While I was on my review visits at KA Sushi, I had a little nagging voice in the back of my head. “Aren’t those pieces kind of small?” I temporarily shooed it away, chalking up my expectations for larger pieces to an American—and, most especially, Texan—acclimation to larger portion sizes. Everything is bigger in Texas, right?
I wanted a second opinion, and for that, I tapped my friend Carl Rosa, founder of the Sushi Club of Houston. Rosa travels to Japan eight times a year and has dined at some of the most renowned sushi restaurants in the world.
We met at KA Sushi and ordered the chef’s selection of 10 pieces of nigiri. When they arrived, Rosa confirmed my suspicion. “No, I see small pieces,” he confirmed. “Look.” He plucked a lemon wedge off of his glass of water and set it down on the sushi tray. “Those are the size of a lemon wedge.”
The size, however, was a small sin. The big one was that on the night of our visit, the rice on KA Sushi’s nigiri was cold. It wasn’t as if it had just come from a refrigerator, but it was decidedly cool, as if it had been chilled and left out for two hours to warm. On my review visits — which took place on busier nights — the rice was closer to room temperature. Rosa says the ideal rice is close to body temperature — that is, slightly warm.
Sushi means “soured rice.” The sour part comes from a dose of rice vinegar, added when freshly cooked rice is stirred, ideally in an unvarnished wooden bowl, and allowed to cool. How important is the rice? According to sushi chefs, it’s the biggest factor in whether sushi is good or not.
Rosa shared a video clip from Anthony Bourdain’s television show Parts Unknown. It features sushi chef Naomichi Yasuda, who spent 27 years honing his craft in New York before returning to Japan to open Sushi Bar Yasuda in Tokyo’s Minami-Aoyama district.
There are two very important points covered in the video. The first is that the importance of the rice used for nigiri cannot be overstated.
The second dispels a prevalent myth among Americans about sushi. We think sushi is good because the fish is “fresh.” It is not, nor should it be, and if consumers knew the truth, they’d never think they wanted it that way.
Fish for sushi is flash-frozen. In fact, with the exception of certain species of tuna, the Food & Drug Administration requires freezing in order to kill any parasites in the flesh.
An even lesser-known fact is that, ideally, fish for sushi benefits from aging, just like a fine steak. Aging leads to water evaporation and intensification of flavors, and gives enzymes an opportunity to break down the tissues a bit, which means the fish is tender, not chewy.
How many diners ask sushi chefs what’s “fresh”? It’s a rude question in any context, since it indicates that some of what the chefs prepare is somehow of lesser quality. It turns out that, when it comes to fish, that question is also a dumb one. (Different standards apply to crustaceans, crab and specialty items such as uni, which really should be fresh.)
As popular as sushi is in the United States, there is much about it that many people don’t know and have never been taught. To that end, here are some tips on how to properly evaluate it.
10. Don't ask what’s “fresh.” Instead, ask what the specials are, if those are not already listed on a separate page on the menu. That is the path that will lead you to the items that are more rare or in-season. “The freshest fish is the worst,” says Rosa. As chef Naomichi Yasuda says in this video, “Fresh fish has no taste. It’s just chewy.” Closer to home, in a KTRH 740 am interview, chef Bryan Caswell of Reef shares that perspective, saying, “I’m a big believer in fish being able to rest a certain amount of time. It has to age to a certain point.” (That discussion takes place at around the 8:15 mark of the interview.)
9. Sit and order at the sushi bar. This allows you to observe not only what’s being made where (in the kitchen or at the sushi bar) but the condition of the sushi bar itself. Is it clean and organized? Food preparation areas always should be. Rosa says, “It’s surprising how many times your sushi will come out of the back,” and this is because restaurants have to prepare food in advance on busy nights.
8. When nigiri arrives, the very first thing to do is feel the rice. What’s the temperature? Is it cold, room temperature or warm? Rosa points out that, according to health department rules, pre-cooked rice must be thrown out after four hours. (Thanks to the addition of vinegar, sushi rice is actually regarded as less hazardous at room temperature than unseasoned rice.) So, if sushi rice is cold, it wasn’t thrown out. It was held overnight in the refrigerator, and that’s a no-no. Rosa says, “Body temperature (90-100 degrees) is ideal, not room temperature (which is 20 degrees colder, in the wrong direction). But even room temperature is slightly better than cold.”
7. One measure of a sushi chef’s skill is the humble tamago, or sweetened egg omelette nigiri. It is often ignored by diners (even though it's often one of the least expensive kinds of nigiri), but great sushi chefs take pride in their skill in making it. Rosa says this is the measure the former head chef of Kubo’s uses in his own evaluation. Order a single piece and when it arrives, break it in half. Are there air bubbles? “If there are air bubbles, he knows he is not dealing with an experienced chef,” says Rosa. “Tamago is a big deal!” He also says it smells so good that chef and James Beard semifinalist Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi of Kata Robata lets the scent of a freshly cooked pan of tamago waft through Kata Robata to pique diners’ interest.
6. Sushi need not be excessively expensive to be good. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Rosa says, “An outstanding sushi dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro (renowned among many as one of the best sushi restaurants in the world) is about $180 for 16 pieces. Sometimes, after tax and gratuity, ‘special sushi dinners’ in Houston come close to the same price and the quality isn’t nearly the same. It’s a question of devotion to your passion and craft.”
5. Ask the server or the sushi chef where the rice comes from. If he or she says “Japan,” that person either doesn't know or is being intentionally misleading. Ask to see the package label. The vast majority of sushi rice used in the United States is grown in California, and it's amazing how many servers, sushi chefs and even restaurant owners don’t realize that.
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4. The current trend of adding toppings to nigiri — citrus zest, yuzu, pepper slices and the like — is exactly that, a trend. “Sushi is about simplicity,” says Rosa. The issue is that it is too easy for these strong ingredients to overwhelm the taster’s perception of the fish and the rice. There's nothing wrong with enjoying the combination, just as it's not wrong to enjoy a sushi roll that's a bit overwrought with flavored mayonnaise. Rosa says just be aware that it's for fun, not good sushi. A sushi master applies additional flavors to fish sparingly and only when needed. Rosa says one example is that Horiuchi brushes a little vinegar on sardines to neutralize and balance the strong, oily flavor.
3. Don’t add soy or wasabi to nigiri — but it’s perfectly fine for sashimi. When a sushi chef hands you a piece of nigiri, it is, in his estimation, perfect as is. It is insulting to dip it in a slurry of soy and wasabi and destroys the nuances of fish and rice alike. (Additionally, doing so moistens the rice and causes it to break apart.) That said, the slurry snobs need to calm down when it comes to sashimi. It’s a perfectly fine accompaniment to fish.
2. The best sushi chefs size nigiri to the individual. That means a petite, five-foot-tall lady will not get giant slabs of fish, nor will a lumberjack get pieces the size of a lemon wedge.
1. Don't be a pompous jerk. If there’s a problem with your sushi, or the knowledge of the people serving it is lacking, that's not an excuse to be rude or use your newfound knowledge to lord it over other people. Just pick a more worthy restaurant next time.