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Oct 14, 2007 12:12 AM

Yet another "Shota" moment at Kaito - any others?

I just came back from what I would call another "Shota" moment at Kaito in Encinitas.

For those who may not know of the genre, "Shota" in this case refers to the main protagonist of the Japanese "gourmet" TV drama (gurume dorama, as they say) named "Shota no Sushi". It chronicles the struggles of Shota, a young itamae-san in training as he conquers skill after skill with every episode. Though the dramatic portions are overdone and hilarious in their lack of subtlety, the series also runs like a docu-drama of sorts on the ins and outs of traditional sushi. Every sushi fan must see this excellent series. (English subs are available.)

In any case practically every detailed skill presented in this series does not appear to be readily available in any of our western media. Each skill, on its surface which appears to be so small, becomes the basis for an entire episode, the secret to cutting a nori-maki, the personal style of one's own sushi, the different styles of forming a piece of nigiri-sushi, the role of fish selection, the secret to a good tamagoyaki, etc. Though the viewer will hopefully understand that these skills would take a lifetime to master, it's quickly consumed by the viewer a single episode at a time.

So I have come to describe experiences, and there have been many at Kaito where Morita-san would share annecdotes collected from a lifetime of training under two masters under one roof (his master and his master's master), as "Shota" moments.

So what was tonight's Shota moment? Shortly after Morita-san had prepared a nigiri of toro for me, (his selection of excellent tane is so diverse that I've taken to have only a single piece per order), he paused briefly before pulling back the plate and decided to prepare a second nigiri out of the same block of toro; in fact he made his next cut from the part exposed by the previous slice of toro. He also used the same rice, and asked me to judge the difference.

Well I reversed their order, having the second one first, and after contemplating the nigiri I had my second piece. This was my personal assessment, which I related to Morita-san in Japanese. The first nigiri I had tasted predominantly of shari (the sushi rice), and the toro was barely noticeable, to the point of almost being denatured, lifeless. The second piece I had had a wonderful balance to it, with the shari playing a supporting and complementary role, that is present and playing "backup harmonies", to the tane which in this case just exploded with flavor and texture. Both the nigiri and the tane of the second piece were seductively textured and exploding with oil, while the first one did not.

The first nigiri seemed just a tad firm while the second one had the nice texture that I have come to expect from Morita-san, though this I did not relate to him as the taste difference between the two became the "headline story" of the test. (I find he varies the texture depending on the tane, with some of his lightest touches present when he prepares a nigiri of fresh anago, a perfect match for its delicate texture...)

The difference? The first nigiri I had did not have any "air" in it, while the second nigiri did. In other words the difference was in the touch of his hands as he formed the nigiri, of years and years of training and dedication to his craft culminating in these bite-sized culinary jewels. He relates that he can form the nigiri faster by leaving out the "air", but does not in order to serve the best product that he can.

(If the "air" part seems a bit strange, some cross-cultural food analogies might be in order here. Some that come to mind - a barely whipped-up biscuit mix [or tempura batter for that matter!], meatballs formed with the right consistency [or for that matter the ball of meat in a gyoza or shu mai dumplilng], a properly formed hamburger patty or the incredible crab cakes at Oceanaire! And sometimes it's still compressed, but just enough, such as in a well-pressed sandwich or in a properly tamped puck of carefully ground coffee to make a good espresso.)

So that was my latest "Shota" moment. Any others out there that would like to relate their own "Shota" sushi moments?

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  1. Thanks, cgfan, for this thoghtful and detailed insight. Over the years, I have progressed from a, "Ick, raw fish." to "Sushi, sushi, more sushi!" attitude and I have tried to learn about the art and proper etiquette.

    My Shota moment that comes to mind is when I was eating lunch at the counter, the chef was flirting with a beautiful young Japanese woman. Whatever he gave her, I asked for the same. The nigiri was far better than anything I had ordered on my own. He also instructed her to use the gari (pickled ginger) to "paint" the soy sauce on the fish, instead of dunking it.

    I have used that technique ever since.

    11 Replies
    1. re: Gypsy Jan

      Gypsy Jan, thank you for your wonderful story, though by a "Shota" moment I was thinking more along the lines of specific sushi skills or techniques that suddenly become clear.

      But your culinary transformation through sushi sounds remarkable. I'm sure you'll continue to discover new and wonderful things in the cuisine as I continue to with almost every visit. Do you remember what it was that you had that day when you asked for whatever the other woman was having, and have you had it ever again?

