Sushi is one of Japan`s most delightful foods. Though many people in the world cringe at the thought of eating raw fish, millions throughout the globe salivate at the thought of sweet seaweed, fluffy rice, fresh vegetables and tangy spices arranged in a detailed, painstaking fashion.
Eating all this sometimes takes some preparation so you don`t embarrass yourself or your dinner companion with bits of food flying all over your placemat. There are also many different names to learn and procedures to follow.
Research that restaurant!
The best sushi experiences hinge on first-rate ingredients and skillful preparation. Be prepared to pay for both. The most expensive sushi place in town isn`t necessarily the best, but on the other hand, cheapo places (especially those that push an all-you-can-eat special) should be approached cautiously. If they`re under pressure to cut costs, they`re likely to be cutting corners in quality.
Sushi preparation is art form, performed in public. Sushi chefs traditionally prepare the rice and raw materials before opening, but actually make each piece of sushi on demand, in full view of the waiting diners. If a restaurant`s offering simply emerges from the depth of the kitchen, it`s probably not being prepared by a sushi specialist.
Understand menu items
Most sushi bars have diagrams or picture charts for non-Japanese speaking customers, but it`s great to be able to communicate exactly what you want to the chef instead of gesticulating wildly and mumbling "tuna-white-that, yes." Here are a few basic sushi menu staples:
Nigiri: This slightly more expensive sushi is essentially a rice pad with raw fish on top. Types of fish include salmon (soft pink color), tuna (dark pink/red color), fatty tuna (looks like salmon but has large lines of white fat running through it), halibut (white with silver edges), and mackerel (white). Caloric content can vary wildly. One of the fattiest is the roasted eel (one of the few in which the fish is traditionally served hot).
California roll: This sushi bar basic contains vegetables including fresh avocado, cucumber, or carrot, with a little crab meat or tuna. All this is wrapped in a thin sheet of seaweed and then packed against rice. 20 calories.
Kappa maki, tekka maki, and oshinko maki: These are all small single-item rolls wrapped in thin seaweed and packed in rice. Kappa is cucumber, tekka is tuna, and oshinko is pickled ginger. These are small and sweet, and usually served in quantities of six or more. 15 calories.
Maguro and toro: Tuna and fatty tuna. Mostly packed as nigiri, it can be served a number of ways, like art usually is. Regular tuna is a dark red-pink, but fatty tuna looks almost like salmon, and has wide, white lines of fat through it. 25 calories.
Lay the appropriate groundwork
Your first stint at the bar will be more relaxed and enjoyable if you know what to expect and how to respond. For, despite the congenial spirit at most sushi bars, there is indeed a proper decorum.
Wipe your hands. Once seated, your waitress will arrive bearing an oshibori--a moist, steaming, rolled white hand towel--in a basket or on a tray. Use it to wipe your hands, then place it back, loosely folded, on the tray (or, if not available, to your right at the edge of the counter).
Prepare your hashi (chopsticks). Remove the paper wrapper, then separate the joined pair into two sticks. If your chopsticks are splintered, you may rub them together to smooth them, but please be discreet. Better sushi bars offer quality chopsticks that don`t require sanding.
Rest the chopsticks. If your placesetting includes a hashi oki (chopstick rest), position it so that your chopsticks lie about two inches (about 3 cm) away from and parallel to the edge of the counter. If not, make your own rest by folding the wrapper in half crosswise, then lengthwise, to make a V-shaped form. Turn it over so the rest stands stable, and position in front of you as above. Alternately, fold the wrapper into a simple knot: the triangular result lies flat on the counter, with openings to slide your chopsticks into.
Mix your wasabi (horseradish). Usually, you`re served a green substance that looks just like avocado. Don`t, repeat DO NOT eat it like it is! That green stuff is wasabi, a spicy horseradish. Even if you`re not fond hot substances, mixing a little of this with your soy sauce can take some of the salt out of the soy sauce (12 calories per tablespoon) and season it besides. This is fiery stuff: some folks are almost macho about how much they can stand to apply, while others swear that the slightest amount is painful. Tread cautiously, and find your own limit. Don`t look at the habits of your more experienced friends as any sort of guide.
Learn what you can order, and from whom
If the sushi bar is but part of a larger, full-service restaurant, be aware that only sushi, sashimi, soups, drinks and some snacks are served there. Everything else is served in the dining room - the rich aroma of cooked dishes interferes with the appreciation of sushi`s more subtle allure. In addition:
Your sushi chef fills only your requests for sushi. If you`re having a sushi-only experience, consider sitting up at the sushi bar rather than at a table or booth. That way you can point at what looks intriguing, or even ask the chef to improvise.
Your waiter or waitress takes care of everything else; drinks (green tea, sake and beer are the preferred); soups (most often miso); tsukemono (pickles), and certain other snacks. Some sushi bars offer little nibbles with your drink: don`t pass on the edamame - whole cooked soybeans, salted in the pod and eaten like roasted peanuts in the shell.
Is there really a "right" way to season and eat sushi? There is an accepted etiquette - but as far as which dishes you prefer and how you want to season them, it`s up to you. The best bet is to start simply and work up from there as your palate becomes more educated to the shadings of sushi flavors.
Soup and salads: Miso soup and salad greens make wonderful appetizers. Greens usually consist of cucumber strips and a wonderful, seasoned white vinegar. Miso soup is a warm broth with chunks of tofu, and often with strips of vegetables.
Choose a basic roll. There are several basic rolls that are the standard for any sushi menu. They are usually all small and served in quantities of six, though the servings may vary from place to place. Small pieces of fish or vegetables surrounded by white rice and wrapped in thin sheets of seaweed, they include cucumber or carrot rolls, avocado rolls, salmon and tuna rolls, and the ubiquitous California roll. Dipping the ends of these in the soy sauce mixture will surely delight - just make the dip quick, no so long as to make the roll get mushy.
Step up to more elaborate dishes
Move on to the nigiri. After warming up your tastebuds with the rolls, you may move on to the larger, more engaging fish. Here you get much larger rice and slabs of fish sometimes accompanied by roe (i.e., fish eggs) or sesame seeds.
Close your eyes. Sushi isn`t just food, it`s taste theater - flavors are designed to wash over your tongue in graceful sequence. If you`re put off by the ingredients, try relaxing and closing your eyes after you`ve taken a bite. It should intensify the theater-in-the-mouth experience.
Trust your tongue. Even the biggest sushi afficionados don`t love all kinds of sushi - it`s about variety, so don`t be afraid to build your own personal list of favorites and ignore peer pressure of any sort. If you don`t like clam or salmon roe or whole sweet shrimp, just smile and pass on that round. A world of flavors is always just another order away.