May it Please the Palate- Sushi overload

By Nick Roumel

Yes, there is such a thing as too much sushi.

At the end of a recent sushi tasting, my panelists cried, "No more!" Perfectly good raw fish, rice and seaweed went into the trash. Whether they stirred the nocturnal urgings of the raccoons and other night raiders, I do not know. We finished our wine and scattered.

And left me to memorialize the experience.

What is Sushi?

What we regard as sushi took shape in 18th century Japan. Rice was seasoned with rice vinegar, and pressed with fresh fish from Tokyo Bay. This "fast food" was eaten with the hands. While there are myriad ways to prepare sushi, the constant is sticky, short-grained rice seasoned with a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and salt.

In the 1920's, outdoor sushi carts blossomed in Japan. With the advent of refrigeration, indoor "sushi bars" proliferated. The booming post-war economy and advances in shipping helped introduce sushi world-wide. The first reported sushi counter was in 1962, at Nippon Restaurant on East 52nd Street in New York. In 1970, the sushi bar "Osho" opened in Hollywood and catered to celebrities; a few years later, a chef in Los Angeles invented the California Roll.

Forty-three years later, you can buy packaged sushi at Meijer. The most common form of Western sushi is nigiri; this is a small mound of seasoned rice with a piece of raw fish or other toppings. Another common offering is maki, with a piece of nori (seaweed) rolled around rice and fish or other ingredients.

Restaurants have now developed signature "rolls" that are visually ostentatious, as opposed to the minimalist presentation of nigiri sushi. These are often filled with cooked food, such as fried shrimp or crab, oddities such as cream cheese or fruit, and topped with sauces or salmon roe. Even bars and restaurants that don't otherwise serve sushi may feature a homemade roll on its appetizer menu, such as "The Cheesecake Factory's" "Spicy Ahi Tempura Roll."

While sashimi (raw fish alone) is typically eaten with chopsticks, it is not improper to eat sushi with the fingers. Traditionalists will not add wasabi (grated horseradish) to sushi, trusting the chef to have properly flavored it; however, most Western sushi is served with a bit of wasabi, pickled ginger, and soy sauce. The latter is not supposed to soak the rice, but is (at best) to be dabbed on the topping, perhaps with a brush of pickled ginger, which is to be eaten separately as a palate cleanser.

Judging Sushi

The New York Times notes in a 1997 article the challenges of describing sushi. All might agree that freshness of the fish is the key; but what is "fresh?" For example, the tuna that finds its way to Ann Arbor on a Friday evening was surely not swimming that morning, or perhaps not even that week. Commercial tuna boats travel a long way to find their catch, and often don't return until taking on 20,000 lbs. of fish--which will have been iced down and held for close to two weeks. The Times notes, "If well handled, such a fish will have a clean taste, no fishy odor, and seem to dissolve in the mouth."

So "freshness" really means the care with which a fish has been preserved in ice, and may encompass color, texture, clarity, and smell. Fish that "melts in the mouth" has a fattier texture. That ruby red tuna steak that looks great for the grill, for instance, is not as prized for sushi as the pale pink "toro" or belly cut with the highest fat content.

The Times further notes that the first sign of a good sushi bar is an immaculate counter, with an orderly and attractive arrangement of fish. But fish isn't everything; sushi chefs can spend years perfecting their rice, which should be "chewy with a glossy sheen." The seaweed wrap should be crisp and crackly, and the soy sauce mellow rather than salty. The ginger should be ivory, indicating the absence of dye, and in the best sushi bars, the wasabi is freshly grated root, rather than a reconstituted blob of wasabi paste.

Sushi chefs, ideally, are masters who have taken up to ten years of apprenticeship to perfect their craft. The Times calls them the "Green Berets of the culinary world," noting that a good chef works "quickly and fluidly, without being flashy, and exudes an aura of authority." With such a chef, a diner cannot go wrong by ordering "omakase," the chef's choice.

What About Tricked-Up Sushi Rolls?

It is not uncommon to go into a sushi restaurant and find a mind-boggling list of specialty rolls. At one local eatery, we found a "French Kiss" Roll, "Banana Hama" with banana and sweet potato, and "Sunday Morning Roll" with deep-fried salmon and cream cheese. Another restaurant featured rolls named after Boston, Oklahoma and Idaho that had no discernible regional connection; but at least their "Chedder Roll" (sic) did feature actual baked cheddar cheese.

One of the highlights of our tasting was a Ruby Roll (spicy tuna, avocado & tempura crunch inside; topped with seared tuna, salmon, red snapper, shrimp & crab; drizzled with eel sauce, wasabi mayo & spicy mayo; sprinkled with red tobiko). But to sushi purists, are these over-the-top rolls with their non-traditional ingredients truly sushi, or are they merely creative appetizers--much like the "martini bar" craze pushed the boundaries of a traditional martini well into "foo-foo drink" territory?

Final Thoughts And Lessons Learned

Sushi is not designed to be an "all you can eat" product. It should be thoughtfully eaten within minutes of the chef's presentation. As the New York Times noted, at a superior sushi restaurant, "The atmosphere is serene." One should engage in "okonomi," the practice of ordering sushi a few pieces at a time.

It's best if you don't supersize. It's a waste of perfectly good food, and it draws unwanted raccoons to your trash.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

Published: Mon, Jul 15, 2013

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