A candid conversation all about sushi
Sushi is like a good coffee table book.Whether you like sushi or not, it’s a topic that gets attention and everyone likes to talk about it. Some people wonder about it, some people love to eat it, and some people like to tell me how much they hate it. But they all like to talk about it. It’s been said that people like to talk about what they know best, and what they know best is themselves. I think sushi is an addendum to that rule. I would like to remark upon and share with you some of the interesting sushi conversations and questions that come up during my sushi classes and sushi parties here in Tampa. Think of this article as a casual conversation between you and I, across a coffee table, about a book titled “sushi”.
What’s your secret ingredient? Aside from doing my best to find the freshest fish, I’m not sure if I want to divulge this secret, but in the spirit of this article I guess I should. Most sushi restaurants when making a “crunchy roll” use little bits of tempura left over from frying tempura shrimp and vegetables. They skim the oil and keep these little bits in a container to put in the rolls. These oily crunchy bits of starch release tasty fat onto your palate as you crunch down on them providing you with that unique quality of oily crispiness. Since I don’t often make tempura, I don’t have a repository of crunchy tempura bits. So I use something better, fattier and crunchier – pork rinds! Yes, I crumble them in the food processor and add them to my crunchy maki rolls. They add a supreme fatty quality and a crunch that can’t be beat. I have recently discovered they ride quite nicely along the top side of a hot dog.
Did you know? Most people have never had real wasabi. That green glop of spicy, nasal-searing paste you get at most sushi restaurants is actually made of horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring. Real wasabi is actually rare and expensive and most sushi restaurants just use the fake stuff. Wasabi’s bite does not come from a corrosive chemical that burns your taste buds like most capsicum based hot spices, instead it vaporizes and irritates your nasal cavity and mucus membranes giving you that feeling I can only describe as nasal-clearing-feel-it-in-your-eye-balls-head-rush. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but a hit of wasabi will cure a congested head. Next time you’re feeling congested, forget chicken soup, have some miso soup with a tonne of wasabi.
Sushi evolved from a really crude way of preserving fish. Back in China over 1000 years ago, fish was wrapped in fermented rice to preserve it. Anyone who has ever left rice in a rice cooker for a few days has seen the rice develop its own funky vinegar from the bacterial breakdown of the starch. The rice was discarded and the fish was eaten. I hope they washed it first!
The first time I ate sushi was during a wintry night in Toronto twelve years ago. A friend and I decided we would go into a nearly empty sushi restaurant late at night and see what all the buzz was about. Prior to this I had never eaten raw fish, but have always had the philosophy that if someone calls it food, it can’t be that bad. I pointed to a half dozen foreign items on the menu and waited by the neon lights as the sushi chef, in clear line of sight, began to prepare our order behind the sushi bar on the far side of the restaurant. I wrapped my hand around a cup of hot tea and watched the snow fall through the glass pane. The cloudy miso soup and green salad with pear ginger dressing was an easy first course. Then came the moment – a plate of raw salmon sashimi slices sat confidently in the middle of the table, leaned gingerly on a pillow of shredded radish, looking back at us from the wooden tablet as if we were impolite by hesitating. We took a sigh, I picked up a piece, dunked it in soy sauce and put it in my mouth. I remember that first foreign taste of raw, oily flesh, then the slow, uncertain chew. I’ll be honest. It did not go down easy. And the other three pieces were each harder than the previous one. I did not like it, but I was convinced that there must be some merit to this new, exotic way of eating. So I held it down and explored the rest of the dishes; the spicy tuna maki rolls were buffered nicely with a familiar plate of seared terriyaki beef. It was the first time I had experienced a food so foreign, and although others may have been turned off by the experience, I was drawn to it again, and again. I can say that I acquired a taste for sushi on the fourth attempt. And soon after that it became a passion. So I always tell people that they should give something a chance, and in the case of sushi, more than a few chances may be necessary for it to warm its way into your palate.
What’s your signature roll? At the moment my signature roll, which I would dub the “Chef Cristian Gator Roll”, consists of terriyaki braised alligator tail, crunchy pork rind bits, avocado and hot chili mayo topped with capelin roe and chives. It’s not only delicious, but it offers my guests something they might never have tried before, and when you’re working with sushi you have to go a step above if you’re trying to make it even more exotic.
What’s the hardest part about making sushi? Sushi is a very creative and artistic type of food. I love how you can play with it and come up with all sorts of combinations. But there is actually a very technical aspect of it, and it’s not the rolling. The hardest part about sushi is making sure that you follow the proper procedures for making the rice. This includes sourcing the right rice (it has to be sushi rice), washing the rice five to six times to get the excess starch from it, knowing the exact ratio of rice to water (1:1.1), and knowing how to cool it and flavor it in the end. Once you’ve mastered the technicality of making the rice, you are free to play and create. Earlier this year I discovered during a sushi class that I had been teaching students the hard way to make maki rolls. I discovered during that class a “half-assed” technique to making the rolls which yielded beautiful maki sushi. Ever since then I have been using this “half-assed” technique with great success. I only call it “half-assed” because it was easy, effortless and required a very small learning curve as compared to the traditional way or rolling.
Some people tend to think that they are bad sushi makers because they don’t get it on the first try. I always tell them the story about my best class of students – I did a sushi party a while back for a Jewish synagogue (a Jewish church group), and the people that picked up sushi rolling the fastest with optimum results were actually all the little kids! They ranged between 6 and 10 years old and they were sushi rolling rock stars! They were making restaurant quality rolls within the first twenty minutes of the class. I realize that this story doesn’t make the adults feel any better, but I like to tell it anyways. Kids are amazing little people.
Is there a polite way to eat sushi? In Japan, most definitely. In America, seeing as it’s socially acceptable to walk around the street with a roasted turkey leg and BBQ sauce running down your arm, it’s not expected of you. But I will still give you a crash course on the essentials of sushi manners in case you want to be a little more civilized. Here’s what you do: Say hello and bow when you get there. If you want to sit at the sushi bar you’re allowed to talk to the sushi chef and ask questions, but be polite. You can order sushi from the sushi chef, drinks and other non-sushi items are ordered from your server, not the chef. If you are seated at a table, do not talk to the sushi chef, talk to the server only. Never ask if the fish is fresh, that’s an insult. Assume it is and hope for the best. It’s not polite to make the “gross face” or put something back on your plate if you think it’s gross. So power it down if you have to. Don’t rub your chop sticks together like you’re trying to start a fire, that’s impolite. Don’t mix your soy sauce and wasabi together. What? I know, I do that all the time. If you pick up food from another person’s plate use the other side of your chopsticks (the side that doesn’t go in your mouth). You’re allowed to pick up your soup bowl and slurp your soup and noodles prisoner-of-war style. Yeah, that’s acceptable, go figure. Never serve yourself alcohol, you have to serve it for others at your table, and they have to serve you. If at a business meeting, you serve your senior and he serves his senior and so on. When you toast and raise your glasses, don’t say “Chin-Chin” as in Japanese this means “penis” and it’ll be awkward… This should get you through a night of fine dining Japanese style.
All this talk about sushi is making me hungry. Thanks for reading and I look forward to rolling with you. My classes are available to groups, couples and individuals. For more information please visit www.tampabaychef.com.