Life in the Raw

By Keith B. Hoffman
hat does Godzilla have to do with Sushi? On March 1, 1954, 24 Japanese fishermen were catching tuna near the Bikini Atoll precisely when the United States dropped a hydrogen bomb on the uninhabited island. Unfortunately, the fisherman and tuna aboard the “Lucky Dragon” were blasted with deadly radioactive fallout. This tragic event created a media storm in Japan causing anti-US sentiment to hit a high note. Pictures of inspectors testing tuna catches with Geiger counters were especially inflaming to the tuna-loving Japanese. For many months, the tuna market in Japan was

Godzilla, sublime flesh and Speedy Gonzales. Get involved with sushi.


decimated. Godzilla was spawned as a reaction to these events: a slumbering monster awakened from the depths of the sea by the selfish and deadly use of radioactivity by the US. Keep this in mind the next time you see a “Godzilla Roll” on the menu. Some sushi chefs may not get the connection, while I suspect others are practicing a delicate form of passive-aggressiveness when they use that name. Frozen SuShi? “Sushi grade” or “Sashimi grade” is a loose, unregulated term that can be misleading.


Godzilla samples the “commuter roll”.

The F word. Most sushi has been frozen before it’s served to remove parasites.

expat expertise
the SuShi experience By Dr Jon ZifferBlAtt So now that you’re an expert, how do you best enjoy sushi? First of all, there’s a reason it’s called a “sushi bar.” The best place to enjoy sushi is sitting at the counter. This lets you see the good stuff up close. Even more important, it puts you right in there with the sushi chef (itamae-san). Get to know this guy. Make him your best friend. A good itamae-san is worth his weight in gold (or bluefin). The best way to get things started is to ask, “What’s good today?” or, “Anything really special today?” Good sushi chefs are intimately involved in selecting their products every day, and will be able to guide you to the best in their sushi arsenal. It’s always nice to go with some of the itamae-san’s recommendations, but you should feel free to ask for your favourites as well. For ordering non-sushi items like drinks, soups, etc. make sure to ask the waitress. The sushi chef is there to create a memorable sushi experience for those who can appreciate it; he doesn’t want to deal with your friend who wants the sesame chicken. (In fact, why not leave him at home next time?) SeAl-ing the DeAl So how do you eat it once you get it? First, don’t be a soy cowboy. Just a little soy sauce in the dipping dish—enough to cover the Fish inspectors are quite concerned with one thing—parasite destruction. Indeed, the Parasite Destruction Guarantee (PDG) not only would be a great band name, but it’s the one regulation that discourages your intestines from becoming a breeding ground for worms. The PDG is accomplished by the freezing and storing of seafood at -20°C, or colder, for at least seven days, or by freezing at less than -35°C for 15 hours and storing at less than -20°C for 24 hours. These guidelines are sufficient to kill almost all nasty parasites. So yes, now when you hear someone ask “Is the sushi fresh today?”, you’ll understand it’s not exactly the most sophisticated question. But tuna species are generally exempt from this rule because they live so far out in the open ocean that their diet doesn’t include nearshore, and therefore parasite-ridden, prey. SuShi SuggeStionS Akami, toro, chutoro and otoro—these are all cuts from the sacred tuna, usually the bluefin (maguro) or yellowfin (ahi) variety, and are the most recognisable sushi to beginners. The akami cut is a good place to start, as it’s lean muscle with very little fat, and has a clean, easy taste. If you order maguro without specifying anything else, you will likely get akami. Toro cuts are slightly fatty what they feel to be the appropriate amount. (Translation: little if any need be added.) Using chopsticks to eat sushi is never wrong, but don’t be afraid to use your hands. Eating sushi with your hands is a true delight. It better engages the senses, and is perfectly acceptable at even the finest of establishments. Sashimi eaters, however, please use chopsticks. What role for the roll? Perhaps no issue at the sushi bar is more divisive than the question of modern sushi rolls. Simple roll(maki) and hand-roll- (temaki) style sushi has long been part of the sushi tradition, but the bulging Technicolor kitchen-sink creations of many of today’s sushi restaurants are a recent (and Western) phenomenon. Don’t get me wrong—your GOMmelier and I have certainly enjoyed many a Caterpillar, Rainbow or Harp Seal Roll over the years (and these are indeed starting to make their way to the Far East), but such items are perhaps better enjoyed in the boozy settings of a larger group, rather than on a gourmet evening at a top sushi bar. That said, if you’re at the sushi bar and looking for something a little different, try asking your sushi chef to make you “something special”. They almost always come through with something tasty. (And it lets you keep your dignity. Try doing that while ordering a Speedy Gonzales Roll.) seafood market in Tokyo, toro, chutoro, and otoro were reviled. In fact, the name neko-matagi was used, or “fish that even cats disdain”. Clearly, toro has come a long way, and I, for one, am very happy about that. hamachi (yellowtail, or sometimes amberjack): I simply love hamachi, it has a clean, slightly smoky taste and rich mouth feel. It reminds me of a good, smooth Scotch, in fact. Sometimes, if you get the right cut it can be compared to a good chu- or otoro. I also highly recommend it as sashimi. Sake (salmon): When you order sake from the sushi chef you will get a nice, slightly cured piece of heaven with a rich, complex flavour and tangible fat feel. Ask your waiter for the same thing, and you’ll get plum wine.) Salmon, since its physiology allows it to live in both fresh and salt water, is capable of harboring some freshwater nasties that can infect a human easier than the salt-water bugs. Hence, almost all sushi salmon is cured—but in such an elegant way that it’s hard to tell it’s been treated. Amaebi (fresh shrimp): Ebi, the cooked shrimp, is an easy thing for beginners to try, and is quite good, but scarcely different from the shrimp you’re used to seeing. Amaebi, however, is the raw, translucent stuff—a truly

