Sushi…… is one of my favorite culinary indulgences. The different combinations of flavors, colors, textures and subtle aromas are a gastronomic delight that I look forward to whenever I can. I have experienced sushi from coast to coast in the United States and coast to coast in Australia in the form of the popular Edo style sushi, but one day hope to get to Japan for a more diverse approaches to sushi, perhaps even a culinary tour of Japan might be in the offing at some point before I die.
The absolute favorite sushi experience ever was a little place in Sydney Australia called Yoshii where I was presented with an omakase (chef’s choice) course of sushi and sake. It was not a cheap dinner, but I was most grateful for the experience as I had just gotten off of a trans-contenental flight from Perth. It was late as I checked into the Sydney Radisson (nice place but the hotel was apparently unable to manage an Internet connection) and asked the concierge where the best sushi in Sydney was to which he responded “Yoshii, but that they would be closing in 20 minutes”. I asked for the address and all out sprinted the half mile through the nighttime Sydney streets, arriving somewhat out of breath at the door where I was ushered in without hesitation and treated to the most impressive service with beautifully prepared sushi and amazingly good sake. The meal was exquisite in form, taste, preparation and presentation as I watched it come together behind the bar with all the cuts of fish being made with laser precision and impressively discrete knife handling skills. It was almost like watching a martial art as each move of the blade completed the cut, yet was also made with an apparent economy of effort and no flourishes necessary to impress the patrons at the bar. Each preparation was presented on individually unique hand made plates with coral chopstick rests that were a marvel to appreciate in of themselves. When all was said and done, the restaurant staff all bowed deeply and thanked me for coming in while offering me elegant little bottles of sake and business cards on my way out while the Maître d’ offered to hail me a cab. I declined in favor of a late night walk through Sydney, allowing me to savor of the last two and a half hours of divinely inspired cuisine.
That experience has yet to be equalled, but believe it or not, here in land locked Salt Lake City, Utah, there are places to obtain some of the best sushi around. My favorite local resource for tasty sushi is Kyoto down on 1080 East and 1300 South (astonishingly, they have no Internet presence) where my friends Akira, Auggie and Katsu prepare some mighty fine sushi.
Akira would like to experiment more with offerings (I’d love to see what he could come up with), however, the owner prefers a more traditional style and that is what you can expect from Kyoto. Kyoto has been around for a number of years and while I do wish for more noodle dishes, the restaurant serves a traditional Japanese menu that will have no problem passing muster with the sushi police.
I’ve have been a regular at Kyoto for years, but it has only been recently that Auggie asked me to photograph some of his sushi to build his portfolio. I replied that I’d love to formally do a photo shoot of his stuff, and I look forward to finding some time in the not too distant future to invest the several hours or so required to do a proper photo shoot with more control over the process which may require building a light box and using flashes to properly exhibit the work of Auggie, Katsu and Akira with sushi carefully made, one at a time. I have got to say that sites like strobist have me seriously considering integrating more flash work into my photography, something I have long been resistant to do for some reason in favor of naturally illuminated images. All of that said, what follows is a listing of staples of the sushi experience within informal shots bathed in ambient light. These selections are items that you might (or might not) commonly see in your local sushi restaurant.
All prepared sushi uses as its base, a short grain rice prepared with rice wine vinegar, sugar, salt, a sea kelp called kombu and perhaps a touch of sake. Traditionally, sushi refers to the rice itself, but in the US has been taken to represent the entire combination of sushi rice and the fish or other items to top it with.
Wasabi (not hon wasabi) and pickled ginger or gari are staples of the sushi experience. Wasabe takes some getting used to as it possesses a spiciness akin to a hot mustard rather than a hot pepper. The effect of a little too much wasabe is what I like to “vapor lock” as the aroma irritates the nasal passages. However, taken in smaller doses, the effect is pleasurable and brief. While most places use a wasabe powder derived of horseradish and food coloring. For regular sushi consumption, this is OK, but you really owe it to yourself to find and try some real wasabe derived from the Wasabia japonica root.
Gari or pickled ginger is thinly sliced ginger root that is marinated in a solution of sugar and vinegar. It is typically served along side sushi as a palate cleanser, and it does this remarkably well. While I’ve seen some folks eat the ginger in the same bite as the sushi, it is intended to be used after eating a sushi item to prepare the palate for the next (different) item. I tend to really like ginger, and derive a sorta natural high after eating sushi, ginger, wasabe and drinking green tea. Its a good feeling, like all is well in the world.
Miso soup is a traditional soup made fundamentally from dashi that has miso paste stirred into it. Miso soup can be made from red (akamiso), white (shiromiso) or black (kuromiso) miso paste, but at Kyoto they use a mix of akamiso and shiromiso to make for a more complex flavor and balance out the saltiness.
Aji or Spanish mackerel is a wonderful fish for sushi or sashimi that is light and low in fat with a smooth grained texture. It is one of my favorite items on the sushi menu and really should be eaten as a two portion treat after the sushi or sashimi portion with the bones specially prepared by the chef who will deep fry them for you to eat bones and all as a crispy treat.
Ebi or saltwater boiled shrimp is a cooked form of sushi that is often a good place for folks new to the sushi scene to start. After all, who does not love shrimp? The texture is firm, with a subtle flavor that while good, is much less satisfying than the harder to find raw form or ama ebe which is softer, yet almost al-dente in terms of texture with a sweeter taste and a slightly creamy feel. They are a true luxury with the tastiest ones I’ve found surprisingly, coming from the North East United States area.
Hamachi or amberjack is another favorite among sushi aficionados with a smooth flesh and uniquely recognizable flavor that places it on my list of favorite selections.
