|From kani (crab sushi) to kappa maki (cucumber rolls), sushi remains one of the most popular meals around. Available just about everywhere – from fine restaurants to your local supermarket, America’s taste for sushi continues to grow and flourish. In 2001 we wrote a newsletter about sushi, which included sushi’s history, ingredients and recipes. This month we follow up with more information to help complete your sushi education – with dos/don’ts of sushi etiquette, choosing proper beverages and side dishes, and more recipes.
According to a September 2005 Food and Wine magazine article, the number of US sushi bars in recent years has more than quintupled, making sushi available to happy diners in just about every city. Here are some hints on how to make the most of your next sushi dining experience.
Sushi Bar Seating
Enter the doors of almost any sushi bar or Japanese restaurant, and you will immediately be met with a lively greeting of “irraishai masu,” which means “welcome” in Japanese. At most sushi restaurants, you’ll have a choice of sitting at the sushi bar or at a table, and in most cases you can order the same items at either seat. Ordering at the sushi bar directly from the sushi chef can be a personal, fun and social experience. Sushi chefs are often part skilled cook and part entertainer, and seats directly in front of them are usually the most prized seats of the house. Many sushi bar patrons order in the style of omakase, which means “chef’s choice” and leave it up to the chef to create their meal.
Whether you choose the sushi bar or a table, your place setting will most likely look the same. First you may be given an oshibori, a tiny towel or washcloth to clean you hands. They are given hot or cold, depending on the weather and the establishment. Besides cleaning your hands, it is also acceptable to use the oshibori to wipe your face.
You will also be given a pair of waribashi, or disposable wooden chopsticks. You can remove the chopsticks and use the sleeve as a chopstick rest, if one isn’t provided. When breaking the chopsticks apart to use, please note that it is considered insulting to rub the chopsticks together to remove splinters. It’s as if you are saying the restaurant is of low quality and cannot provide decent chopsticks. If you must, rub them discreetly, out of others’ view. Also, please remember that chopsticks should never placed upright in food, especially not upright in a bowl of rice. This is done only at funerals, as a ritual to offer the deceased a meal for the journey to the next life. For more on chopsticks, including instructions on how to properly use them, please see our March 2001 newsletter.
What to Drink With Sushi
Next, you’ll be asked what you’d like to drink with you meal. Having green tea with sushi is the closest to Japanese tradition. Green tea serves to balance out any oiliness of fish as well as prepares your palate for the next bite of sushi. Most restaurants serve tea that is clean or with a slightly bitter flavor, as sweetened teas will diminish the flavor of sushi. Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen’s Grocery Section offers a nice variety of green and other Asian teas to enjoy both with your sushi and at home.
Another popular beverage with sushi is sake (fermented rice wine), which can be served hot or cold, though some sushi connoisseurs feel that sake, which derives from rice, doesn’t compliment the sushi, which is also made in part with rice, when consumed together. Your best bet is to choose a subtle sake that will not overpower the taste of sushi. To learn more about sake, check out our August 2001 newsletter, located in our Newsletter Archives. Others may enjoy Japanese beer, which are typically light and crisp, with their sushi. Light, refreshing white wines and dry champagnes are also good choices to accompany your sushi meals.
Whether sitting at a bustling sushi bar, or taking sushi to go from your local grocery store, the three accompaniments you are sure to find with your sushi are shoyu (soy sauce), gari (pickled ginger) and wasabi. All three of these accompaniments are said to have anti-bacterial properties, which are helpful when dealing with raw fish.
Though first introduced by the Chinese centuries ago, shoyu, or Japanese soy sauce is made from wheat and soybeans and fermented with koji – the same mold used in fermenting sake. Japanese soy sauce is slightly sweeter than Chinese soy sauce, which is made primarily from soybeans with little other grains.
Pickled with rice vinegar, sugar and salt, gari is the perfect sushi accompaniment. Sweet, tart and refreshing at the same time, nibbling on > gari cleanses your palate, getting you ready for your next piece of sushi. Sometimes sold in jars as amazu shoga, it is served in paper-thin slices and usually dyed a pale pink color. It should be consumed on its own – never place gari atop sushi before putting it into your mouth.
