My friend and I were agonizing about where to go for dinner. "It's too cold for sushi," she said. I had to agree; somehow with single-digit temperatures, the idea of eating bites of rice and cold raw fish just sort of . . . didn't work. And yet, some of the best sushi dinners I have ever had were in the midwinter, during my younger life. Call me wild I even ate raw clams then. (Now, blecch. It's a texture thing.)
Suddenly I time-traveled back to my virgin sushi experience. I was in nursing school, so it was the early 1980s, when sushi bars had only just migrated east from California. (I was dating a guy from Hollywood, what can I say.) Have to try it, he said. Seriously, you'll love it, he said. I screwed up my courage. The sushi place was wildly overcrowded with an inestimably hip and urbane bunch of folks plus us. I believe there was an abundance of sake involved. I got hooked
that night: totally swept away. I suspect many people have a tale to tell of THEIR first time with sushi, too.
In retrospect, I have to give my companion proper credit for both knowing and teaching me the correct way to eat sushi which, if you play anthropologist even in upscale venues where you'd think people would have learned good sushi manners, is less in evidence than you might anticipate. Perhaps you've committed one or two faux pas your own dear self, or you might at least be interested in some sushi trivia. I want you to have fun, and also to look good for the sake of
human evolution, or international relations, if nothing else. Soooo
"The correct way to eat sushi?" you ask? Like, you know that green wasabi paste stuff you probably mix into a dark gravy with soy sauce so you get that head rush? You're supposed to use very little of that, if at all, on good sushi. Like, each piece is to be eaten in one bite; maki rolls with the fingers, nigiri with chopsticks. It should be the fish side that gets dipped into the sauce (if you're having any) and then you put it in your mouth fish side to your tongue. One
must be somewhat dexterous with chopsticks to manage this, so many people do it wrong. Japanese sushi chefs have been rolling their eyes at us Americans for years now. I am not making this up.
I considered myself pretty sushi-savvy, but it turns out that a lot of what I thought I knew about sushi was either incorrect or incomplete and I suspect I am not alone. For instance, I thought that "sushi" refers to raw fish it actually refers to the special lumps of vinegared rice. Many people assume that sushi is "healthy food" betcha didn't know that it was originally a way to disguise food that was going bad. Modern American sushi (especially the stuff you can
buy at the grocery store in a little plastic tray) is loaded with stuff you might not want to have so much of (sugar and mayonnaise, for starters.) This is true even if it's made with brown rice, which in Japan it probably wouldn't be. And that fatty tuna you love to feel melting on your tongue? Can you spell "m-e-r-c-u-r-y s-p-o-n-g-e?" Do try to pick fishes that tend to be small and less carnivorous than those giant tunae. Sadly, mercury content is not affected by cooking.
The whole fish thing is getting complex and unfortunate. It used to be a really wonderful food group, one of my favorites to recommend.
Back when I was attending births and doing prenatal care, pregnant women would plead for permission to keep going out for sushi sort of the way they jones for soft cheese and deli meats today. It was awkward, this position I was put in professionally, knowing how easy it is to love it the ritual, the mystique, the rushing fire of the wasabi, the inexplicably addictive nature of sea vegetables, the Sumo wrestlers on the TV in the corner. I was supposed to talk women out
of eating this wild and crazy faddish food. Better they should stick to ice cream and pickles like normal people? Some practitioners think nobody should eat the raw stuff, I would say, let alone pregnant people. Cooked sushi is okay, I would say. But I kept thinking, Japanese women have been eating this stuff for years . . . right? I probably did a lousy job of dissuasion.
What I DO heartily dis-recommend is eating raw-fish sushi you've made at home, particularly if it's fish you caught yourself or bought from someone who didn't know you planned to eat it raw. Commercially available sushi/sashimi grade fish must be flash-frozen to a temperature lower than your home freezer can get it, because freezing kills most parasites. (Most, not all. Sorry.) Yes, people really DO get parasites from raw fish truly gross ones, like big tapeworms that
can land you in the ER with belly pain, not just little microscopic things that are more of a conceptual or esthetic problem. Fresh water fish is most likely to be contaminated, so be extra careful there it's less of a problem with coldwater, deep-sea varieties. Sourcing the fish is really important as is befriending your sushi chef so you get the good stuff.
Speaking of friends, let me share a hot book tip with any seekers of independent study sushi credits. (That would mean anyone who might actually want to know what the sushi chef does to an octopus before he serves it to you. Think before you answer.) Trevor Corson, a really fine writer and author of "The Secret Life of Lobsters"*(a work of intimate nonfiction which earned him the nickname of "the lobster sex guy") has another book out, called "The Story of Sushi: An
Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice." It's the true-life story of a woman who decided to go to sushi-chef school in Los Angeles. In Japan, this would be almost as unthinkable as a woman deciding to be a Sumo wrestler. (This actually happened once, and it was a Cause of Tremendous Social Upheaval.) In America, we apparently can get away with it. During their education, these aspiring sushi chefs consume an abundance of high-caffeine energy drinks, which is worrisome
considering that they are playing around with extremely sharp knives. Who knows if this is a national trend, so be careful. (There are a bunch of men in the book, too, but the main focus is on the woman. I find this refreshing.) It's a delicious book.
I was tickled to learn that Corson got so into the sushi thing that he started a side business as a "sushi concierge." People actually hire him to take them out for sushi and teach them the right way to eat it! (California, again.) Imagine, getting paid to do something you'd do for free! Better a sushi concierge than a lobster sex guy, I guess.
*If you enjoy the idea of lobster sex, and want to learn more about the animal and the industry, well this one's a must-read. Mainers should leave it on the nightstand in the guest room, for your friends visiting from New York next summer.