Are You a Sushi Virgin?

by Celeste Heiter, Dec 19, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

It's the 21st century. Every third car on the road is a Honda, a Nissan, a Toyota, or a Mitsubishi. And there probably isn't a household in the country that doesn't use something manufactured by Sony. The Japanese culture has produced some of the most ingenious, elegant and refined products in the history of the humanity, and yet you say you've never tried its most excellent export?

Perhaps it's because you're leery of all that raw fish. Or maybe you're mystified by the names of all those unfamiliar dishes on the menu. Or could it be that you're just plain shy?

Fear not, Sushi Virgins! Here's everything you need to know to help you muster up the courage to walk into your local sushi bar with your head held high, to order a meal with confidence, to savor every bite, and to relish every minute of your first visit.

Irashai Mase!

When you walk through the door of any sushi bar, you'll likely be met with a chorus of Irashai Mase! A greeting that essentially means, "Come on in!" In most places, you will be seated by a hostess, and if you haven't already made reservations, you'll enjoy the best experience if you request a seat at the sushi bar, which, if it's full when you arrive, is well worth the wait for a vacant seat. At the sushi bar, you get bird's eye view of the sushi chef as he plies his culinary craft.

Speed of service varies from place to place, but the first rule of thumb in a sushi bar is to relax and be patient. It's all about the trip, and not the destination, remember? Japanese cuisine is a highly evolved culinary art, and these things take time.

Chances are, the first thing you'll be served is an oshibori, a steaming terry washcloth for cleansing your hands. It will probably be served in a bamboo basket, or a dish of some type. It will be slightly damp, and might be quite hot, so use it with caution. When you're done with it, fold it neatly and place it back in its original serving dish. And remember, it's only intended for cleansing your hands, so please don't wipe your face with it, and don't use it throughout the meal to mop up anything you've dropped or spilled.

The next thing to arrive will probably be a mug of ocha, Japanese green tea. It's complimentary and quite delicious. This light brew has an ever-so-slightly bitter taste that goes perfectly with the flavors of the meal that awaits you. But as warm and soothing as it is, beware that green tea is loaded with caffeine, so imbibe accordingly.

And if you're in the mood for something a little more potent, beer or sake will also be available. The beer choices are likely to include Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi and possibly Suntory. Each has its own unique flavor and quality. Sapporo is a medium bodied beer, while Kirin is fuller bodied, and Asahi and Suntory tend to be crisp and dry.

Sake, Japanese rice wine, is served in one of three ways. The most common presentation is heated and served in a little ceramic carafe accompanied by a tiny cup for sipping. However, in the summer months, sake may also be served chilled, and there is an unfiltered variety which is milky white and slightly sweeter than the clear sake. You might also see patrons at the sushi bar drinking sake out of little square wooden boxes. It's a popular eccentricity in some establishments; and if you're served sake in a box, just be sure to sip it from the corner, otherwise it will dribble down your chin on both sides.

What to Order

By now, it's probably time to order. The waitress tending patrons at the bar will take your beverage order from over your shoulder. However, in some cases, she may take your food order as well. Otherwise, you will have to order directly from Itamae-san, the sushi chef. If you order food from the waitress, you may want to request all your dishes at once. But if you order from the chef, you may wish to order one or two dishes at a time, gradually working your way up to increasingly more exotic fare as the evening progresses. However, the one-dish-at-a-time method usually takes a little longer, as the chef is serving everyone in the restaurant simultaneously. Don't be shy, but don't be impatient either. Wait for an opportunity to catch his eye and tell him quickly and clearly what you would like to order. He'll add it to the running list of orders in his head and will prepare it for you when your turn comes. And remember, order beverages from the waitress, not from the chef.

Many sushi bars have a combination plate that features a variety of items, and often includes a bowl of miso soup. This is an excellent way to sample several things at once. However, in addition to the more common varieties of fish, combination plates are also likely to include a couple of exotic items such as roe, eel or octopus. If you're not quite ready to take this daring leap, you may wish to request a substitute for those items.

But if you're feeling more adventurous, the possibilities are endless, as sushi comes in many forms. Nigiri sushi is the most basic and common. It comes in pairs, and usually consists of a small oblong ball of vinegared rice topped with a single perfect slice of raw fish. Simple and delicious. Some of the more palatable and popular toppings for nigiri sushi include:

Tuna - Japanese name: maguro. A bright pink, fine textured, mildly flavored ocean fish

Yellowtail - Japanese name: hamachi. A creamy, firm-fleshed, mildly flavored ocean fish

Salmon - Japanese name: sake. A slightly-salty, orange ocean fish.

Halibut - Japanese name: hirame. A mild flavored, firm white ocean.