      Regarding using the gari, yes there are those who do that as it's much easier to control the amount of soy on the tane, and it's really the only practical way to add soy to a gunkanmaki (the so called battleship style of sushi that's used for uni and ikura).

      While I'm at it let me share one more "Shota" moment that happened to me rather recently... One of my earliest experiences with nigiri sushi in front of an itamae-san was probably back in the mid to late 70's. Some family friends of ours used to cater their parties with their favorite sushi chef who would bring over his case and "setup shop" right in their dining room. As I was already familiar with boxed "picnic" sushi, I was probably more enamored with the live tane that he would bring in and serve right in front of us. In my relative youth at the time it was only a long time later that I really understood how special a treat that really was, particularly since it was really just in the dawn of the sushi movement in the U.S.

      Anyway the sushi chef was Shibuya-san of Shibucho, one of the most respected of sushi chefs in the L.A. area. It was only recently that I decided to seek out his current shop, which is now in Costa Mesa and operates with his son at his side. In my most recent visit with a friend of mine I noticed some subtle things in the way he had served us. Sure enough when he would serve me a piece each of more than one item it would be laid out for me in such a manner that the piece that I would wish to eat first, which for me will always be the lighter of the two flavors presented, would always end up on my right, as he knew I was right-handed.

      All fine and good and perhaps would not have caught my attention had I not realized that for my friend, who though ambidextrous eats with her left hand, Shibuya-san had presented her sushi in the exact opposite arrangement! As this happened with the very first sushi that he had made for us that night, he must have observed how my friend drank her tea while in the process of serving his other customers at the bar.

      Other things also became apparent, such as the size of the nigiri were formed smaller for her than for me. I then speculated in our conversation afterwards that Shibuya-san must have formed the nigiri for her with a tighter touch to compensate for her use of chopsticks when eating her sushi while I always eat my sushi using just my hands. (??? Which BTW may be an argument for using only your hands in front of a traditionally-trained sushi chef ??? - You may not want to unintentionally limit how he forms the nigiri for you, thereby giving him full license to maximize the taste experience for you vis-a-vis my opening post above...)

      It was too late to know for sure on the last speculation, as this was her first time in front of a traditionally-trained sushi chef and would not have noticed these subtle differences. But as for myself I'm convinced that Shibuya-san would and did make these adjustments, as it only would have been consistent with the other minute adjustments he had made throughout the course of our entire meal.

      1. re: cgfan

        Yes, cgfan,

        I know that you are asking about specific "Shota" moments that illustrate the skill and dedication of the itaeme.

        Since no one had responded, I just offered up my own meager story.

        The nigiri that I was given was maguro. It tasted like nothing I have ever had before or tasted since, but I cannot describe how it was different from all the other maguro I have had, except that it was litghter, sweeter and more on point and definitely not toro.

        1. re: Gypsy Jan

          Oh boy, I just re-read my post and apologize to cgfan for the spelling errors and the overuse of first person plural.

          I wish Chowhound had an edit function.

          1. re: Gypsy Jan

            Gypsy_Jan - You must have a very sensitive editorial ear; no apologies needed!

            Chowhound does have an edit function, but only for recent posts. Not really sure how long posts stay editable, but from observation it's probably somewhere near 2 hours or so... The odd thing is that right after a post is made the ability to link to a place or to add photos seems not to be available.

        2. re: cgfan

          Thank you for hotlinking this on the Ask Sushi Man thread. I wonder, on the issue of nigiri size, whether he made it smaller, tighter for her, due to her being a woman? I've noticed that as I progress into the meal (and rapport with the itamae improves), the size of the shari gets smaller while the tane stays the same or in some cases, is cut larger for a nicer drape?

          I recall one time, long ago, at sushi-ya here in Southern CA, that one itamae would go as far as cutting the nigiri in half for me.

          Just my thoughts....

          1. re: OCAnn

            Intersting about cutting the nigiri in half for you. I imagine that may have been a similar compensation.

            Certainly that was my similar take with my experience, that the tane was cut smaller and the nigiri formed smaller because my friend was a woman.

            Though much of this aura has faded away, sushi bars have always been associated as being a largely male dominated environment, a somewhat intimidating place for women to dine. Along with the focus by some shops on beautifully arranged and more feminine chirashi sushi to appeal to more women, or pre-arranged set meals that can easily be ordered by a group of women from the table, I must imagine that the size of the nigiri is yet another instinctive compensation that is done by the more observant itamae.

            1. re: cgfan

              "...sushi bars have always been associated as being a largely male dominated environment, a somewhat intimidating place for women to dine."

