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You’re Doing It Wrong! | Sushi - Part 1

05 April 2013, 11:00

Disclaimer: If you are the sort of person that eats to survive, then you should stop reading, now! This is not the place where you will find the sort of budget-restricted, buffets are best, and mommy’s-home-cooking discussion about food. This is like an art gallery with fine and expensive works that require a certain level of refinement, civility, and sophistication to appreciate. You have been warned!

This is the first in a series of articles titled You Are Doing It Wrong! In this series, I will help to close the gap between the common person and the not so common food we all have access to thanks to globalization and proliferating wealth (the world, after all, is getting richer.. imagine that). Perhaps you have started to develop a taste for Sushi, blue cheese, whiskey, or you are finally starting to realise that a medium-rare steak actually does taste better than a medium one. You are now at the precipice of a whole new world that lays before you, and I will tap my years of experience doing fine dining in Singapore—the Paris of Asia when it comes to food—to be your guide and help elevate your experience with quality food to new heights!

Of course, I have a reputation to uphold as a controversialist, so, rest assured these articles will not be the boring, adjective-deprived magazine fodder that we are all forced to read every god-damn day of our lives! Some poor moron(s) will ALWAYS get the finger in one of my articles, and I’ll try to spice up the writing and language to match the intricate foods and traditions they aim to describe. So, whether you are on a diet or simply getting yourself in shape for one, come with me on this culinary journey and see what fine dining is all about!

?? (Sushi)

Asians can be fanatical about the standard at which they perform mundane tasks, and the Japanese are, perhaps, the best example of this distilled fanaticism when it comes to their international food sensation, Sushi. There is a level of attention to detail in what they do that simply flies over the heads of many a westerner. For those who can detect and appreciate this endless pursuit of perfection, Asia becomes a wonderful place to sample diligence in its finest form!

While Sushi is, perhaps, the most renowned and easily recognized Asian food in South Africa, next to sweet-and-sour pork, it is definitely one of the most misunderstood Asian foods, also! First-world western countries, such as the USA, UK, parts of Europe, and even Australia and New Zealand, have had excellent Sushi restaurants for decades. Master Sushi chefs have found wealth and fame in these countries while their affluent customers devour every piece presented on the menu.

South Africa is new to the Sushi craze that has swept the world, and, sadly, it shows!

Get your facts straight!

The inspiration for this article came from a shocking prevalence of ignorance I experienced as a budding Sushi lover in South Africa. I can tell if someone knows nothing about Sushi usually by just asking a simple question: Do you like Sushi? When they answer, “Oh yes, I love Chinese food,” that is when I wish I had a Katana at my side to fall into and end my misery!

Sushi is ***JAPANESE*** for those of you too lazy to even bother with the convenience of quickly looking it up on the internet!  There is a tremendous amount of cultural, culinary, and racial diversity in Asia, and it is insulting to me as a resident of Asia to still see that most westerners, despite the internet and globalization, still think of everything Asian (Sushi included) as being ‘Chinese’ in some way.

But the desecration does not stop there, when people get Sushi wrong, they even get the name wrong. Sushi does not mean raw fish! The word Sushi is the name given to any ingredient wrapped in rice and seaweed and which has that distinctive Sushi-roll appearance to it. Sushi is a presentation style! Raw fish, on the other hand, is called sashimi in Japanese.

A bit of history

Sushi has a central flavour theme to it that is called umami. Umami is the sort of sweet, sour, and slightly fermented taste that develops in foods that are preserved in a certain manner; however, in today’s world of ‘express’ Sushi, the umami flavor is contained almost exclusively in the soy sauce that always accompanies Sushi dishes.

Originally, Sushi was not served as it is today: The fish was fermented or otherwise preserved and then plastered with short-grain rice and wrapped in seaweed (raw, not processed). These were either already created in bite-sized chunks or cut to size (as is the case with Sushi rolls).

There are still Sushi restaurants in Japan that serve this traditionally accurate Sushi, but a single platter will probably rob you of your annual bonus. Gourmet Sushi is not cheap—especially not if you absolutely insist on eating the best! I won’t spent more time on the history of Sushi because the real tragedy and ignorance is unfolding in the here and now.

And the middle-finger award goes to…

There is, as you may have guessed, no point in talking about these facts and refinements to somebody who has had malaria more times than they have had a warm dinner. It is therefore not surprising that the southernmost part of Africa’s recent exposure to Sushi has been met with incomprehension while many Sushi lovers show but a shallow and mutant form of appreciation for this culinary art form.

Too many South Africans think that Sushi is some sort of affluent lifestyle statement—much like Gucci handbags and Armani clothes are in Singapore. Sushi is now the lunch and dinner of those who readily have access to more credit than the rest of us.

I’m talking about those Sandtonian ‘executive’ types—the sort of people who laugh at you when you mispronounce nicoise salad (it’s pronounced nii-kwaa, by the way); the sort of people whom you see in the mornings doing yoga in groups next to the highway in their R3,500-a-pop unitards; the sort of people who claim to be Buddhists (because it is fashionable in the corporate world) and who pay more for a set of croquet clubs than their parents evidently paid for their education.

