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Everything you wanted to know about sushi

I wrote some months ago that sushi was the new Butter Chicken. Everybody loved sushi.

More and more restaurants served it. And restaurateurs who were planning new multi-cuisine outlets had no choice but to include a sushi section on the menu.

 

While I admired the ingenuity of the Indian sushi industry, I said, it was important to remember that 95 percent of the sushi sold in India had nothing to do with what the Japanese regarded as sushi. Yes, our sushi had something in common with the mass-produced sushi that was popular in the West, but our sushi was increasingly becoming a swadeshi dish, full of Indian-friendly ingredients and flavours.

 

   I have been asked so many questions after that piece that I thought I would devote this week’s Rude Food to answering the most frequently asked queries.

 

Don’t the Japanese eat sushi?

 

Yes, of course they do. They invented it. But the Japanese usually eat nigiri sushi – the kind of sushi that has a piece of raw fish perched on a rice pellet. The Indian sushi boom is predicated on sushi rolls which are quite different.

 

Are there sushi rolls in Japan?

 

Yes. There are. But they usually consist of a fish filling inside a roll of rice which is wrapped in seaweed. The rolls we eat here are ‘inside-out’ rolls with the seaweed inside and the rice on the outside.

 

   They were popularised (perhaps invented too) in Los Angeles in the 1960s, because a) Americans did not like the raw fish that was an integral part of nigiri sushi, b) sushi-quality raw fish was expensive and c) Americans did not like the look of seaweed.

 

Is that why they are called California rolls?

 

Yes, it is. The classic California roll is bigger than the Japanese sushi roll. It is filled with a mixture of cooked and raw ingredients such as boiled fish or even crispy tempura. Because toro – the prized fatty belly of the tuna – is expensive, sushi restaurants in California started mixing crab with mashed avocado (an avocado is one third fat) to create a fatty, fishy filling for rolls. Now, avocado is a common sushi ingredient outside of Japan.

 

Are our sushi rolls like the ones invented in California?

 

Well, yes and no. We took our inspiration from the California format but we like more masaledar flavours than they do. So Indian sushi rolls not only feature lots of cooked ingredients but they are also masalafied: we add spicy sauces to the filling. And we like crispy crunchy textures so rolls featuring deep-fried ingredients work well. And then, of course, there are the vegetarian rolls which were invented in Delhi and Mumbai.

 

Is there no junk sushi in Japan?

 

Depends on what you call ‘junk’. You certainly won’t find a paneer tempura/chilli sauce sushi roll in Japan. But you will get cheap (or at least, relatively inexpensive) sushi in many Japanese cities.

 

   There are machines (sometimes called robots) that fashion the rice into nigiri pellets. Raw fish goes on top and the finished nigiri sushi is placed on a conveyor belt. Customers keep picking up plates of sushi as they pass them on the belt and they pay at the end.

 

   By eliminating the need to make rice pellets by hand, the machines make it possible to produce sushi at a lower cost.

 

Is it true that most wasabi is fake?

 

Sadly, yes. In an upmarket place, the chef will grate fresh wasabi on a sharkskin grater and put it on your plate. This has a much subtler flavour than commercial wasabi but this flavour tends to fade quickly.

 

   Commercial wasabi is made in factories from mustard, horse-radish and various other ingredients. It is designed to have a kick and to attack the inside of your nose.

 

   The industrial stuff is much cheaper than the real thing and the flavour does not fade.

 

Is great sushi really expensive in Japan?

 

 "The nigiri rice pellet should be made with warm, loosely- packed grains so that when it hits your mouth, you can feel the taste and texture of each grain."

It is more than expensive. The best sushi is nearly impossible to get. The top sushi places will rarely seat more than a dozen people. Guests will pay up to $1000 per head. (And sometimes even more.) The food will be ‘omakase’ (as the chef pleases) and you won’t get a seat unless they know you at the restaurant. In that sense, the top places are like private clubs with waiting lists of several months.

 

Why is it so expensive?

 

Because the Japanese, more than any other society including the French, respect the skill of the chef. At a top sushi place, the chef and perhaps one assistant will be the only people making the sushi.

 

   They can only serve a small number of people, which is why most top sushi restaurants will not seat more than a dozen people around a counter.

 

Can you order what you like?

 

At the top places, it is usually omakase. The chef will put one piece of sushi in front of you and you are expected to eat it immediately. Then, he will make the next nigiri. And so on. His choice of what to serve will depend on what fish he thinks is the best on that day.

 

How much skill does it take to just serve raw fish?

 

You would be surprised. Contrary to what we think, fresh fish is not always the best. Yes, some fish (prawns, for instance) taste sweetest when fresh. But others take time to reach their peak flavour. If a fish is served fresh from the sea, the muscles might be tight and the flavours may not have developed. Such fish as tuna develop flavours as they age. A great sushi chef will know when each chunk of fish is at its best. That is a skill that takes years to master.

 

   Then, there is the slicing. A perfectly-angled knife stroke can relax the fish’s muscle fibres. Poor slicing will destroy the texture. And there’s the temperature. Sushi must be served at the right temperature so that the fish releases its natural oils. It takes practice to know when the temperature is perfect.

 

And what about the rice?

 

Well, that is actually the key. Great sushi is less about the fish than the rice. (But sashimi, on the other hand, is mainly about the fish.)

 

   A great sushi chef will know how to drain out just the right amount of starch from the rice, he will know when the texture is perfect, he will usually wait after the rice is ready before serving it. (Rice may be at its best 60 minutes after cooking; but this could change depending on the ambient temperature and the age and quality of the rice.)

 

   The nigiri rice pellet should be made with warm, loosely- packed grains so that when it hits your mouth, you can feel the taste and texture of each grain. Only an expert with years of practice will know how to do that.

 

How does junk sushi differ from real sushi?

 

Well, of course, the quality of the fish is far worse. But an easy way to tell the difference is by tasting the rice pellet. If the rice is cold or tightly packed, then it is junk sushi.

 

   Sadly, many expensive restaurants in India also serve junk nigiri at ridiculously high prices. The expat chefs, who probably do know better, are convinced that Indians can’t tell the difference between junk and the real thing so they don’t give a damn. And by and large, they are right. Top modern Japanese restaurants in such cities as Mumbai attract high society types who know damn-all about the food but like being seen at fashionably expensive restaurants.

 

   At expensive places outside Japan, I usually order just one piece of nigiri, unless, of course, I have been there before and am confident of the quality. Something like 50 per cent of the time, the rice pellet is wrong so I don’t order any more nigiri.

 

Should you dunk your sushi in soya?

 

At junk sushi places? Of course. That is the point of the experience.

 

   At good places? Well, you can put a little soya on the fish side of a nigiri but never on the rice.

 

   At great places? Never. The nigiri is perfect, just as the chef intended.

 

Should you mix wasabi in your soya sauce bowl?

 

If you are a barbarian or a monkey, then yes. Otherwise: no.

 

How should you eat your nigiri?

 

With your fingers. Delicate nigiri may fall apart with chopsticks. So use your hands. It is what the Japanese do.

 

   As for sushi rolls, they are all made-up junky dishes anyway. So there’s no etiquette. Just do what you are comfortable with.

 

Where does the pickled ginger go?

 

It is a palate cleanser. You can eat it between courses.

 

Can you take small bites of a nigiri?

 

No. Think of a golgappa or a puchka. It is the same principle: always one bite with sushi.
 

 

Posted On: 17 Feb 2018 04:45 PM
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