Snapper - Japanese name: tai. A delicately flavored translucent ocean fish.

Mackerel - Japanese name: saba. A strongly flavorful, ocean-going fish.

Shrimp - Japanese name: ebi. Usually served cooked, but also available raw in some places.

Scallop - Japanese name: hotategai. A creamy, fine textured shellfish.

Egg Omelet - Japanese name: tamago. A slice of chilled egg omelet.

In addition to the basic nigiri pairs, the term sushi also includes a rolled variety called makizushi, which contains the same basic elements as nigiri sushi, with the added feature of a crisp, dark green, paper-thin seaweed wrapper called nori. The sushi chef coats the nori with a layer of vinegared rice and a seafood filling, then firmly wraps the whole thing, cigar-style, and then slices it into six bite-sized pieces. Although anything may be tucked inside a roll of makizushi, the most common and popular variations include:

Tuna Rolls - Japanese name: tekka maki. Seaweed paper wrapped around rice and raw tuna.

Cucumber Rolls - Japanese name: kappa maki. Seaweed paper wrapped around rice and strips of fresh cucumber.

California Rolls - A seaweed paper wrapper filled with rice, imitation crab legs and avocado, and sometimes sprinkled with sesame seeds.

As an alternative to the simple cigar-style rolls, when the cut rolls are stood on end, with the rice filling inside pressed toward the bottom, it leaves a perfect little niche for filling with scoops of fish roe or other diced and spiced seafood.

And then there's futomaki, an oversized makizushi filled with a colorful assortment of cucumber, red ginger, pink fish cake, dried gourd, pickled yellow radish, and egg omelet.

Another variation of makizushi is temaki, the Hand Roll, in which a sheet of nori is loosely filled with various ingredients and rolled into a large cone. Of course, by definition, a hand roll must be hand-held and consumed in multiple bites.

Although technically not categorized as sushi, a tempting item you may find on the sushi bar menu is sashimi, several perfect slices of raw fish served with nothing more than a simple garnish of grated daikon radish. Sashimi is also served chirashi-style, with assorted vegetables atop vinegared sushi rice.

And Now for Something Completely Different...

If you're feeling adventuresome, there's a whole new world of flavors and textures to tickle your taste buds. Those with an open mind and an intrepid palate might want to try:

Eel - Japanese name: unagi or anago. There are two varieties of this snake-like sea creature, freshwater or ocean-going, both of which are usually served broiled with a sweet soy glaze. It has a surprisingly mild flavor and a fine texture. Slices of unagi or anago may be prepared either as nigiri or makizushi.

Raw Shrimp - Japanese name: ama ebi. Translucent pairs of sweet, ocean shrimp are served raw, and a few minutes later, their crispy-fried heads are served up with eyes, whiskers, and tentacles intact. Sounds awful - tastes great! Crunch, crunch. Yum, yum.

Flying Fish Roe - Japanese name: tobiko. These tiny, bright orange fish eggs are usually served in generous scoops inside the hollowed out niches of makizushi rolls. They are mildly fishy and salty, and when you bite down on them, each tiny egg explodes with delicate pop. You will also find tobiko used in small amounts, sprinkled as a colorful garnish on other sushi items. And if you're feeling especially daring, order your tobiko topped with a raw quail egg, called uzura no tamago.

Salmon Roe - Japanese name: ikura. These luscious fish eggs look like bright orange capsules that ooze their salty juices when you bite down on them.

Squid - Japanese name: ika. Also known as cuttlefish, the flesh of this pearlescent sea creature tends to be a little chewy, and therefore is best consumed in a single, long-lasting bite.

Octopus - Japanese name: tako. One of the most beautiful items in the sushi chef's display case, the opaque white flesh of the eight-tentacled octopus, tinged with the deep purple of its suction cups, is cut into cross sections and served nigiri style, or diced and spiced for a makizushi topping. But be advised however that tako is among the most rubbery of all sushi.

Sea Urchin - Japanese name: uni. Inside the delicate purple and white globe of its translucent shell hides the mustard-colored blob that is the sea urchin. Somewhat pricey and only in season from August through April, the taste of this unique sea creature was once described by a sushi-loving friend of mine as, "The flavors of an entire tidepool distilled into a single bite." I couldn't have said it better myself. You'll either love it...or you'll hate it, but you gotta try it at least once.

Horseneck Clam - Japanese name: mirugai. Also known as the geoduck, this oceanic oddity resembles a certain part of the male anatomy, which shall remain nameless. You'll know it when you see it. Order it if you dare.

