very difficult thing to deal with when it comes to sashimi or sushi. Although I generally think people should eat sushi as they like, soy sauce is something I feel like preaching about when I visit American sushi restaurants.
First, you do not need to put so much soy sauce in that little soy dish that comes with sashimi or sushi. Some people almost top it off, but I would even be careful so that the edge of the soy sauce will not touch the inner rim of the dish. There are two reasons for this.
One is that soy contains high percentage of salt (usually 16 to 19%), and it is not good for your health. So, you should use it little by little. Secondly, it is not esthetically good looking if anything makes a dish too full. When it comes to what is beautiful in Japanese meal, especially something "liquidy", it is always considered better to have the cup or dish filled much less than full. (Many foreign visitors in Japan complain that their expensive cup of coffee is only filled to half level.)
Then comes the more advanced part of dealing soy sauce: How sushi touches the soy sauce before it goes into your mouth. This may be surprising, but you should dip the fish side, not the rice, into the soy sauce. Many people in Japan do not know this, either, but this is critical in good sushi eating. How you do it, however, is a little tricky.
When you pick up a sushi piece using your thumb, first and second fingers, you just turn it over so that the sushi piece is almost upside down. If you are using chopsticks, you might first want to knock down the sushi piece sideways, so that you only need to twist your wrist 90 degrees to dip the sushi upside down into soy sauce..
When you touch the soy sauce with sushi, it has to be quick, almost like a fish jumping up from between the waves. You do not soak sushi in soy sauce. Sushi is after all about freshness and liveliness. So, remember, if your sushi piece resembles yourself in a bathtub on weekends, resting comfortably in liquid very long, you have done it incorrectly.
Many sushi connoisseurs say that it is the fish side, again, that first touches your tongue when eating. This way, you can enjoy the taste and the texture of the fish well with some flavors of soy.
I had never eaten sushi with garlic or nuts until a recent meal at Mobo Sushi in Santa Cruz. You can eat enormous variety of rolled sushi there, combining fish with ingredients like basil, cilantro, garlic, macadamia nuts and broccoli. In this innovative context, I thought having rolled sushi with wasabi -- something I would not usually do -- might not be such a bad idea.
Wasabi (here or here) is a small root vegetable, or rhizome, green in color, hot is taste, and grown very carefully with clear running water. It usually comes inside sushi or accompanying sashimi (sliced raw fish without the rice). Because of the labor involved and lack of pure natural clear water in most places, the vegetable has become so expensive in Japan that people now use prepared paste version in tube, which you can also buy in many Japanese or Asian markets in the US.
It is helpful to know a little about wasabi when eating sushi or sashimi. Many sushi restaurants in the US try their best to cater to their American customers and usually put a small (or very big, sometimes) mountain of green wasabi next to sushi (expecting that you will mix it with your soy sauce). That does not happen in traditional Japanese sushi restaurants.
With Edo sushi, the sushi with a slice of fresh fish on top of rice, wasabi is already put inside between fish and rice, and sushi eaters more or less "passively" enjoy it as it is. Many perfectionist sushi chefs calculate the complicated balance in a sushi piece -- the volume and temperature of rice, thickness of fish slice and amount of wasabi, and we are supposed to contemplate on it on our tongue. With rolled sushi, we usually eat without wasabi.
This means, when eating sushi, that Japanese people never mix wasabi in soy sauce! But I see Americans do this frequently.
Now with sashimi, it is not so clear-cut. Although many Japanese do mix wasabi in soy sauce for sashimi, it is believed the best way is to put a tiny amount of wasabi on top of the fish and dip the other side of fish in soy sauce before eating. So, again, we are not mixing wasabi in soy!
In this sashimi issue, it is important that you do not paste wasabi on fish like you do with butter on toast. It should be a little dot. You might think then that creates such unevenness in taste. But this unevenness is exactly the point when eating good Japanese meal, especially fresh things. Each element should stand out in its taste, and you can enjoy many variations of taste in your mouth as things get mixed there. Suppose there is a Japanese version of spaghetti with meat sauce. Keen and sophisticated Japanese diners will probably not mix the noodle and sauce completely, but only partially, because they can enjoy different tastes, and the dish remains more clean looking.
Just as there are new inventions in history of sushi, wasabi, too, is marching into many new directions. Soy sauce mixed with wasabi on beef steak is very good, for example.
By the way, those who are not good at wasabi taste -- you may find it too strong or hot -- can say "wasabi-nuki de (without wasabi), please" when ordering sushi. It is much better to say that to the chef than scraping it off from inbetween fish and rice after your sushi is served. Peeling off the fish slice on top of sushi is regarded as bad manners. You would not rip someone’s wig off his head, after all. If you order sushi without wasabi, even the most perfectionist chef will understand that you cannot take hot spices (or you are just a kid).
