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The Ten Minute Sushi Expert

Aug 17, 2007
OK, American restaurant entrepreneur: Do you want to jump on the sushi bandwagon, but you find the whole subject a little intimidating? Here's a rough-and-ready guide to everything you need to know about sushi, so that Westerner and Easterner alike will find your sushi service an authentic experience.

First, a glossary of sushi terms:

Nigiri-zushi - This is the most well-known kind of sushi. It is comprised of a thinly-sliced piece of raw fish that sits either on top of or tucked into a small, shaped ball of rice. The rice has been steamed and then treated with vinegar, both to enhance flavor and help it stick together.

Sashimi - Sashimi is also a thinly sliced raw fish. The difference is, it is usually served slightly thicker than nigiri-zushi, and without rice.

Maki - Also called maki-zushi, this is rolled sushi. The popular "California roll" is one of these types. This usually consists of fish and vegetables tucked inside rice, and wrapped in some toasted seaweed.

Nori - A rich, green, tasty seaweed. Nori are the sheets of dried seaweed used to wrap maki (see above), or to make tiny belts to keep some ingredients on top of nigiri-zushi.

Temaki-zushi - A sushi cone. Originally it was created by sushi chefs wanting a quick snack during busy meals. This is simply nori wrapped around vinegar-soaked rice and fish ingredients, shaped like an ice-cream cone.

Shouyu - Just plain soy sauce. Used in many types of cooking, Japanese soy sauce is lighter than the thicker Chinese soy sauce. One common mistake is to smother sushi in soy sauce. Sushi is meant to be a light, delicate food, with the role of soy sauce being to gently highlight the subtle flavors of the fresh fish. Think of sushi in general as the seafood opposite of sardines and anchovies. Don't drown your sushi in soy sauce, and while we're at it, don't drown any of your rice dishes in soy sauce either.

Wasabi - Wasabi is the source of much confusion in the United States. Virtually all of the wasabi available in the States and some of it in the cheaper Japanese establishments is an imitation made from horseradish, mustard seed, and green food coloring. True wasabi (which is more expensive) - distinguished as 'hon-wasabi' - is made from the wasabia japonica plant, a member of the cabbage family. The hot taste is more of a mustard-hot than a pepper-hot. A small drop is sufficient to flavor sushi, as it is very potent.

Gari - This is a thinly sliced ginger which appears as wasabi's partner on some plates of sushi. It is not used to flavor the food directly, but rather it is served as garnish on the plate for use as a palate cleanser, eaten between different varieties of sushi. Sashimi is not usually served with gari.

Now for some of the more common ingredients in sushi:

Tuna - The number-one sushi fish, which comes in three varieties. Blue Fin 'Maguro' is the most expensive and rarest, Hawaiian 'Ahi' the next in rank and Albacore tuna is the most commonly used.

Fatty tuna - Also called 'toro', it comes in many different qualities, but all of them originate from the belly region of the tuna fish. Much more tender and flavorful than the rest of the tuna meat, you may see this as the 'filet mignon' of the tuna fish.

Salmon - Mainly used in North America, and becoming more popular in Japan, salmon has a meaty flavor that is almost more like a steak than a fish. Prepare it a little more carefully, as its strong flavor will overwhelm the sushi creation.

Octopus - Known as 'tako', boiled octopus has a chewy quality that makes it combine very well with wasabi and soy sauce. It's also served raw in Japan. Most Americans are too scared to eat it, and they're pretty squeamish about squid, too. Very difficult to prepare right.

Yellowtail - Popular in sushi only in North America, yellowtail is best when caught in the winter season where the fat content is at its highest. However, usually by the time it has made its way over to North America, the quality is a little less than the original thing.

Squid - Known as 'ika', this is distinguished from octopus by being creamy and chewy. It's usually sliced into thin strips. It has a very light, subtle flavor that is an excellent candidate for sushi. Not as difficult as octopus, but still beyond the skills of all but the top culinary school graduate.

Eel - Usually served grilled and served with a sweet sauce. If Americans are nervous about octopus and squid, they're liable to run screaming if you say "eel". However, the yuppie set is eager to try it just because they saw it served on the TV show 'Friends', which is even more depressing.

Shrimp - Shrimp in sushi primarily comes in two different varieties; either boiled and named 'ebi' or raw and called 'amaebi'. Amaebi is prized for its natural creamy sweetness. You can't go wrong with shrimp. It is loved everywhere.

Sea urchin - Called 'uni', this is only the ovary of the sea urchin and is regarded as a delicacy worldwide, not only in sushi. Compare it to the high esteem caviar is held in; likewise, uni is said to be something you either love or hate. It has a slightly fishy, but sweet taste and soft, smooth texture.

Crab - Its Japanese name it 'kani' and you actually won't find much crab, real or imitation, in sushi, as its inclusion in the sushi palette is largely an American idea.

That's just a round-up of the main bulk of the sushi universe; many more ingredients and variations are out there.

Safe handling of the fish is of the utmost importance. Never trust sushi preparation to anyone not well-schooled in food safety, as the raw serving is particularly susceptible to bacterias.

The fun part of sushi is that it is practically begging for an artistic presentation. Check out the works of sushi chefs online and in trade magazines - this stuff is edible art! Sushi pieces and their associated garnishes are frequently presented with an arrangement which brings to mind a flower garden or a Zen sand garden. Utensils - not even chopsticks - are not necessary, since it is intended as a finger food.
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