The Real Raw Deal
Think sushi is something in a plastic container that you snare at the supermarket, or maybe grab and gobble as a no-fuss lunch? If so, you might want to check out the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, as I recently did for “research” purposes. It details the life of Jiro Ono, a Tokyo-based sushi master whose 10-seat restaurant specializes in elaborate (and expensive) “sushi symphonies” that typically span 20 servings. And no, you won’t be given paper-wrapped chopsticks that you have to break apart and the soy sauce doesn’t come in foil packets.
Be it a gustatory ritual or quick takeout, sushi is incredibly popular far from the shores of Japan, which is pretty interesting when you consider we are talking variations on raw fish as the main ingredient. (“I don’t eat bait” is the typical utterance of the sushi hater.) Admittedly, for some, there might be a squirm factor holding them back. Yet for the converted, sushi offers a complex range of flavours, textures and styles. And there’s another bonus that has no doubt contributed to its popularity.
“It’s healthy!” enthuses G.Q. Pan, executive chef of Blowfish, an upscale Japanese restaurant/lounge with two locations in Toronto. Indeed it is. About the only real carbo kick in a typical sushi meal comes from the vinegared white rice (shari) as the accompaniment (neta) is usually raw fish, which packs in a lot of protein and beneficial omega-3 fats but very little in terms of overall calories. In fact, Pan tells of one customer who dropped a significant amount of weight having upped the overall sushi quotient of his diet. If you opt for sashimi — essentially just the fish part of the rice-and-fish combo — the carb count drops to zero in most cases.
Pan reminds me a bit of Ono. Though younger and Chinese by descent, he bears the similar lean frame of someone who has resisted (in fact, probably never been tempted by) the lure of a deep-fried, carbo-centric North American diet. And like Ono, his ascent to sushi master was an arduous climb.
“In China I was a truck driver,” Pan reveals, adding that his introduction to the restaurant biz was as a dishwasher when he arrived in Canada in 1981. Finally settling in Toronto in 1985, Pan stayed in the food-service industry but found himself being drawn more and more into Japanese restaurants, impressed by both the skill level of the chefs and their strong work ethic. It was here that he had his aha moment.
“The first time I tried Japanese food I thought, ‘Wow,’” he recalls. “Never in my life had I tasted something like it. From that first piece of raw fish I knew that making that type of food was the direction I had to follow.” And follow it he did, eventually right through the doors of Blowfish where he oversees the preparation and sources the freshest ingredients he can find. The restaurant typically places its fish orders three times per week. Pan says that even with careful attention to storage temperature and daily wrapping to preserve freshness, no piece of fish will be kept longer than three days. The keys to the best — and safest — sushi are extreme freshness of top-quality ingredients, operating-room cleanliness in the kitchen and the experience of the chef.
Most top sushi-masters have close working relationships with preferred vendors. And the vendors themselves naturally possess expert knowledge of what they are selling. In fact, the relationship between Ono and his vendors is so close that they wouldn’t think of selling to anyone but him. His rice purveyor won’t even sell to Tokyo’s top hotels unless Ono tells him to. And like Ono, they are specialists. The tuna guy does tuna and nothing else. Ditto for the octopus guy, the shrimp guy, the rice guy and the rest of his suppliers. Pan’s fish vendors present him with fresh, whole fish, which he personally inspects using his sense of sight, feel and smell. “The eyes should be bright, the scales intact,” he instructs. “The flesh should have the right texture when you press it and it should smell only of the ocean air. Never fishy.” In other words, “sushi grade.”
Sushi grade is a common term in fish markets, though there is no actual grading standard as you might see for, say, beef. For Pan, sushi grade means fish taken from deep, cold salt water that is completely free of bacteria and parasites. The latter two nasties are what typically make people skittish about sushi. I won’t go into lurid detail about what these parasites do once they’re in your system, but if you’ve seen the movie Alien … which is why, Pan emphasizes, the chef must have the experience and skill to select the best raw ingredients and handle them properly.
A cut above
Sushi masters know tuna cannot be cut like halibut, which, in turn, can’t be sectioned like mackerel. Tuna, for example, can yield lean, medium or fatty pieces depending on where you cut. “With tuna, the sections closest to the bone are the most tender. Belly cuts are fattier. We use mostly back and stomach sections; the tail area isn’t as good.”
Once the proper piece has been selected, the sushi master’s years of prep training are brought to bear. It’s the textural element of sushi and sashimi that makes the stuff so sensual. Since each fish sports different combinations of lean and fat, specific slicing techniques are employed by the sushi chef to make each morsel a buttery, silky, palate-seducing affair.
“Cuts for sashimi must be done carefully and specifically for each fish type being used,” Pan explains, noting that an incorrect cut can yield slices that are tough rather than melt-in-your-mouth tender. And gnawing away on a chunk of sinewy seafood like a shark on a bather is not going to enhance the sensual experience (or your image of sushi) all that much.
The precision of the cut is something you really have to watch to appreciate, as is the actual fashioning of a classic piece of sushi. Though the traditional and quite common nigiri sushi (or nigirizushi) looks like nothing more than a lump of prepared rice draped with a thin slice of fish, the actual forming is done using the palm and fingers in an orchestrated digital ballet. Ono and his apprentices make the motions look deceptively easy in Jiro Dreams (but with 10 years of training).
Hopefully by this point you are starting to get some sense of the complexity of sushi preparation and a few reasons why you’d leave doing so to a trusted master. However, people want to — and do — prepare sushi at home.
A risky recipe?
“I don’t think it’s a very good idea,” Pan answers when asked about the practice, “at least not using raw fish.” He advises sticking to preparations based on rice, vegetables, avocado, cooked shrimp, crab or scallop and to leave the raw fish stuff to the pros. The ingredients for homemade sushi (nori — the seaweed wrappers used for various types of makizushi or, simply, maki — and other components) can now be commonly found in most supermarkets.
Perhaps the only thing trickier than making sushi is eating it correctly. Sushi, for the most part, is a delicate dish with subtle flavours. Dousing a piece of nigiri in a bath of soy sauce and wasabi (the green horseradish authentically made from the root of the Wasabia japonica plant and not-so-authentically from a combo of horseradish, mustard powder and green dye) will only result in the rice disintegrating and the flavour of the fish obliterated by sinus-clearing wasabi heat and soy saltiness. Even trying to use chopsticks on nigiri isn’t recommended. Pick a piece up with your fingers, invert it and dip it lightly and quickly in the soy sauce. It’s the fish that you’re trying to season with the soy, not the rice. Add a small dab of wasabi if you prefer, but keep in mind that the piece served has usually been prepared by the chef with the proper amount of wasabi already added. Sashimi, on the other hand, should always be eaten with chopsticks. And the pickled ginger served alongside is meant to act as a palate cleanser between servings, not an add-on.
Finally, while sake might be the traditional choice to accompany sushi, aromatic white wines from Alsace and Germany, assertive Sauvignon Blancs and sparkling wines all make excellent partners.
Whether you attempt to make sushi at home yourself or leave it in the hands of the masters is ultimately your choice, but keep in mind these sage words from Ono: “In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food.” So get eatin’!