Venture Down a New Sushi Road: A Newbie's Guide to Sushi

When it comes to sushi, some love it, some hate it and some only eat California rolls. But, there is so much more to sushi than just a roll of rice with cream cheese, avocado and crab. If you, like me until recently, have never ordered sashimi or nigiri and have stuck with the hand-rolled sushi, I suggest you venture along a new path of eating true sushi.

Carl Rosa, President of the Sushi Club of Houston, contacted me after reading my story about trying raw fish at Uni Sushi, offering to teach me more about sushi. How could I pass up this opportunity?

We met at Kubo's Sushi Bar & Grill in the Rice Arcade Shopping Center for lunch and discussed the basics of sushi. He broke down each component -- rice, fish, soy sauce and wasabi -- and took me through a sushi menu starting with basic sushi, then working my way up to more exotic flavors.

I have put together a newbie's guide to eating sushi to help you understand sushi better so you'll learn to love and appreciate this flavorful cuisine.

5. Rice and Fish Go Hand in Hand

When you eat a sushi roll, you usually can't distinguish between each flavor inside the roll. You have avocado, cucumber, seaweed, rice, crab or shrimp and spicy mayo, and then you've probably drenched it in soy sauce, right? Rosa explains that the problem with this is that it strays away from what sushi is -- simple. Like most dishes, the flavors are meant to complement each other, not fight for attention.

Sushi rice and fish are of equal importance. If the rice is body-temperature warm, it's good rice and will balance with the flavor of the fish. Rosa says the fish and rice need to be a "harmonious combination."

4. Do Not Mix Wasabi and Soy Sauce

Not that we're judging, but raise your hand if you have done this. Rosa says it's one of the biggest faux pas with sushi. First of all, you should use a minimal amount of soy sauce. The sushi should not be overpowered by the soy sauce, or you're taking away from the pure flavor of the rice and fish.

Think of it this way: If you need more soy sauce, you can always pour more. Second, wasabi and soy sauce are meant to be used in different ways. Soy sauce enhances the flavor of the sushi. Wasabi is a spicier component that is already added to most sushi. Don't kill your taste buds by drenching your sushi in wasabi or soy sauce. You won't learn to love the simplicity of the rice and fish.

** On a side note, the majority of wasabi served in America is artificial -- dry mustard, dry horseradish and green food coloring. The real wasabi is actually called Hon Wasabi (on the right), or fresh-grated wasabi root (and it's a lot more expensive). Hon Wasabi tastes fresher and doesn't have the shockingly spicy taste that the artificial wasabi has -- it diffuses through your taste buds, leaving them tingling, not gasping for water. Look for it on the menu and order it the next time you're in a sushi restaurant.

3. Take Baby Steps

As I said in my review of Uni Sushi, I took baby steps when I decided to try a sushi roll with a piece of raw fish on top. Don't order something so exotic or unfamiliar to you the first time you decide to eat nigiri or sashimi. It takes time to build a palate for raw fish. It's kind of like riding a bike. Take the training wheels off, order something that is cooked, then work your way up by trying familiar fish. Rosa started me off with unagi, a barbecued freshwater eel. The cooked fish with teriyaki sauce was a good fit with my palate. It wasn't strange or gross; it actually melted in my mouth and was extremely sweet, making it easier to eat.

2. Learn the Proper Way to Use Chopsticks

Not everyone knows how to use chopsticks, and even for those who do, they are probably using them wrong. When grabbing any sushi off of a community plate, the thicker end of the chopsticks must be used. It's improper to use the end you put in your mouth to grab sushi off of a community plate. Just like you wouldn't use your fork or spoon to take food from a plate or bowl in a buffet line.

Also, only use chopsticks when eating sushi rolls, not when eating nigiri, which means "to grab." When you're eating nigiri, use the thick end of the chopsticks to place it on your plate, then, using your fingers, pick up the sushi, turn it upside down so the fish is on the bottom, lightly dip the fish in the soy sauce and eat it in one bite. It's easy, simple and won't make a mess.

1. All Fish Taste Differently

Each piece of fish on a sushi menu tastes different from others. Experiment with the ones you enjoy the most. Everyone has a different appreciation for different fish, so take a gamble after you've begun to work your way into eating raw fish. If you want to take the route I took, start with yellowtail, or amberjack, then try salmon (sake), tuna belly (toro) and tuna (akami).

I tried sea urchin (uni) gunkanmaki and surprisingly enjoyed the buttery and golden flavors. But if you have not tried nigiri, you probably don't want to order sea urchin. It's expensive, and it's too advanced for a beginner's palate.

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Molly Dunn
Contact: Molly Dunn