Rice and sushi
Homma's Brown Rice Sushi in Palo Alto serves sushi with genmai (brown rice). When I first heard of the combination, I was skeptical about how the harsh texture of brown rice would go with raw fish that has delicate taste. But after my recent experience there, I was impressed how Mr. Homma prepared brown rice to the right stickyness and softness. (The setting of the place is very simple and functional.)
People in Japan talk about rice the way that Californians talk about wine. There are many kinds, from various regions. The year of production also matters (although, in case of rice, it is either new or old). Some of them are more expensive than others, and you can educate yourself to become very picky if you want.
In sushi restaurants, rice is called "shari," which literally means the bone of Buddha. I hear it is called so because the grain of rice resembles the white sacred bone. I also understand that the appellation comes more from appreciation than religion, to respect a crop that is the result of many months of hard works. In Japan, rice is often regarded as a symbol of the blessing of nature and people's labor. At tables in Japanese homes, children are told not to leave even one grain of rice in their rice bowls.
Rice balls for sushi were much larger when Yohei Hanaya invented sushi in the early 19th century. (See the History of Sushi in my series.) Some say it was as big as a tennis ball. The fish piece was larger accordingly. But even in the last several years, I have seen the size of a sushi piece grow smaller, and fish pieces accordingly.
Especially, in elegant sushi restaurants, we are to believe it is not the size but the taste that matters. But we can feel still hungry after eating many pieces of expensive sushi if they are too small. Each sushi chef has his best balance of rice (amount and temperature) and the thickness of fish piece, and you just have to try many places until you find the best match in relation to your taste and wallet.
Sushi chefs mix old and new rice when cooking sushi rice. New rice (from a recent crop) usually holds more water than old one, but the rice gets too waterly and soft for sushi if you use only new rice. Interestingly, sushi chefs call old rice 'big brother' and new rice 'little brother." (They also call old fish -- old by no more than one day or so, I hope -- 'big brother' and new catch 'little brother." They have many interesting ways of calling things there, which are hard to be understood by novices. )
Sushi rice is usually the Japanese (or Californian) short grain (sticky type) rice, cooked first and then mixed with sushi vinegar (mixture of rice vinegar, salt and sugar), and left to cool off. You might have noticed that rice in sushi is kind of lukewarm; it is supposed to be that way. If it is refrigerator-cold (and very cheap), you might suspect that the sushi comes from a new industry that is making and selling frozen sushi -- an industrial way of preparing it, but not the real sushi. I will talk more about this in a future lesson.
What Not to Eat with Sushi
A friend of mine may be angry if he finds out that I am disclosing the name of his favorite sushi place in Fremont, Yuki Japanese Restaurant (1932 Driscoll Rd. tel. 510-656-4255). As a diver and abalone fisherman, he knows what the fresh fish is and how it should be priced. Yuki is located kind of out of nowhere, if you are resident in Peninsula or in San Francisco, but it definitely serves good sushi at a reasonable price and is worth visiting. I knew the place served good fish from the smell of good broth upon entering the restaurant.
Generally speaking, a good sushi place serves nothing but sushi. Sushi does not like to be mixed with other stuff, especially things that are oily. Among the few cooked foods served in sushi restaurants are o-hitashi (spinach or other greens boiled and seasoned with soy sauce and fish broth), chawan-mushi (a sort of soft broth pudding steamed with mushrooms, ginko nuts, etc.) and miso-soup (which is served at the end, not as starter). None of them contains heavy fry-cooking fat; thus a sushi restaurant smells very simple, with no trace of oil.
Many Japanese restaurants overseas, however, cater to Japanese and local customers who want to eat as many variations of Japanese dish as possible. They serve sushi, tempura (batter-fried prawns, fish and vegetables), unagi-donburi (grilled eel over rice), oyako-donburi (chicken over rice with egg). fried meat, and huge range of noodles at the same time, making the smell of the restaurant a little confused.
In old times, mixing food was sometimes regarded as unhealthy. People in old times had much knowledge about this kinds of things, based on experience. For example, sashimi (fresh fish) was not supposed to be eaten with tempura, tempura was not supposed to be eaten with water melon, and eel was not supposed to be eaten with pickled plums. The combination of water, oil, cold and hot was said to upset the stomach. Some combinations just do not create a good taste, either. Sushi is something on which you contemplate the freshness of the food and the extreme discipline of the chef.Donburi dish are a fast food meal that you just scoop into your mouth when you are busy or when you do not feel like contemplating on anything at all. For some people, having both things at one restaurant does not make good sense.
But of course, things are changing and should change. If you have eaten rolled sushi with tempura in it (like soft-shell crab), you know that you are enjoying the courage of the inventor who mixed the "unmixables" (although it is not correct to put fresh fish and tempura together). I would be open to any inventiveness, maybe except water melon sushi!
Blog postings were found via the Wayback Machine at archive.org :
eHow : How to Eat Sushi Properly
wikiHow : How to Practice Sushi Etiquette
YouTube : Eating sushi search results
Mahalo : How to Make Sushi