Think you're an expert on sushi because you've eaten 4,000 California rolls? Your local sushi chef would beg to differ.
See, he's been studying fish intensively for about as long as you've been alive; and on the other side of the world, the Japanese generally agree that what this guy is doing day in and day out, preparing and slicing and forming seafood it into the little mouthfuls we know as sushi or nigirizushi -- well, over there, they think it's an art form.
So maybe your local sushi chef could be forgiven if it makes him wince to watch you take your precious, practically extinct toro or wild salmon and slather it with wasabi paste -- when he's gone to the trouble to make it taste like pure perfection. Believe it, he knows that if you dunk that pristine piece of yellowtail in wasabi, or spicy mayo, or god forbid, the ponzu sauce you have left over from the gigantic plate of tempura you just scarfed down, you're going to completely mask the delicate and distinct flavor of a beautiful sea creature. The Japanese sushi chef is not unreasonable. He just wants you to respect your food and maybe show some interest in his art form. The art form he spent like 10 years perfecting under some sadistic Japanese Sushi Master, who wouldn't even let him pick up a knife for the first three years.
[In America you put in that kind of training and you get to be a college prof or a licenced veterinarian or a brain surgeon].
Herewith, a list of 10 rules to help you curry favor with your favorite sushi chef. He will, as he sees you improving your manners, begin to serve you better and better cuts and kinds of fish. And eventually, in a decade or two, you might be able to say you finally understand what all the fuss was about. [For more on this subject, see my column this Wednesday at www.browardpalmbeach.com/restaurants.]
The Game of Sushi
1) Pick a sushi restaurant and stick with it. Sit at the bar and order off the board, if there is one. Greet your new best friend, the sushi chef, when you sit down. It's just polite.
2) Don't eat anything before your sashimi -- soup, rolls, fried dumplings, except for the little bowl of vegetables he gives you. You're preserving your taste buds for the delicate flavors of good fish. [Note: there's some contention about this rule. Some Japanese people say it's OK to eat vegetable rolls first, or to switch the order and eat sushi first and then sashimi. Ask your chef how you should do it.]
3) Sashimi first (plain raw slabs), then sushi (with rice). [See note above]
4) Don't make a mudbath of your soy-wasabi and slather it all over your fish. Lightly dip sashimi in a little bit of soy-wasabi. On sushi, use soy only. Your chef will have already put a thin layer of wasabi and his special sauce between the fish and the rice. Remember, this is about tasting the freshness of the fish, and also, your chef's distinctive way of presenting it.
5) You know those hot towels they give you? They're to disinfect your fingers so you can eat with them. Only sashimi is eaten with chopsticks. Pick up your sushi (that's the stuff with the rice) in your fingers and dip [ fish-side-down in soy sauce. Then eat it in one bite, if possible, or at most two. A good sushi chef will make each piece to fit your mouth.
6) Order a "Sexy-time Lady Dragon Jade Roll" and earn the undying condescension of the chef, who will never forgive you.* Don't order rolls that mix lots of different fishes. How could you possibly taste what's going on in all that goo?
7) Don't ask, "What's fresh?" It's insulting. Instead, ask the chef for guidance. What does he recommend today?
8) Use your eyes. If it looks dried out and flaccid in the case, it is.
9) Try new things. If they've got monkfish liver, or sea eel, or sweet shrimp with the heads on, or scallops still alive in their shell, give it a whirl. The chef will know you're adventurous, his reserve will begin to crack, and he might even start to share his hard-earned wisdom with you.
10) The nicest compliment you can give a sushi chef is to tell him that you can "taste the relationship" between his fish and his rice. Maybe. Or maybe he'll just look at you like you're nuts.
*I bet you're wondering why your Japanese restaurant would bother to put so many silly, oversized, mixed-fish rolls on their menu if it's considered bad form to eat them, right? Answer: Because they want to stay in business and possibly even make a profit. How long do you think they'd survive in South Florida selling nothing but monkfish liver and surf clam and uni and femented soybeans and fish head soup?