Sushi Syllabus

A guide to Japan's original fast food

Sushi Syllabus

Jean Allsopp

It's all about the rice. Of course, the seafood that finds its way onto (or into) sushi must be safe and delicious. But a sushi tsu, or connoisseur, always judges sushi by the rice. A drizzle of vinegar and a dash of sugar ties sushi rice to the season―a touch more vinegar in the summer, a little extra sweetness in winter.

Take a minute to look at that pecan-size, hand-pressed nugget of sushi rice. Molded with a cupped palm and two fingers, most of the grains will be aligned, not one squished or loose. Size and shape might vary, but not consistency or precision. Your stock portfolio should be so well constructed. Oh, and temperature is crucial. Touch your cheek; that's the ideal temperature for sushi rice.

Regional varieties of sushi are like wines in France: diverse and almost always worth tasting. Sliced rolls with rice and ingredients stuffed inside are maki sushi. Temaki, or hand-wrapped sushi, consists of crispy seaweed cones stuffed with rice and fillings. Chirashi sushi comes in bowls, with rice topped by various ingredients. Rice and other ingredients pressed into multilayered cakes is bara sushi. Most common is bite-size nigiri sushi. Don't worry about eating either of these last two with chopsticks; they're among Japan's original finger foods.

Choose your sushi by selecting the tane, or fillings, in ascending order from lean fish to richer ones. Maguro (tuna) is a good starter; even better are cuts of white-flesh fish such as halibut, sea bass, or red snapper, which offer a stunning range of sophisticated flavors often highlighted with additions such as grated ginger, scallions, and daikon radish. Finish your meal with salmon, eel, or mackerel―fishes abundant in natural oils and fats.

Westerners with a taste for spicy food developed an instant crush on wasabi, a volcanic detonation on the tongue that can do to the subtle tastes and textures of good sushi what a heavy metal band can do to a motel suite. Avoid stirring up an iridescent green slurry of wasabi and soy sauce in which to plunk your sushi. Dip in plain soy sauce, and you'll find gustatory experiences the wasabi addict never tastes. And resist dipping the rice part of nigiri sushi into soy. Just touch one of the filling ends into the dish.

Sometimes the flavors of sushi take a back seat and let texture do the driving. Squid or abalone create what the Japanese call "taste-feel," more mouth sensation than flavor. Sound odd? Well, so does eating celery, if you think about it―and the pleasant meatiness of octopus is a lot more satisfying.

Sitting at a sushi bar is your chance to interact with the chef. If you're self-conscious, mention how much you'd like to spend for your meal and add, "Omakase kudasai," which roughly translates to, "I'm in your hands. Feed me."

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