These are the artificial and pretentious people who give Sushi and other fine foods the repulsive, opulent visage that puts most people off fine dining! Snobbery and pretentiousness have never been the equivalents of sophistication; let us be clear about that! Fine food is almost exclusively the invention of the peasantry! When you enjoy the finest pasta dishes at the R380 a plate at the Italian haunt near your crib, instead of feeling classy, you should reflect on the sweeping poverty, the scarcity of ingredients, and the near alchemical culinary diligence and obsession of the mamas in the kitchens of Italy who created these fine dishes!

That, my dear snob, is the part of fine dining that is beyond and, frankly, above you!

I am sick and tired of seeing celebrity chefs, opinionated food critics, and CEOs who want to look cultured get to represent classical foods that were never invented by them nor for them! The finest food comes from the peasant mothers and daughters of yore who had to make due with limited resources, and who put their love and dedication into every dish, to give their family the only joyful experience that peasants in previous centuries could look forward to: a satisfying meal!

While there are restaurants the world over that aim to give you the very best Sushi with the very best ingredients and preparation, at prices that will make the Queen of England gasp, do not let this fool you! Sushi, in its origin, is as humble as Italian pasta is, and in Japan, Sushi has always been food for the commoner! You impress nobody with your R680 platter of Sushi when you show such a clear level of ignorance about what you are eating the moment you ‘dig in.’ In fact, so unrefined are your manners that I can see your pretentious face the moment you walk through the door of the Sushi restaurant!

Which brings me to the next section:

Sushi done the right way

Please learn how to use chopsticks before you enter a Sushi restaurant. While Nigiri Susi can be picked up with your fingers and placed in your mouth (fish side down), almost all the other Sushi types need to be picked up with chopsticks.

If you have never eaten with chopsticks, here is how you practice the art without embarrassing yourself in public. I always recommend wooden chop sticks for beginners because they have more friction and thus a better grip on food than the plastic variant. Then just eat your everyday meals with chopsticks until you can manage a mince ball, slice of carrot, cube of lamb, scoop of rice, etc. with ease. Eventually you will be able to pick up individual grains of rice (I still impress people with this trick).

With the exception of steaks and other unwieldy foods, I now almost eat everything using chopsticks!

If you don’t bring your own chop sticks to a Japanese restaurant, do not clean the wood splinters off the chopsticks they provide. This is considered rude. If you have dangerous splinters on your chopsticks, hold them under the table and clean off the splinters.

Sashimi (the raw fish slices) is always eaten first. You will notice in fine Sushi restaurants, that the chef always serves your Sashimi order first.

Handrolls are to be dabbed with a ginger slice that has been dipped in soy sauce. Do not pour the soy sauce from the vessel onto the roll! You will oversaturate the roll, ruin the taste, and make a mess of things, which in Japanese culture is like letting one rip at the dinner table!

NEVER add wasabi to the sushi itself, always add it to the soy sauce instead, and make sure the chef does not see you doing this, because he has already placed the appropriate amount of wasabi in the piece.

The ginger is not a salad! Ginger is to be eaten before your first piece of Sushi enters your mouth. It is a cleanser used to remove any aftertaste you may have in your mouth from other food or your festering halitosis. When switching between different types of Sushi / Sashimi, the ginger can be used to ‘reset’ your palette, so you taste each type of sushi without the aftertaste of the previous type muting or altering the flavour. Never EVER mix the ginger with the Sushi, a good chef will kill you, and he will have my full support.

Each Sushi / Sashimi piece is to be eaten whole (Handrolls being the exception). Do not try to bite a sushi piece in half, raw fish is a tricky thing to bite through. If you are in a higher-end Sushi restaurant, the chef will create the appropriate size for your build and gender. Again, expect to pay a premium for this attention to detail.

Soy sauce is artificially salty in the west because our foods are very salty by Asian standards. You will impress your Sushi chef and earn his respect if you politely ask for less salty soy sauce (they usually have it because they too eat their sushi, but using the original Japanese soy sauce).

NEVER rush the Sushi chef and NEVER tell them how to make the Sushi! Sushi chefs train years in Japan just to learn how to make the perfect Sushi rice, only once they master this skill (it usually takes 2-3 years) are they allowed to start working with the fish. Moreover, each piece of sushi is handmade and requires the perfect construction. You will get your Sushi when it is ready! If you can’t wait, go express (walk in, walk out Sushi joints). Remember, every true Japanese chef is a master at their craft, and just as you don’t tell a famous artist how to paint, you don’t tell a Sushi chef how to make Sushi!

And that’s about it—no books, no nonsense, just some everyday facts, a bit of history, and a dash of etiquette! You are now ready to look like a competent Sushi fan while you enjoy Sushi the way it was meant to be eaten.

As a follow-up, I will maybe do an article on the various types of Sushi / Sashimi and what is best to start with when you are a beginner. If anyone is interested in that, do post your comments in the comments box.

Misguided munchers

In closing, I have to mention that Sushi is fast becoming popular with vegetarians, as well. We all know, quite well by now, that fish and chicken aren’t actually considered meat by many ‘vegetarians.’ Ask a vegetarian to take you to the farms where they grow chicken and fish trees…. Seriously, you vegetarians are ridiculous! If we really are what we eat, then I’d rather eat animals, because they are much smarter and more lively than stupid, passive plants, which may explain your condition! But, this article is not about giving vegetarians more attention (something they seem to crave and feel entitled to).

Time to share

Now it is your turn to tell me about your adventures with fine food. You can also suggest a food topic that you want me to write about later in the series, and I may just go out, sample it, review it, and write about my experience—you getting the credit for the suggestion.

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