On the surface, sushi is pretty simple — a small slab of fish or shellfish on top of a small clump of rice. Then how come there are sushi lunches sold for $10 at the grocery store and $150 per person omakase (chef’s choice) at high-end sushi restaurants? What’s the difference?
The difference is largely in the care and preparation, on both the part of the chef and the ability of the customer to appreciate it.
Preparation of the chef when coaxing flavors
The taste of fish tends to be subtle, and high-end sushi chefs do extensive preparation to coax those flavors out of the ingredients they generally don’t put to flame.
Like any great dish, it starts with great ingredients. High-end sushi chefs often cultivate a personal relationship with their fishmonger, who are even more knowledgeable about the fish and their catch. In some cases, there are fishmongers that only specialize in shrimp or a particular type of fish. Chefs rely on the fishmonger to get them the best quality fish for their restaurants.
The attentive sushi chef also keeps their kitchen and work area impeccably clean and tidy, even when they’re making sushi at a busy time. It goes without saying hygiene is incredibly important when consuming raw seafood so customers don’t get sick, but also, a clean dining area also helps customers appreciate subtle flavors of fish better. Some places even pay attention to the smell of their restaurant when you walk in.
When fish are butchered, it’s done in a specific way, called ikejime, to prevent the fish from thrashing around. It’s not only humane, but also improves the taste of the fish when aged.
Contrary to common perception, most sushi fish is aged before being served. Some fish, like halibut and tuna, are chewy and has little taste when eaten immediately after being caught. These fish are aged to coax flavors out of their flesh. Other fish are marinated in salt, sugar, and vinegar to bring out its flavor. Knowing exactly how much time and which cuts to age or marinate takes experience and experimentation.
Many sushi restaurants won’t bother, but the high-end ones serve the rice at body temperature, to contrast it with the colder temperature of the fish. That not only takes preparation, but also timing — which makes it difficult to pull off.
Lastly, the Japanese say they feast with their eyes — as much as their stomachs. That tradition pushed sushi to be one of the most colorful and artful kind of cuisine due to the attention to plating and presentation.
Of course, different sushi restaurants take a varying degree of care and detailed preparation to provide these flavors to their customers, though you can be certain grocery stores do not. It’s up to you as a discerning consumer to ask questions of your chef to tell the difference between them and adjust your expectations and your wallets accordingly. And that’s the difference between your $10 grocery store sushi versus the $150 omakase sushi. However, that’s only half the story.
Preparation of the customer when paying attention
When sushi beginners start, they’re overwhelmed by the myriad number of rules of etiquette that are prescribed.
- Don’t drown the nigiri sushi in soy sauce
- Don’t eat the ginger with the fish
- Don’t mix the wasabi in the soy sauce
- Eat the nigiri sushi in one bite
That’s usually too much to remember. All you have to do is be mindful that it takes a lot of effort and expertise to coax the most complex and subtle flavors out of fish without cooking it.
In fact, all the rules of etiquette in sushi boil down to paying attention and appreciating the subtle and complex flavors of the meal.
Pay attention to the neutral smells in the restaurant so you can taste your fish. Pay attention to the rhythm of the chef as he makes your meal so you eat at a consistent pace. Pay attention to the plating of your meal to appeal to your visual aesthetics as well as your palate. Pay attention to the taste and smell of the fish balanced with the rice. Pay attention to whether the blend of soy sauce with a hint of wasabi. Pay attention to the sequence of flavors of fish in an omakase. Because by paying attention, you’ll not only get your money’s worth as a discerning patron, but you will also enjoy it more.
Again, not every restaurant will attend to every little detail, and we can’t afford to go to the restaurants that do all the time. But when we do go, being present and able to appreciate it will make it worth our while. Otherwise, if we’re not paying attention, at best we’re a fool being parted with our wallet, and at worst we’re missing out on the spectrum of what the world has to offer.
Appreciating it for what it is
Of course, not all sushi is haute cuisine. In fact, it started as a street food, and took a long time for its practitioners and patrons to develop the techniques and taste for its complexities.
So if you do manage to get a craving, and find yourself with grocery store sushi, simply appreciate it for what it is. But if you do find yourself in a high-end restaurant, make sure you take in every moment.
Liked what you read? Get it in your inbox.