A Tumblr by Trevor Corson
Trevor is the author of The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice
For information about the historical sushi dinners Trevor hosts, please visit SushiConcierge.com
I was recently asked this question. Personally, I might have to go with the futomaki, which translates literally as “fat roll.”
Most of the oversized sushi rolls that we eat in America were invented right here in the States. Typically, traditional Japanese sushi is made small. But the futomaki is an exception. It’s usually overstuffed with a surprising variety of ingredients, including simmered vegetables and mushrooms, tamago (egg), and perhaps boiled shrimp. In Japan, futomaki don’t show up much at traditional sushi bars, but rather appear at more informal venues, such as picnics.
The problem is that when a futomaki is sliced into pieces, it becomes nearly impossible to eat, at least with any sense of decorum. The slices are usually too big to fit in your mouth all at once, but when you try to bite them in half, the fillings fall apart and tumble onto your plate, or worse, your lap.
It turns out that a better way to eat a futomaki is actually what you see here, demonstrated by this famished salaryman sneaking a quick lunch at the office. No slicing necessary.
That mound of pinkish pickled ginger on the plate next to your sushi isn’t an appetizer, nor is it a garnish to be added to the sushi. Believe it or not, it’s more like a serving of ice cream. But it’s not dessert, either. It has a much more specific purpose.
In the traditional style of eating at the sushi bar, the chef serves just one or two pieces of nigiri at a time, featuring a different fish or shellfish with each serving. Each type of fish or shellfish has a particular flavor profile and fat content, and often the differences can be subtle. To fully appreciate the distinctions, it helps to have a clean palate before sampling each new piece of sushi that the chef serves.
The acidic spiciness of pickled ginger is the perfect antidote to the tastes of seafood. And here’s the parallel to ice cream. In sushi, the ginger serves as a palate cleanser between courses—just like sorbet in Western cuisine.
So the proper way to employ your pickled ginger at the sushi bar—or even when dining at a table—is to eat a slice between each different type of fish. It’s like resetting your tongue so each piece of sushi seems new.
All the more reason not to put a piece of ginger on top of your sushi when you eat it, as some of us have always thought we’re supposed to. In fact, this achieves the exact opposite of what’s intended, preventing you from appreciating the subtle flavors of the fish instead of enhancing them.
It comes as a shock to most of us. Not only is that spicy green paste we call “wasabi” not actually wasabi, it’s not even meant to be served alongside your sushi at all.
First things first. What is it? It’s fake. Instead of being real wasabi, it’s just plain old horseradish, plus some mix of mustard extract, citric acid, yellow dye no. 5, and blue dye no. 1. It comes in big industrial bags as a powder, and the chefs mix it with water before dinner to make that caustic paste.
Real wasabi, pictured at right, is a delicate, finicky plant that’s extremely difficult to grow and even more difficult to handle. And it has a more delicate, complex, and sweeter flavor than the fake stuff you’re used to. People who attend my Sushi Concierge dinners are always surprised at how different the real thing tastes.
Real wasabi is a distant relative of horseradish that is native only to Japan and Sakhalin Island, a Russian outpost off Japan’s northern coast, and thrives best in shaded mountain streams. It’s rarely used at most sushi restaurants because it’s so expensive, so rare, and so volatile.
In Japan, even the best sushi chefs, who use real wasabi, generally don’t provide extra wasabi on the plate along with the sushi they serve. That’s because the chef puts exactly the right amount of wasabi inside each piece of sushi when he makes it. Good chefs actually alter the amount of wasabi they add inside each piece of sushi depending on the type of fish being used—less for more delicate fish, more for fattier fish with stronger flavors.
Last night I hosted a Sushi Concierge dinner for a family of four, including a young man who was 12 years old. He turned out to be quite the gourmand, keen on the very traditional types of sushi we tried. But he hadn’t yet completely mastered chopsticks. When we started the meal he was worried about this, which gave me the perfect opportunity to share one of my favorites sushi tips: don’t worry, no chopsticks.
True sushi aficionados in Japan seldom use chopsticks to eat sushi. They use their fingers. What a revelation!
And there’s a fascinating reason why. The primary form of sushi eaten in Japan is nigiri—the little hand-packed balls of rice with a slice of fish on top. What most of us don’t realize is that nigiri shouldn’t be packed too tightly. Rather, part of the fun of eating a nigiri is that it should fall to pieces on your tongue. Believe it or not, a sign of perfectly-made sushi is that it’s packed so loosely that it barely holds together until you get it in your mouth.
To eat such loose sushi, you have to know what you’re doing, and you should use your fingers to pick it up—all of them! In fact, chopsticks are probably the worst possible tool for this task. You’d be better off with a shovel. If you insist on eating nigiri with chopsticks, as in the picture above, the chef has to squeeze the rice together extra tight so it won’t break apart. To a sushi gourmand, such tightly-packed rice is a travesty.
Sadly, therefore, most Americans have never eaten a proper nigiri, because most chefs pack the sushi so tight that it’s like biting into a piece of Play Doh—and they do that because they think that we think that we’re supposed to use chopsticks. What a waste!
So next time you’re sitting at a good sushi bar, you can try asking the chef to pack the sushi more loosely, and explain that you’re planning to eat with your fingers. Indeed, when the staff at a good sushi bar sees that you’re eating with your fingers, they may even provide a damp towel or small wet cloth folded into a point, so you can wipe your fingers clean between different types of fish.
A final note, though: sushi aficionados do use chopsticks when eating sashimi—the slices of raw fish without rice.
There are many things we Westerners don’t know about eating sushi, chief among them the fact that plain old soy sauce is actually not a very good match for most raw fish. Indeed, at a really good sushi bar, it’s often best not to use soy sauce at all.
As I explained at a Sushi Concierge dinner last night, that’s because a top-notch chef will season each piece of sushi for you as he makes it, using special sauces and garnishes that he’s created to match the subtle flavors of the different ingredients. In Japan, many high-level chefs will do this as a matter of course; in the U.S., you may have to ask, or shop around until you find a chef who’s willing to go to the trouble.
One of the primary types of special sauces that sushi chefs prepare is called nikiri. Last fall a food writer in Washington D.C. named Tim Carman read about nikiri in my book The Story of Sushi and asked me to accompany him to a sushi bar to get the real deal. Check out his very interesting report on nikiri here.
P.S. If you want to try making your own nikiri, I describe how to do it here. It takes some work, but it’s a far more interesting taste experience than plain old soy sauce.