[WARNING – IMAGES OF RAW SEAFOOD]
I was skeptical of sushi – especially ones with raw fish. In my first sushi place I dipped the raw tuna in my hot tea and blanched it before eating, and the sushi-chef looked at me as if I insulted his mother.
Sushi for Beginners
Vegan Sushi, California
For folks sensitive to sea-food, I would recommend starting your sushi adventure with various types of vegan sushi – such as avocado rolls, tofu-skin (Inari) and mango-jalepeno.
Inari sushi comes from offerings to Inari – the rice-deity in Shintoism with divine foxes as messenger. This deity is associated with the Fushimi Inari, the shrine with an unending array of red gates features in movies.
Vegan sushis are a great way to experience the seasonings of wasabi, soy-sauce and pickled gingers.
Gimbap is a Korean-style sushi made with cooked meat, eggs and vegetables, wrapped in Nori (seaweed). It is often presented with Banchan (a large variety of side-dishes). My favorite sides are pickled fish (top-left) and kimchi (bottom-left).
Maki and Nigiri
If you’re having raw seafood for the first time, Makizushi (Rolled and sliced sushi) is the way to begin. The American styles include a variety of ingredients and toppings. One of my favorites has Texas-style fried onions on top to add an extra crunch I had in Manhattan.
It was here that I got to put my broken California-Spanish and Anime-Japanese to good use. A Guatemalan family at the next table needed coffee and the waiter, knowing only Japanese wrote it down as Sake.
I interfered, and pointing fingers said – “Sake no es Cafe. Sake es …. erm … tequila.”
The family did not know English either and asked me to tell the waiter if he had any caffeine products.
I asked – “Erm …. Cha … Sencha … arimas? desu ka?”
I then turned to them and said – “Uh …. te? Verde te tienne? es okay?”
Who says Jack of all Trades and master of none is a bad thing? The family loved me stepping up to help, and saving them a wrong order of alcohol instead of caffeine. I fully apologize to Spanish and Japanese speakers reading this.
The American-Style maki-rolls are called Uramaki (inside-out maki) since the back sea-weed is hidden inside, which began with the famous California roll, that introduced Sushi to the West.
I had my favorite California roll in Monterrey, CA with hot baked salmon on top, which had butter and hot-sauce drizzling off the foil.
Nigiri are hand-rolled sushi and one-biters. Rather than prescribing the order in which you should eat them, I will attempt to give taste profiles for each and let you choose.
From left to right –
- Ahi – Raw tuna. Dark pink / magenta colored. Salty, briny with a clear flavor.
- Hamachi – Yellow Tail. White colored. Neutral with a delicate and complex flavor.
- Sake – Salmon. Bright orange. Sweet taste with a complex and fatty body.
- Hotate – Scallops. White or red. Sweet and clean-tasting. Very chewy.
- Hebi – Cooked shrimp. White. Sweet and simple/clear. Crunchy or chewy.
- Saba – Mackerel. Salty/Briny with chocolatey dark-meat. My favorite.
- Unagi – Grilled Eel. Crunchy and barebeque-y with lots of dripping fat.
Upscale Sushi at Kyoto
My most memorable sushi exploit is in Sushi-Shin in Nishiki Market, Kyoto. The chefs began by bringing out the catch-of-the day in a box and choosing the combination of fishes as per the chef’s choice.
The next step involved stone-grinding the wasabi. Most wasabi outside of Japan is mixed with horse-radish substitutes which come close to the taste but not quite right. Our chefs pulled out real wasabi-roots and ground them before our eyes.
Our chef’s specialty was grilling the skin of the fish to make it crispy while keeping the meat inside raw.
The result was a beautiful bouquet of fatty tuna (toro) and white-fishes, served on a stone. I was instructed to have the special skin-grilled fish with Fuji pink-salt and a squeeze of lime instead of the regular soy and wasabi.
I chose to have hot sake on the side, which opens up the taste-palette for sushi far better than cold sake (despite the latter being more expensive). I also recommend not only sticking to sake, but also trying out Soju – which is a vodka made from either wheat or sweet-potatoes. Go for neat or on-the-rocks, since the cocktails tend to be very diluted.
Adding sushi to my palette has been life-changing for me. I’ve found it to be a great low-calorie high-protein option for fine-dining. And there is a large variety of fish, scallops, squid, shrimp, roe and vegetables. Every new chef’s choice is an adventure.
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