Hamachi itself is tasty enough, but the fatty belly of the hamachi is quite the delicacy particularly in the winter months when hamachi has a bit more fat in it. It possesses the smoothness of a more fatty portion of fish combined with a unique flavor that is best if sampled from just behind the pectoral fins.
Hotategai or scallop is one of the sweeter items on the sushi menu that you can order. I also particularly like it chopped up in handrolls wrapped in nori.
Ika can be made with either squid or cuttlefish. I love eating squid, cooked and raw but my personal bias is to never eat cuttlefish or octopus as I’ve had an octopus as a pet and both the octopus and cuttlefish are at least as smart as dogs. Spending time with Cephus (her name) was one of the most amazing experiences I ever had as a pet owner, but that is another blog entry entirely. I have no problem eating squid as they are most tasty culinary items and they (squid) being some of the most aggressively alien like species on the planet would have no problem whatsoever eating me, or each other for that matter as they can be aggressively cannibalistic.
Izumidai is a fresh water species commonly referred to as tilapia that is used as a substitute for red snapper which itself is a substitute for Tai or sea bream that is eaten as sushi more in Japan than in the United States. The flavor of true sea bream is beautifully sweet with a fine grain and very lean. Snapper has an equivalent texture, but is slightly less sweet while tilapia has a smooth, firmer texture and not much sweetness.
Maguro or ahi tuna is the foundation of most sushi restaurants, especially here in the US. Its deep red flesh is soft and substantial with a clean finish and taste that has won over many eaters, even the more skittish or reluctant samplers of sushi. If you grew up as a kid reluctantly eating tuna fish sandwiches, and have not had the pleasure of tasting fresh, raw tuna you owe it to yourself to try something new that will change your perspective. The most common sources of tuna in the US derives from the yellowfin tuna which is a highly prized sport fish as well. Some of my family and I used to charter a boat out of San Diego and yellowfin tuna was always one of our targets. They give a great fight and when landed, provided some of the best tasting yellowfin tuna I’ve ever had, right there on the boat. It could not get any fresher than that.
Saba or mackerel is considered one of the more “advanced” forms of sushi simply because mackerel possesses a stronger flavor than many of the other fishes. Typically, saba is made from the blue mackerel or chub mackerel, but regardless of which species, the flavor is pretty close to being the same. I must admit to being a huge fan of saba as it is a most beautiful fish and I have to confess that I really enjoy the flavor.
Sake or salmon can’t be missed when you go out for sushi. The texture of this fish is smooth and tender with a flavor is unmistakably wonderful while the color of the fish, the beautiful orange color, is actually derived from carotenoids obtained from the diet of the fish which feeds on krill and other small crustaceans. The majority of salmon in markets and sushi restaurants these days is farmed and carotenoids or even pigments are added to their diets to color their flesh which otherwise would be white. Typically the salmon that most people consume is farmed pacific or Alaskan salmon, but there are also good stocks of pacific salmon in the wild. Atlantic stocks were dramatically overfished which led to the collapse of those fisheries.
As an aside, sake can mean both the alcoholic rice wine or the salmon fish. The kanji are completely different but the pronunciation of sake is hard for some people to distinguish. However, just remember that the alcoholic beverage is pronounced with a long “a” (for alcohol), Sah-kay while the fish is pronounced with a shorter, more clipped pronunciation, Sah-ke. Also Katsu tells me that in many parts of Japan, particularly the Northern islands, it is pronounced Sha-ke.
Shiro maguro or white tuna, also commonly called albacore is line caught and the kind of fish that you would find in top grade canned tuna here in the United States. The canned variety is what most people a
re familiar with, but if you have never tried it as sushi, you are truly missing out on a treat for the senses. It possesses a rich, yet delicate flavor and is not commonly found in sushi restaurants here in the US because of its delicate nature. The flesh is relatively fragile, and difficult to prepare for many, while the color of the fish can change when in the case, all factors that lead to many places not carrying it. Because of this it is not uncommon for many sushi restaurants that do carry shiro maguro to lightly braze the outside of the fish to better preserve it. I tend to believe this also subtly enhances the flavor.
A spicy tuna handroll or temaki is maguro cut into small chunks and combined with chili sauce to enhance the flavor, then placed in a piece of nori with rice on the inside and wrapped into a cone. The beautiful thing about temaki is the texture that provides a snap when biting through the seaweed followed by softer texture of the rice and finished off with a spicy maguro flavor on the inside. I often order a spicy tuna handroll to finish off my sushi meal as a desert of sorts.
Tobiko is a roe commonly called flying fish roe that is commonly used to flavor and enhance texture of a variety of sushi rolls and some nigiri sushi. Tobiko has a fine, firm texture and a slightly salty flavor. Most tobiko comes from smelt.
Tamago is simply an egg omelet on sushi rice. The egg has a light texture that comes from carefully prepared eggs that are thinly layered to enhance the light structure and of course a sweet taste that comes from the dashi soup stock and sugar. Of course there are a number of differing recipes, but most of them have the same fundamental taste and texture. Tamago is one of the easier items for people to eat and is also a favorite among some of the more sophisticated sushi aficionados and can be flexible with a number of potential ad-ins such as ground shrimp or fish.
Toro is the fatty belly of the northern bluefin tuna whose delicate flesh has a smooth, buttery consistency that almost melts on your tongue. There are various grades that you might find in the sushi restaurant including chutoro, or moderately fatty tuna or otoro which has the highest fat content with the best quality occurring when caught in the winter months. Unfortunately this fish is aggressively overfished with some stocks on the verge of collapse. Indeed, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has placed this fish in the “avoid” category of their Sea Food Watch due to the dangerous position stocks are in.
Also, last but certainly not least, I tend to like sushi experienced in the company of friends and have taken friends, family, colleagues and visitors to Kyoto where my friends Akira, Auggie and Katsu always take care of us.