Special Features

< Top < Special Features < Art and Craft of Sushi

Art and Craft of Sushi

October 13, 2016

More Than a Mouthful

If Japan had an official dish, it would be sushi. It is truly a food of the people. A decent sushi meal can be had for just a few dollars … a seriously excellent one for a few hundred. Sushi can be casual or formal, eaten with the hands or chopsticks, picked off a conveyor belt, or while seated at an elegant hinoki wood counter. The most basic sushi eatery has no seats at all, like a stand-up noodle bar. Sushi restaurants are known for their bright and cheerful atmospheres. The chefs can be strong personalities. Their banter behind the counter can add color to a meal.

When people say “sushi” they generally mean “Edo-mae sushi”. It consists of morsels of fish or other ingredients, placed on bite-size balls of vinegared rice. Sushi originated around the shores of Tokyo (Edo) Bay, where it was sold from street stalls - a sort of 19th-century fast-food. It's also known as nigiri sushi, from the word meaning “to mold”.

Hagi Uragami Museum Sushi as street food. From a 19C woodblock print by Hiroshige Utagawa

The way to eat a piece of sushi is to pick it up with either your chopsticks or your thumb and first and middle fingers, and dip it lightly, fish-side down, into the soy sauce in your small dish. Then eat it in one mouthful. Most sushi chefs spread a little wasabi, Japanese horseradish, between the topping and the rice. If you don't want this pungent seasoning, request Wasabi nuki kudasai.

Other types of sushi include chirashi zushi, a colorful mixture of rice, fish, dried mushroom, egg and other items. Maki zushi - or nori roll - comprises ingredients such as cucumber and tuna rolled in nori seaweed. There is also oshi-zushi, a specialty of western Japan, in which preserved fish or egg is pressed onto rice in a mold. Oshi-zushi is often sold packaged in stores.

Sushi in general has a strong visual aesthetic but the colorfully topped cubes of oshi-zushi, packed into a box, make for a striking design, with tiles of orange salmon alongside yellow omelet, green konbu seaweed, and silver-skinned mackerel.

Sushi is different from most cuisines in that the recipes barely differ from restaurant to restaurant. The most rarefied establishment to the cheapest stand-up bar are all essentially making the same dish. Therefore, sushi chefs are not judged on their creativity. They are closer to craftsmen than artists. Nothing determines a restaurant's reputation more than the quality of its ingredients and the skill of the chef, not only in his cutting but also his choice of fish, as well as the temperature and texture of the rice and a few other variables. Some sushi chefs season their fish with closely guarded blends of soy-based sauces before serving, but the enjoyment of a meal still depends entirely on the quality of fish. Sushi is all about offering the best ingredients - nothing else is quite as important.

On a state visit to Japan in 2014, US President Barack Obama ate at a small sushi bar near Ginza, Tokyo. It is an unassuming, though famous, restaurant in the basement of an office-block, run by an elderly chef. It seats only about a dozen people. The toilet is outside the premises. But these apparent drawbacks didn't matter. The president would have known he was getting a meal that was as close to the pinnacle of sushi as he was ever likely to enjoy.

From Economy to First Class

I was overcome with the urge to eat sushi yesterday, while working at home in Tokyo. I walked up the street to the center of Asakusa, where there are many sushi eateries, to a small inexpensive standing-only joint. Only about six people can fit around the L-shaped counter. The walls are decorated with menu items written in Japanese. Two chefs were working behind the low refrigerated glass cabinet that keeps the day's ingredients. One was prepping for the evening. He cut slices of maguro, tuna. Over and over he pulled the knife through the red block of meat, stacking the slices gently together. When he was finished he covered them and put them in the fridge.

Sushi chefs typically slice their fish only upon receiving an order, but preparing a pile of popular toppings in advance is not uncommon at cheaper establishments. Such restaurants work on low margins and fast customer turnover, so they have to serve quickly. Of course, a high flow of diners means the fish is more likely to be fresh, so there's nothing wrong with a good, cheap sushi restaurant. The cost of my meal (it would be about the same at a conveyor-belt style diner), came to less than 2,000 yen, or about US$20, without drinks. I ate about 8 pieces of sushi including scallop, yellowtail, squid, medium fatty tuna, a cucumber roll, and sea urchin, with hot green tea. One point worth mentioning is that the menu in such places may be almost entirely in Japanese. So if the language is unfamiliar, be ready with some fish names, or to point through the glass case for what you want.

Within a similar price range, sit-down chain restaurants provide more comfort. The sushi will likely be of similar quality to the stand-up bar. Many of the bigger chains are operated by fish wholesale companies, and this should guarantee freshness. Expect to pay around 3,000 yen. You will probably be given a menu offering various set meals, which can be good value and vary with the season. Extras such as miso soup may be included.

High-end sushi is a different case. The world of sushi aficionados is overflowing with the passionate opinions of fans of certain restaurants or chefs. A top-flight sushi restaurant will cost in the region of 30,000 yen per head. There are plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants in major cities. The price may seem steep, but for people dining out on a special occasion, the sense of being looked after as the master places each perfect piece in front of you may seem worth the outlay.

Etiquette and Ordering

Yoshihiko Takada, Hinatomaru standing sushi bar, Asakusa

There are three ways of ordering at most sushi restaurants: by the piece (the minimum may be two pieces); by leaving it to the chef, called o-makase; or by a set course. Lower cost restaurants have clearly priced menus so you know what you will pay. But it's common for high-end establishments not to post prices. You will know the cost of your set course, but if you want something extra you will pay separately, and the chef will probably decide how much on the night. The check, when it comes, may be no more than a number on a tiny piece of paper. In this regard too, sushi is unlike typical restaurant culture.

Another aspect of sushi culture is the importance placed on relations with the chef. Regular customers have a special place in the restaurant's eco system. They may even have their own seats at a counter, or receive free treats of seasonal specialties. A food industry source told me some of the bigger sushi chains even move their chefs between stores to stop them from becoming too cozy and giving away delicacies to favored customers - and that some customers even follow such chefs from store to store.

Sushi's unwritten rules include the following: you eat a few slices of the pickled ginger, or gari, between pieces of sushi to freshen your mouth; you don't drown the sushi in soy sauce, or slather on too much wasabi; when the chef places your piece of sushi in front of you, you don't leave it waiting for too long while you chat to your companions or tap on your mobile phone.

When ordering by the piece, many people start with the more subtley flavored items then progress to richer, higher calorie ones. This is to preserve the sensitivity of the palate. For example, delicate white fish such as snapper and whiting would come before oily mackerel or sardine. But there is no law that says you need to eat a certain way. Rich ingredients such as prawns, egg, ikura salmon roe or uni sea urchin might come toward the end. But if you want to order them up front, go right ahead. Sushi masters have their rules, but they are also committed to hospitality and giving diners what they want. The roots of sushi are on the streets, as a casual and adaptable snack, and this may be what has kept the cuisine so much alive.

Text: Mark Robinson