Now that you can finally tell your hamachi from your chutoro, you may think you have the sushi bases covered. We bet you don’t. Two illuminating new books on the subject—The Sushi Economy (Gotham Books, $26), by Sasha Issenberg, and Trevor Corson’s The Zen of Fish (HarperCollins, $24.95)—will have you contemplating whether you’ve ever tasted real wasabi (the answer is probably no) and why you’d better learn to like squid. TONY sat down with the scribes (over sushi, of course) to get must-have intel for your next fish-and-rice repast.
Trevor Corson will read from and sign copies of The Zen of Fish at Chelsea Barnes & Noble (675 6th Ave at 22nd St) on June 11 at 7pm.
Sit at the bar “Sushi chefs function sort of like bartenders,” says Issenberg. “The whole table thing is an American concept.” If you strike up a conversation, you’re likely to find the chef happy to share some knowledge—and the choicest fish.
Lose the chopsticks Nigiri, vinegared rice topped with a slice of fish, should be eaten with your fingers. This is because the rice is meant to be packed so loosely that it falls apart in your mouth (and disintegrates on chopsticks). “Pick it up like a computer mouse, then turn it upside down and dip it into the soy sauce, fish side first,” explains Corson. “And eat it in one bite.”
Forgo the murky sauce “Adding wasabi to soy sauce is a disaster,” laments Corson. “It reduces the spiciness dramatically and masks the taste of the fish.”
Mind your manners If the chef sees you snapping up nigiri with chopsticks or dipping rice side first, he’ll accommodate your habits by packing the rice more tightly. He’ll also tag you as a sushi ignoramus. “Chefs are always making conscious decisions about how they allocate their food,” says Issenberg. Indicate that you’re a conscientious diner, and you will be rewarded.
Eat up “Right out of the chef’s hands is really the only way to eat sushi,” says Corson. “You should eat within seconds of it being made. Otherwise, the nori gets all soggy.”
What to order
For health “Salmon, tuna and yellowtail should have warning flags on them,” says Corson, “especially for children and women of childbearing age.” A good rule of thumb for avoiding cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, pollutants found in the ocean) and mercury is to order lean fish low on the food chain. Safer choices include flounder, snapper and mackerel.
For A good deal It may seem counterintuitive, but get the expensive stuff if you’re looking for a bargain. “With mackerel, flounder and fluke—which are caught out of the Atlantic and don’t cost much—the menu price of one nigiri is probably close to what the restaurant pays for a whole pound,” says Issenberg. Meanwhile, the markup on tuna or uni may be next to nothing.
For the planet “If I were making my eating choices for environmental reasons alone, I probably wouldn’t eat much fish at all,” says Corson. “So much of its production is unsustainable.” Your best bet is to order shellfish and mackerel, which Corson describes as “a far more sustainable choice than, say, tuna.” And what of the future of our unagi and toro? “By 2050,” says Corson, “we’re going to be eating squid sushi only.”
Decoding the plate
Wasabi Once used as an antiseptic to counteract fish-borne toxins, wasabi is hardly typical of authentic sushi fare. “There is a cultural association that ethnic food is something that challenges the extremes of your palate,” says Issenberg. “That’s why a lot of Americans think of wasabi as one of the principal Japanese flavors.” But real wasabi root is rare and very expensive. The green paste we eat is a mixture of horseradish and mustard tricked out with food coloring.
Rice Centuries ago, Japanese farmers packed fish in rice to preserve the catch, later discarding the grains. This method may be a thing of the past, but the different types of rice used in sushi have become important factors for distinguishing the quality of maki and nigiri.
Ginger, bamboo and radish Like wasabi, these items first edged their way onto the plate for their antiseptic qualities. Radish and bamboo are now largely used for garnish; only ginger maintains a practical use as a palate cleanser.
Soy sauce Easy on the sauce—the stuff can overwhelm lighter fish. Request a house soy sauce, which is often diluted with dashi, a broth made from fish flakes and kelp.
Sushi is good for you The American thirst for all things fatty helped make tuna the industry’s most valuable commodity. But cuts of bluefin are laced with fat that often stores harmful toxins.
Sushi is A fresh meal How ’bout not. Many species need aging for their flavor to mature. “A Japanese nickname for tuna was shibi, which means 'four days,’” says Corson. “There was a tradition of burying a tuna for four days before you ate it, to develop flavor.” Other fish on sushi menus are served pickled or have been previously frozen.
Pricey sushi comes from a “better” supplier “There are so few supply chains that two sushi bars on the same block charging dramatically different prices may be getting the same fish from the same distributor,” says Issenberg.
Sake is sushi’s natural mate The rice wine flows freely at sushi bars, but it’s a fool’s pairing—the flavor of sake is too similar to rice to enrich the meal. Opt for beer or green tea—their bitterness acts as a palate cleanser.
Nori is key for a sushi meal Not so, says Issenberg. “The nori industry exists because of the fact that Americans eat rolls,” he explains. “The idea that you would build a meal of just a variety of rolls is really an American innovation.”