Monday, October 18, 2010

Sushi for Beginners

"Do you like sushi?"

I am 15 years old at my new best friend Haley's house. They have a swimming pool and water beds. Haley's Dad is a TV producer. I am positively desperate to appear worldly and impress them.
"Of course" I reply. What the hell is a sushi? I think it involves seafood. This further complicates things as I am a new (sort of) vegetarian. Yesterday fish were food. Today I have seen the light and recognize them as friends. I am hoping I can pick the corpse out of whatever this sushi is. Thankfully, the family has a dog who lingers near the dinner table. I can feed whatever appears morally questionable to her.

Haley's Dad dons his Raybans, revs up their BMW and roars off to pick up my first sushi meal. He's back in a flash, bearing food gifts in small, clear, plastic containers. Small black and white rolled things. Tiny round containers contain condiments. Globs of neon green; and slices of something shocking pink.

At least I recognize the rice and the soy sauce. "Their California roll is to die for" gushes Haley's Mom, who uses her perfectly manicured nails to manouver a few morsels onto my plate alongside the pink and green stuff. Yikes, I think. "Yum!" I say. I wait until Haley has food on her plate and follow her lead. Green stuff into soy sauce, Rolled stuff into resulting mixture. Insert into mouth. Close eyes and moan softly. Nod. Open eyes and say "excellent". Insert pink stuff in mouth between bites of rolls.

And so sushi-eating Heather was born. Fish soon lost their special "friend" designation and went back to being food. Thanks to Masato and my Japanese inlaws, I am still discovering new Japanese foods and learning lots about sushi.

For many of Sanbiki's customers, sushi is still a relatively new and novel food. The seafoods used and "styles" of sushi outside Japan are not nearly as varied as those you would encounter at a traditional Japanese sushi restaurant. But the basic forms that sushi can assume are pretty much the same. Interestingly, most people associate sushi with raw fish. In fact it refers to the vingegared rice. And the topping can be raw or cooked.

Sushi is believed to have originated in South East Asia. Originally the fish was packed in the rice and allowed to ferment. When it came time to eat the fish the rice was actually thrown away, and the fish consumed. Later on the rice was incorporated along with the fish in piece (nigiri) sushi and rolls.
Makizushi are sushi rolls and probably the best known sushi to non-Japanese. "Maki"=roll. Traditionally rolled with the nori on the outside, many Westerners prefer the rice on the outside ("uramaki"). Futomaki is a Japanese classic. A "fat roll" loaded with veggies, tamago (savoury omelette) and seafood. Very little or no soy sauce is needed for seasoning as there are plenty of flavours going on already. Sanbiki's futomaki is a customer favourite! Tekkamaki (tuna rolls) are another Japanese favourite. "Tekka" actually means gambling parlour. This is where they first gained popularity in Japan. The nori on the outside apparently prevented rice sticking to players hands and cards so the game need not stop for meals.
"Kappamaki" are cucumber rolls. Kappa is a Japanese demon/god who loves to eat cucumber. Outside Japan, California rolls, spicy tuna rolls and countless other new recipes have evolved.

Nigiri sushi originated in Tokyo where it was first known as "Edomae" ("Edo"=Tokyo) Small balls of sushi rice are formed by hand and topped with thin slices of fish or other items. The nigiri sushi can then be dipped into a small amount of soy sauce (fish first to prevent the rice dissolving in the soy sauce!)Eating sushi with your hands is completely acceptable; eating sashimi however, should always be done using chopsticks.
Traditionally, your Itamae (sushi chef) would instruct you as to whether or not soy sauce was neccesary. Similarily, he would decide how much wasabi would compliment the fish and would add it between the rice and the topping. Outside Japan, most sushi fans like to mix and add (or not) their own wasabi. "Gari" is the pickled ginger used as a palate cleanser between bites of different fish. Nowadays it is sometimes mixed in with sushi rice used to stuff "Inari" sushi, pockets of sweet and savoury fried tofu. It is also found in "Chirashi" sushi. Chirashi is a bowl of mixed sushi rice topped with slices of raw fish. At Sanbiki we use unagi (BBQ eel), tamago (omelette) and shiitake mushrooms in the mixed rice along with ginger, sesame, cucumber and nori. Wild salmon and BC Albacore tuna top the dish off.
Many other variations of sushi exist. "Battera" sushi (also called "oshi-zushi")is a pressed sushi usually made without seaweed in a wooden box. It's a specialty in Kansai (Western Japan) where Masato is from. Brown rice sushi is gaining popularity among the health-conscious, and "temaki"(sushi cones" are another favourite in and outside of Japan.Where does sashimi fit into all of this? As it is not served with rice it doesn't qualify as sushi. Usually sashimi refers to slices of top quality fish and seafood. Sashimi roughly translates as "pierced body". This could be a reference to the traditional harvesting methods involved in assuring sashimi quality fish. Fish were caught using a hand line and landed as quickly as possible. They were killed immediately with a spike "piercing" the brain. This ensures that the amount of lactic acid that built up in the meat of the fish was minimal. The same technique is used today by many of the B.C. Albacore tuna boats. Less lactic acid means better quality, a longer shelf life and a more humane end for the fish on the end of the line.

Whether your a fan of the raw stuff or prefer your food cooked, there is a sushi that suits your taste! Feeling particularly ambitious? Enroll in a "sushi-making class" and learn to roll your own! More sushi secrets coming soon...including the famous (or infamous?)...FUGU...People are dying to eat this poisonous Puffer...get it? "Dying to eat...."Oh, never mind!

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