I barely remember my first sushi. It was a very long time ago, before this food became a worldwide fad. We four awkward American kids were invited, with my mother and father, aboard a visiting Japanese warship when we lived on an American base overseas. Long time ago.
Our family was honored by the ship’s captain with a beautiful luncheon. Course after course of Japanese specialties. Dried fish, raw fish, various forms of seaweed. I remember some of it. I’m told the delicacies were many and varied, and the chef was terribly impressed that we children didn’t balk at a thing. We have always been a family of omnivores, ready to try anything.
I’d LOVE to be a picky eater, but unfortunately, I’m not. I’d love to be a less experimental cook, or one who could follow a recipe instead of tasting a dish to doneness, but I’m not. The ease of putting on extra pounds attests to all of this.
So, when I recommend foods here, I know very well that what I love and recommend will not thrill everyone. I know that. (Just suggested to my mom yesterday that she try oatmeal with olive oil and salt instead of sugar and creme. Crazy? Yummy!)
And so we come to sushi and sashimi. I know many people will not try these foods because the very idea of raw fish just gives them chills.
But I do encourage these folks to try to get over that. Try it anyway.
There are few foods (soymilk on an empty stomach is the other one for me) capable of giving me (and I am not alone) quite the same rush of well being that sushi does. By now you likely know that warm, full, buzzing calm that comes after a good workout. Well, sushi can give you something close to that feeling, without all the work. I don’t know if it’s the immediacy of the protein together with the high glycemic rice, the hot wasabi and ginger, or the beauty of the presentation. It doesn’t seem to matter what my mood is or whether I’ve ordered expensive, rare sushi styles from an edgy little Japanese restaurant, or picked up a six pack of tuna rolls from the local grocery’s stand, I get the same feeling.
In my mind, there are two ways to enjoy sushi: Sushi somebody else makes. Sushi you make yourself.
If you’re trying sushi for the first time, pick a restaurant where it’s made right in front of you. Take someone with you who knows and likes sushi. Let it be just the two of you and the chef. No need for a crowd. Go for a late lunch or early dinner, and tell the chef, you’re a newbie, and you’d like to start out easy.
It’s most likely you will begin with a cooked shrimp and vegetable presentation. From there, I recommend trying a tangy tuna or buttery salmon (think lox!). Do start with sushi, which presents the fish on a fingerling of sticky rice. (The rice is sushi. If you order sashimi, you will be presented with a beautiful array of fresh fish and squid and octopus and clams, whatever’s in season or very fresh that day, without the rice, but possibly with a bit of a salad or raw vegetable presentation on the side. You’ll graduate to this, and it’s of course the best way to go if you’re low-carbing.
You will likely be offered a dipping sauce. Perhaps soy, perhaps some other sauce the chef has prepared. I recommend waiting on the sauce. Start by allowing yourself to really enjoy the texture and taste of the fish. That’s what you’re after. A new food that’s really good for you.
If you’re new to raw fish, the first bit to understand is the texture. What will it be like? Not as tough as luncheon meats, not as soft as cooked fish. It’s velvety. That’s my best description. Imagine the most tender and rare filet mignon you’ve ever eaten, make it cool and infuse it with ocean. That’s what tuna is like. Salmon is more tender yet. Softer Salmon will melt in your mouth. From there move on to yellowtail, try some halibut, red snapper.
Your first sushi will give easily to your bite, and will be cool and moist on your tongue and lips. It won’t be smelly. Fresh fish doesn’t smell. There’s nothing “fishy” about it really, but it will have a definite sea air. You will exhale ocean.
I recommend you decide before you bite into it that you will let this bite of fish fill your mouth the way you would your most favorite savory food. Don’t be tentative about it. And then, with that first bite, know you have joined the greater human family, your ancestors’ ancestors who relied on raw fish for their very survival. We’ve come a long way and made a high art of its presentation. Nice.
Many presentations make use of seaweed wrappings. Seaweed tastes grassy, spinachy, and oceany all at once. Sometimes it’s a bit salty. It’s often used to wrap sushi, fish and vegetables into rolls, which are then sliced for presentation, or it might be used more as a garnish.
Like hot stuff? Ask the chef to include a little more wasabi, the special Japanese horseradish paste. Or if you’re at a tofu stand, you’ll likely get some on the side you can dollop on. A little goes a long way. There will likely be pickled ginger around to cleanse your palette between bites. Don’t miss it. It’s very good for you.
Eat three or four pieces of your new favorite food, then wait for it. That little rush of well-being. A sudden brain burst. A sudden appreciation for all that is good and true in the world. No kidding. From fish. Why would I make this up?
So, of course, I had to learn to make it. And really, it’s not very difficult to make. The hard part is getting the rice just right, and of course finding a source of very fresh, sushi-grade fishes. But once you have those tricks down, the rest is plain fun, will impress your neighbors, and give you something elegant and light to bring to those infernal potlucks that seem to crop up everywhere just when you’ve decided to mind your diet more carefully.
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