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August 18, 2022

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Know your sushi roll

Ohjah Japanese Steakhouse

Aida Ahmed

The head sushi chef serves up the Ohjah lunch special with three special rolls.

Becoming a sushi chef — itamae in Japanese — takes years of study and apprenticeship. But anybody can become an expert sushi eater. It will, however, take a little practice. Just like making sushi, there are strict rules for eating it, too.

Do's and don'ts

DO Eat each piece in one bite.

DON’T pile ginger on top of your sushi. It is a palate cleanser.

DON’T pass food to another person using chopsticks. Japanese culture equates that with passing the cremated remains of a relative to someone at a funeral.

DON’T pour a large amount of soy sauce into the bowl. Wasting soy sauce is taboo in Japanese dining.

DO dip the fish side of nigiri into the soy sauce. Dipping the rice side is considered an insult to the chef, who worked hard to season it properly.

DON’T make a soy sauce-wasabi soup. Instead, dab a small amount of wasabi onto each piece of sushi using your chopsticks. But remember: the chef already put wasabi into the sushi, so adding more could throw off the balance of the bite.

Sushi 101

Sushi dates to the eighth century. It was developed in Southeast Asia as a way to preserve fish. Fermented rice was used to keep the fish from going bad, but people eventually started eating the items together.

The trend spread to China, then in the ninth century to Japan. There, it gained traction as Buddhism spread. Most Buddhists abstain from eating meat, so fish became a staple of their diet.

Early sushi was nare-zushi, or “aged sushi.” Carp from Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, were packed in salted rice, then placed under weights for at least half a year. Only the wealthiest residents could afford the delicacy.

In the early 15th century, Japanese cooks discovered that adding more weight sped fermentation. In as little as a month, the fish would be ready for consumption.

Sushi became fast food in the mid-1700s, when sushi makers began layering cooked rice and rice vinegar with raw fish. Rolls were placed in wooden boxes for two hours, compressed, then sliced into serving pieces.

Japanese entrepreneur Hanaya Yohei opened the first sushi stall in 1824 in what today is Tokyo. Instead of layering and compressing sushi, he rolled balls of rice, then topped them with fresh raw fish from a nearby river.

Sushi stalls became sushi restaurants in 1923 after the Great Kanto Earthquake decimated real estate prices, enabling sushi chefs to buy restaurants. Advances in refrigeration in the 1970s took sushi global.

Becoming an itamae

Students of premier sushi schools compare their education to military training. A sushi education can take two to four years of in-class training, then decades of internships and entry-level jobs. The profession is considered highly honorable in Japan.

Students’ first task is learning to make rice; then they graduate to the cutting board, preparing blocks of fish, grating ginger and slicing scallions. Only fully authorized itamae are allowed to stand in the front of the kitchen behind the sushi bar.

The lessons go beyond the kitchen, too. Part of the training includes learning how to calculate bills. Chefs traditionally wear white ghis and knotted headbands.

Tools of the trade

Sushi chefs travel with their own sets of knives and typically pay several hundred dollars for each. They sharpen each knife before and after use and clean them every few strokes. Sushi knives are sharpened only on one side to make faster, cleaner cuts.

On the plate

• Fish: Although sushi and sashimi can be made with vegetables, tofu and other ingredients, the key to most varieties is fish. Look beyond run-of-the-mill salmon, tuna and yellowtail to more adventurous options: scallops, squid, halibut, snapper or mackerel. Pair with cucumber, avocado, scallions or sesame seeds. But steer clear of piling a bunch of different types of fish into one roll (even though such dishes commonly are offered at sushi restaurants.) Experts consider sushi to be only bites that contain a single type of fish. Also, start by eating the mildest fish first. Color is a good indicator of taste; the lighter the fish, the tamer in flavor. Working your way up toward heavier fish will ensure that you don’t overwhelm your taste buds.

• Sushi rice may seem secondary to the fish, but it is an essential component of a good roll or nigiri. Every sushi restaurant has its own “secret” recipe for sushi rice, but most take a similar approach.

• Ginger is used to cleanse the palate between bites of sushi. Pickled ginger can be bought in grocery stores or Asian markets, but you also can make it yourself.

• Wasabi is a member of the Brassicaceae family, which also includes cabbages, horseradish and mustard. It is a stem that is difficult to cultivate and therefore is expensive. Real wasabi is rare outside of Japan. The hot, green paste diners receive in most sushi restaurants is made from a mixture of horseradish, mustard, starch and green food coloring. The heat in wasabi comes from vapors that stimulate the nose more than the mouth, much like smelling salts. As such, researchers in Japan developed a wasabi smoke detector that alerts deaf people to fires using a spray of wasabi.

• Seaweed: Nori is made from algae, traditionally cultivated in the harbors of Japan. The algae was scraped from dock pilings, rolled into sheets and dried in the sun. Today, the algae is farmed for sushi wrappers, processed, toasted, packaged and sold in sheets at markets and Asian groceries.

Types of sushi

• Nigiri is sliced raw fish served on a ball of rice with wasabi. Sashimi, on the other hand, is sliced raw fish without the rice.

• Maki is sushi rolled with a bamboo mat. It typically is wrapped in nori but also can be served in soy paper or thinly sliced cucumber.

• Temaki: Hand rolls are cone-shaped sushi filled with thinly sliced ingredients. Rolls should be eaten fast so they don’t get soggy.

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