bottom—is fine. Most people start off using far too much, which masks the different flavours of the fish and soaks the rice. Speaking of which, dip that sushi into the soy fish-side down. Wasabi? That’s up to you, but keep in mind that most sushi chefs already put in muscle sections taken from towards the belly. The “chu” and “o” prefixes denote ever-rising fat content, where the otoro is only taken from the most fat-infused belly section of the fish and has a consistency akin to “tuna butter”. Work up to otoro, but once you do, your wallet might hate you, as this is one of the most expensive types of raw fish. Fascinatingly enough, this is a new phenomenon, and shows a biting glimpse into how customs and perceptions can change the way a food is marketed. Up until the 1950s at Tsukiji, the world’s largest and most impossibly complex


Resistance is futile, but go easy on the soy sauce.

Know your…

SuShi EtiquEttE

Sashimi is raw fish, period. Nigiri (nigirizushi), or commonly sushi, is the block of rice with fish, etc. on top. Always ask the itamae what he recommends.

At the Tsukiji seafood market in Tokyo, the best sushi chefs in the world pick out their daily catch.

Don’t ever say, “Is that fresh?” This is a major insult to the chef who presumably spent all morning picking out the best fish to present that evening. If you are actually concerned, you should head out the door and order a pizza. Plus, remember the section in this article about parasite destruction—much of the sushi you’ll encounter has been frozen before it made it to the display case. Omakase (oh-mah-kah-say) means “chef's choice” and gives the itamae a chance to show off his best skills and tastiest treats of the day. If he doesn’t know you already, feel free to tell him a few of your favourites so he can innovate around your tastes. This can get expensive sometimes. So if you have a budget, politely inform the itamae that you’d like him to take control, but to keep the sushi charges around a certain number. Don’t rub the chopsticks together. You look like a chump, and I guarantee you are not going to dodge a life-endangering splinter by such silly pantomime. You know those guys that whack their pack of fags over and over again before they light one? To the itamae you look exactly like them when you rehearse some chopstick fire-starting ceremony. Don’t add that green paste masquerading as wasabi to your soy sauce. You are eating expensive, raw fish for the meaty sublimes of gentle flesh. If your goal is to have your eyes water at the same moment that you question your own sanity, march right out of the sushi bar, go home and squeeze “wasabi” paste into your mouth while watching any movie with Barbara Streisand in it. When dipping into your soy sauce, turn the sushi over so that only the fish, not the rice, touches the sauce. Experiment. No other dining experience welcomes so many questions and opportunities to surprise oneself.


From bad to worse: wasabi-covered peanuts.


Fugu: bland and potentially deadly.

transcendent and gooey luxury. Make sure no wasabi is anywhere near it! As a bonus that may shock uninitiated friends, the chef usually lightly fries the head and body section. This is an absolute delight, and you’ll become a decent sushi explorer the first time you slightly lacerate the roof of your mouth on those crispy legs and feelers, or a set of fried amaebi eyes pops off in your mouth. Fugu (pufferfish): Years ago, Dr Zifferblatt (co-contributor to this article), myself, and a man known only as “The Punisher”, decided it was time we took the fugu challenge. You see, pufferfish have ovaries and other internal organs filled with a wickedly potent toxin called tetrodotoxin. If a sushi chef doesn’t know how to separate these organs safely away from the edible flesh, well, it can, and does, kill a number of people every year. The trick is to leave just a tiny amount of the toxin, so a tingling sensation occurs in the mouth, as the tetrodotoxin’s wrath is limited to your tongue muscle and not your heart, lungs, etc. The three of us ordered up some fugu at our normal sushi spot, under questionable legal status (we assumed) and, being best of friends, all chowed down at the same moment. I’m not sure what other outcome could have been termed “a success” but we were all underwhelmed by not only the meagre amount of numbing, but how tasteless the fish itself was. That right of passage cost us some serious dosh, and once completed, none of us has desired a repeat performance.

hold thE WaSabi Unless you’ve taken a tour of high-end sushi bars in Japan, you probably have never actually had any real wasabi. Yep, that green paste they dab in your nigiri; that very same stuff you once watched your friend blend into a dirty soy bath before his “authentic” California roll feast. Well, it’s nothing but horseradish, maybe some mustard, and Chernobyl-worthy green dye. True wasabi is a very difficult crop to grow, as it must be cultivated only in certain altitudes and usually in the middle of a pristine, cold mountain stream. According to history books, local Japanese farmers gathered wild wasabi to use as a condiment, and probably as a disinfectant, for slices of freshwater trout. (As mentioned above, fresh-water fish is not a good idea to eat raw). Before freezing and refrigeration, the burning nature of the wasabi plant may have indeed helped mitigate certain bacterial oozies found in fresh-water fish. Why it’s still used now as an accompaniment to sushi bothers me immensely. In fact, I personally ask the itamae (sushi chef) to avoid putting any form of green paste in my sushi. If you must have something green when you eat sushi, ask for a side of nori to munch on, or, better yet, request some green shiso, a member of the mint family, as it’s truly an amazing taste treat (and usually on hand as it typically accompanies sashimi).