A sushi primer
September 15, 2016
From street food to fine dining
The development of specialized sushi restaurants also formalized the way sushi was served and eaten. In many restaurants the fish was displayed in chilled glass-fronted compartments, so customers could see what seafood was in season and available. For those sitting at the counter, the itamae (sushi chef) would place the sushi in front of them one piece at a time. But the engrained custom was to eat each piece with the fingers rather than with chopsticks – and this has continued to the present, even in high-class restaurants.
For those sitting at separate tables, a selection of several varieties would be served, often on wooden platters. Set menus developed, and some restaurants began offering a range of light appetizers as well, from sashimi to cooked fish, usually ending the meal with miso soup and a selection of pickles.
These days the most popular fish at sushi restaurants is tuna, with prime cuts of fatty belly meat commanding substantial prices. But this is a recent phenomenon. Because tuna was not caught in Tokyo Bay, it was not one of the original sushi ingredients. The classic Edomae varieties include shrimp, squid, various kinds of shellfish, mackerel and small, blue-skinned fish known as kohada marinated in vinegar. Conger eel is broiled and basted with a sweet-savory sauce. And the meal usually closes with a thick tranche of sweetened omelet (tamagoyaki).
As transportation networks became more efficient, the variety of fish available through the Tsukiji market increased rapidly. These days there is very little seafood that is not used in sushi. It is airfreighted in from all corners of Japan – and from around the globe. Even so, in Japan, the old standards remain hugely popular, along with fish such as yellowtail (hamachi), jack mackerel (aji), skipjack tuna (katsuo) and sea bream (tai).
New styles of sushi continued to be developed, especially sushi rolls. Rice and chopped seafood (and often other ingredients), are wrapped inside sheets of nori seaweed and firmly pressed into long cylinders known as norimaki. A variant of this is temaki (“hand roll”), with the sushi placed inside a lightly formed cone of nori. Larger versions also emerged, containing a colorful mixture of fillings, for which the term futomaki (“fat roll”) was coined.
Nori seaweed is used to make gunkanmaki (literally “warship roll,” because of its somewhat nautical appearance). Wrapped around a patty of rice, it forms a barrier that can be filled with softer forms of seafood, most notably sea urchin (uni) or salmon roe (ikura). This style was invented in 1941 by a renowned Ginza sushi restaurant, but it is now a standard part of the repertoire of every sushi chef.
Over the years, an elaborate etiquette and vocabulary has arisen around sushi restaurants. Each customer was given their own dipping sauce, often referred to by the poetic term murasaki (“purple”). To prevent the rice from absorbing too much sauce and potentially falling apart, the sushi is turned over, and only the seafood is given the extra seasoning. The sushi is usually eaten upside down as well, so that the fish comes into contact with the tongue first.
Pickled ginger (known as gari) is served alongside the sushi. This serves to refresh the palate and help the diner fully enjoy the various different sushi tastes. For those not drinking sake, green tea is served throughout the meal.
Because of the potential health risks involved in eating raw fish, sushi restaurants need to be rigorously conscious of cleanliness. This is reflected not only in the sparse decor, bright lighting and prevailing aroma of vinegar, but also the loud, crisp calls of greeting as customers arrive and depart.
Whether as a casual snack picked up from a convenience store or a gourmet meal at a multi-Michelin-starred restaurant, sushi is continuing to evolve as it continues to spread around the world. But its essence remains the same: rice, vinegar and seafood, seasoned with wasabi and soy sauce. Apparently simple but requiring a depth of skill to perfect, it is the quintessential Japanese food.
Text: Robbie Swinnerton