Often compared with horseradish, wasabi derives from a plant that’s closely related to the mustard family. While horseradish grows in soil, wasabi is a water plant, and is said to aid in digestion. Spicy and often bracing, some sushi chefs will offer freshly grated wasabi, usually to their special customers, though more commonly served is wasabi that has been mixed from a powder or paste. Use wasabi sparingly – too much will overpower and mask the delicate flavor or sushi (not to mention clear your sinuses!)
Before the sushi arrives, popular starters include miso soup, edamame (soybeans) and sunomono, a vinegar salad often made with cucumber and wakame (seaweed.) All are delicious, healthy, and with a few key ingredients, easy to make in your own home. Here are a few recipes adapted from about.com’s Japanese food section:
Rapidly becoming a popular snack, packages of frozen edamame are easily found in freezers at Asian stores and some supermarkets. They’re a fun snack to eat – you simply pop the beans from the pod using your fingers or your teeth and discard the pod. The texture of the beans and flavor of the salt go together nicely, making a treat that’s truly addicting.
· 1 pound frozen edamame
· 7 cups water
· 1 tbsp salt
How to Cook:
1. Boil water in a large pan.
2. Add edamame in boiling water and boil for 2-3 minutes.
3. Drain the edamame and sprinkle salt over them. You can serve edamame warm or cold.
Miso Soup with Tofu
The main ingredient in Japan’s most popular soup is miso – which is a mixture of soybeans, malted rice and salt. Miso varies from light to dark and sweet to salty. Any type of miso (except sweet) can be used for this soup.
· 4 cups dashi (Japanese fish stock)
· 1/2 tofu
· 3 tbsp miso paste
· 1/4 cup chopped green onion
Put dashi soup stock in a pan and bring to a boil. Cut tofu into small cubes and add them to the soup. Scoop out some soup stock from the pan and dissolve miso paste in it. Return the soup in the pan. Stop the heat and add chopped green onion. Remember not to boil the soup after you put miso in.
“Su,” which indicates vinegar in Japanese, is the main ingredient of this salad. Light, crunchy and refreshing – it contains the right combination of tastes and textures to please your palate. Popular ingredients for sunomono include cucumber, wakame, shrimp, crab and daikon (radish).
· 1 cucumber
· 1/4 lb. wakame (seaweed)
· 4 tbsp rice wine vinegar
· 1 tbsp sugar
· 3 tbsp soy sauce
· 1/2 tsp salt
Soak wakame in water until softened. Cut cucumber into thin rounds. Put salt over cucumber slices and set aside for 30 min. Squeeze cucumber slices to remove the liquid. Mix vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce in a cup.
Cut wakame into bite-sized pieces. Put wakame and cucumber in a bowl and pour the dressing over and mix well.
Types of Sushi
There are many types of sushi – nigiri (“finger” sushi), maki-sushi (sushi rolls), and temaki sushi (hand rolls), just to name a few. For an explanation of all the different types, please see our newsletter from June 2001. Here is a list of some of the more popular types of nigiri that we’d recommend ordering in a sushi bar:
Amaebi: Naturally sweet shrimp (raw)
Ebi : Shrimp (cooked)
Hirame: Halibut, fluke or flounder
Ikura: Salmon roe
Masago: Smelt roe
Tai: Red Snapper
Tamago: Egg omelette
Toro: Fatty tuna
Unagi: Barbecued freshwater eel
Uni: Sea urchin
Sushi eating etiquette
Did you know that it’s perfectly acceptable to use both chopsticks or your fingers to eat sushi? Not acceptable, however, is biting half of your sushi and putting the remainder back on the plate (sushi is meant to be enjoyed in one bite.) When using soy sauce, be sure to dip the fish only into a small amount of sauce – the soy sauce shouldn’t touch the rice. Not only will the rice fall apart if it absorbs too much sauce, but you can insult the sushi chef into thinking he has failed to properly season the rice.
Similarly, when using wasabi, etiquette dictates that you place a bit of it directly on the sushi, if at all. Mixing wasabi and soy sauce into a paste is acceptable for sashimi (raw fish) but is not proper for sushi.
Socializing at the sushi bar while eating is definitely encouraged, but lingering after the meal for drinks or conversation isn’t appropriate if others are waiting for a seat. Tell the sushi chef when you’ve had enough and he will give the bill to the waitstaff. Lastly, be sure to say “domo” which means “thank you” to the sushi chef if you’ve enjoyed your meal!