Blowfish - Japanese name: fugu. This much-maligned delicacy is a seasonal rarity in Japan, and even more so in sushi bars outside Japan. According to the experts, not only is this fish a tasty treat for the palate, but consuming it comes with a certain element of risk. The liver of the fugu contains a powerful toxin, which, when inexpertly handled, imparts a deadly poison. But in the hands of a skilled sushi chef, the liver can be nicked to impart just enough of its toxin to numb the lips and produce a mildly euphoric effect. Try it at your own risk, and always under the guidance of a reputable sushi master.

The Chef's Special - Nearly every sushi bar offers a tempting array of creative variations on the basic sushi bar fare. They're often the result of the chef's culinary visions, and although they tend to be a bit more pricey than nigiri and makizushi, they can be quite tasty and creative. You'll usually find them written on a chalkboard displayed on the wall behind the sushi chef, with colorful names like "Rock & Roll," "Tsunami Tuna," and "Year of the Dragon."

And if you're feeling both lucky and daring, you can even request that the sushi chef set you up with an assortment of his choice. If you let him know that it's your very first time, he's likely to be especially helpful in selecting an assortment best suited for a sushi neophyte.

Condiments and Side Dishes

Sushi is always accompanied by several additional items to compliment and enhance the flavor of the fish itself. Shoyu (what we Westerners call soy sauce) is always provided at the sushi bar. It may come in the original, individually labeled bottle, or more likely, in a little ceramic pot with a spout. Your place at the sushi bar will also be set with a shallow dish to hold the shoyu for dipping. But be careful when pouring the shoyu into the dish, as it comes splashing out and is very easy to spill. If there's a little hole in the lid of the container, place your finger over it to help control the flow of the shoyu.

While you're waiting for your order to arrive, especially in upscale sushi bars, you might be served a tiny complimentary appetizer such as sunomono, vinegared cucumber salad, or edamame, soybeans in the pod.

Just before your sushi arrives, if you've ordered wisely, you'll be served a steaming bowl of miso soup. For those of you who have never had the pleasure, this is one of the most comforting foods you will ever consume. Miso soup is composed of a savory broth steeped with kazuo, flakes of smoked bonito, and kombu, dried sea kelp. To that, a generous dollop of miso, a soybean paste much like peanut butter, is added, along with tiny cubes of tofu and perhaps bits of spring onion or a delicate seaweed called wakame. As the miso dissolves, the whole bowl melts into a creamy infusion that is one of the kindest, most satisfying foods you will ever put in your tummy.

When your sushi finally arrives, it will be accompanied by another small dish or two containing a mound of gari shoga, thinly shaved pickled ginger, and a little green ball of wasabi, a type of powdered Japanese radish mixed with water to form a paste. The gari shoga is quite tasty, and you may be tempted to eat it all by itself. But remember, it's not a salad, it's there as a palate cleanser to enhance the flavor of the sushi. And the wasabi paste is quite peppery, although it doesn't linger on the lips like chili powder. It's more likely to give you a quick rush in your sinuses and disappear just as quickly. Some sushi lovers like to mix a little wasabi with the shoyu, which is perfectly fine if you like the taste. If not, it's okay to leave the wasabi untouched. Also, beware that the sushi chef may dab a bit of wasabi inside each piece of sushi.

Faking It 101 - For the Neophyte and the Faint of Heart

If, after reading all these descriptions of the pleasures that await you on your first visit to a sushi bar, you still can't get past the idea of consuming raw fish, there are a number of tasty cooked items on the typical sushi menu. Your best bets are:

Ebi - Cooked shrimp served nigiri style on oblong balls of vinegared rice.

Kappa Maki - Fresh cucumber with vinegared rice wrapped in seaweed paper.

Tamago - A slice of chilled egg omelet served nigiri style on oblong balls of vinegared rice.

California Rolls - A seaweed paper wrapper with the rice rolled on the outside, and filled with imitation crab legs, cucumber and avocado, sprinkled with sesame seeds.

If any of these items appeal to you, feel free to order multiple portions of each. There's no rule that says you have to order only one of any given item.

Another Reassuring Thought

In addition to sushi, many Japanese restaurants offer other traditional dishes such as teriyaki chicken, battered and deep-fried tempura, and a wide variety of tasty noodle dishes. But be a sport. Go ahead and try a little sushi anyway.

Other Sushi Venues

While a front row seat at the sushi bar is the most entertaining way to enjoy your first sushi experience, there are a couple of other sushi settings that you may find to your liking as well.

The Tatami Room - Many sushi bars also have small secluded rooms with woven rice straw tatami floors, small cushions or legless chairs and low tables for enjoying your meal in intimate privacy. This is a uniquely pleasant setting for small groups and special occasions, but usually has to be reserved in advance.

Sushi-Go-Round - There's a new alternative to the traditional sushi bar that is growing in popularity. Actually it's an adaptation of a type of Japanese fast-food sushi restaurant called kaitenzushi, in which plates of sushi circulate on a conveyor belt in front of diners seated at a counter. The westernized version of kaitenzushi is a circular moat filled with a stream of flowing water. Sushi chefs prepare large batches of sushi at a prep station in the middle of the moat and place individual plates of sushi on a procession of little flat-bottomed wooden boats that float along in the moat. Diners sit at a low counter on the outer side of the moat and help themselves to the plates of sushi as they float by. When you're finished, the waitress tallies up the bill by counting the empty plates and beverage bottles. This is an especially easy way for Sushi Virgins to try a variety of sushi in a relaxed, low-pressure environment. You choose only those dishes that look appetizing, and you have the opportunity to ask questions about the exotic ones before you try them.

Sushi Etiquette

Picking up sushi with your fingers is the traditional method of eating sushi in Japan, which is perfectly acceptable, although the use of chopsticks, called ohashi, has become the preferred method for eating sushi in the U.S. If you don't already know how to use chopsticks, it's recommended that you brush up on your technique before your first visit to a sushi bar. The chopsticks will probably arrive in a little paper sleeve, still attached to each other at the upper end. When you break them apart, if you are concerned about splinters, you can rub the chopsticks against each other to hone any rough edges.

There are a number of do's and don'ts associated with chopsticks. Most importantly, never poke them into a dish of food and leave them standing upright. This is the ultimate faux pas. Offerings of food with chopsticks standing upright in them are presented to the spirits of the dead at funerals and gravesites, and to do so among the living is strictly taboo.

And that's not all. You should never point or otherwise gesticulate with chopsticks. They should never be used to spear a morsel of food, and the end of the chopstick that has been in your mouth should never be used to take food from a shared plate. When helping yourself from a shared dish, turn the chopsticks around and use the upper end to pick up a bite and put it on your own plate. And while you're at it, don't hover over the dish, playing eenie-meenie-minee-mo with your chopsticks. Choose your bite with your eyes and go directly for it.

And as if that weren't enough, food should also never be passed from one set of chopsticks to another, because it is reminiscent of a ritual practiced at funerals in which the charred remains of the deceased are transferred from the crematory chamber to the burial urn by passing them from person to person using chopsticks. It's also bad form to feed someone else with your chopsticks. A typical sushi meal comes with all sorts of little individual dishes that are perfect for sharing food. When it comes to chopsticks, if you want to stay out of trouble, the best rule of thumb is never to let them stray from the short and narrow path between your plate and your mouth.

And Speaking of Your Mouth...

Sushi mostly comes in bite-sized pieces. However, some items on the menu are larger than others, and some sushi bars can be quite generous with their portions. Therefore, you may occasionally find yourself faced with something that won't fit comfortably in your mouth. In this event, it's okay to take a partial bite, but be forewarned that a delicate piece of sushi may fall apart in the process, causing the two-fold embarrassment of making a big mess in your shoyu dish, and the awkwardness of salvaging the remnants of the remaining bite. So, when faced with a two-bite morsel, you may want to deviate from propriety and pick up that piece with your fingers instead of using your chopsticks. You'll have much more control over its structural integrity that way. Another thing to consider is that some seafoods, such as squid, octopus, and large clams, are not easy to bite in half. With those, you'll have to bite the bullet, so to speak, and put the whole thing in your mouth at once. But if you do decide to go for the whole thing, it's not only polite, but also customary to shield your mouth from view with your free hand until you've wrestled the mega-bite into submission.

A Little Local Color

Each sushi bar has its own ambiance. And while some are quite serene and sedate, you may find the atmosphere at your local sushi bar much more convivial. The intimacy of the chairs arranged around the preparation area is conducive to conversation, and each sushi chef tends to develop his own regular clientele. Temperament and disposition varies from one sushi chef to another, running the gamut from the strictly-business type who keeps his head down and focuses exclusively on his craft, to the chatty capers and showmanship of a world-class entertainer. If the one who presides over your first sushi experience is of the latter variety, by all means, feel free to strike up a conversation and get acquainted. You'll be warmly greeted on your next visit.

With the right attitude, and a little luck, your first visit to a sushi bar is likely to be one of the most sensual and memorable experiences of a lifetime. There's a whole new world of flavors, textures, colors and aromas waiting for you behind those wooden doors. So take the plunge. But be prepared to indulge yourself in the sakana and the shoyu and the gari shoga and the wasabi and the ocha and the sake. Chances are, in no time at all, you'll find yourself craving a second taste... and a third... and a fourth... And then you'll have to face the truth: You're no longer a Sushi Virgin. You're hooked!

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