              Maybe that's why when I was cute, young and brash, I enjoyed going to sushi-yas alone. haha

              I used to spend a good portion of my time in North County; I'll now have to go back to try Kaito (and Market).

              1. re: OCAnn


                Of course, the OC in OCAnn! Yes, Kaito is a must visit / best of class sushi bar for San Diego County.

                By chance have you gone to Shibucho in Costa Mesa, the one referenced in my earlier post above? I must make another trip out there - it's not that bad a drive from North county...

                Haven't been to Market, but if it's anything like what Schroeder put out while he was at Arterra, and I'm sure it is, if not more so, than it should be a wonderful culinary experience!

                1. re: cgfan

                  Yes, I've been to Shibucho in Costa Mesa. Very understated and sublime; it's almost like having sushi in Japan!

                  1. re: cgfan

                    cgfan, I think you need to go to Market! I think it's better than Arterra at times! I had this delicious roasted poblano and corn soup the other day and my only regret for that meal was that I ate too much for lunch and wasn't hungry enough to eat my 3 dishes!

                    1. re: daantaat

                      It's #1 on my list!

                      Might make for a good destination restaurant w/out of town guests during the Holidays...

        3. Having just returned from another meal at Kaito, I have one more "Shota" moment to share. (My definition of a "Shota" moment is given in my opening post of this thread...)

          Nearing the end of today's meal I had a hankering for a simple, traditional hoso-maki (narrow roll). Specifically I was thinking of having a kappa-maki. However Morita-san, the head itamae at Kaito Sushi, recommended instead a kampyo-maki, which sounded just as good to me. (A kampyo-maki is simply a hoso-maki with pickled gourd...)

          After making the kampyo-maki Morita-san paused and asked if I wanted to compare it to another kampyo-maki. Specifically he wanted to see if I could tell the difference between a kampyo-maki cut into 4 pieces, versus a kampyo-maki cut into 6 pieces. Traditionally kampyo-maki is cut into 4 pieces, resulting in slightly longer pieces than most other hoso-maki which are traditionally cut into 6.

          Morita-san went on to say that during his training he even once asked his master why kampyo-maki is always cut into 4 pieces, to which the master's response was, "because it tastes better!".

          Not commenting any further Morita-san promptly presented me with the two styles of kampyo-maki, absolutely identical except for how they were cut. I first tasted one piece of the traditionally cut kampyo-maki (cut into 4 pieces), then alternated with a single piece of the "unconventionally cut" kampyo-maki (cut into 6 pieces). Immediately after having had one of each I surmised that the kampyo-maki cut into 4 pieces had a better balance between the shari and the kampyo. The version cut into 6 pieces had the kampyo over-powering the shari.

          I still continued the alternation carefully having one of each version until I was done. All throughout with each iteration of this little "sushi test" I concluded the same - the balance between the ingredients was better with the traditionally cut roll, while the roll cut into 6 had the kampyo overpowering the shari.

          Now I did not ask Morita-san why he thinks they taste different, or even if he believes his master that they do taste different, but just relayed to him my conclusion, which, like my "1st Shota moment" with the maguro, was like a night and day difference.

          After this little exchange Morita-san went on to explain to some other Japanese customers the test that I was having and how subtle changes of technique can greatly influence the taste of sushi, and even relayed the story of my "1st Shota moment" with the two maguro nigiris that he had made for me so long ago.

          Wonders never seem to cease at Morita-san's sushi bar...

          2 Replies
          1. re: cgfan

            Does Morita san adjust the size of shari accordin g to the type of fish used for nigiri? That's also a nice fine detail, although I never quite figured out the ah-ha part of when it is necessary and with what fish types.

            1. re: K K

              As much as I know him, for me it's difficult to say as far as his general routine. Certainly for specific instances he does do that to achieve a certain effect, but am not sure if he follows any "general script" or rule. That'll be an interesting question for me to ask him someday.

              I am certain that he does adjust his nigiri technique depending on the tane. For instance since he is one of the rare itamaes in the U.S. that fillets his own Anago in the shop, he will form the nigiri particularly light in order to match it with the delicacy of the Anago.

              More recently with some special Bluefin maguro that he was working with he changed his technique in order to minimize as much as possible contact with his hands in order to minimize warming up the tane.

          2. Great posts, cgfan. Your reference elsewhere to this thread got me here.

            Now you need a chow-shota moment: post the shota theme on general topics. Your current thread is tied to Kaito and California.

            I continue to hope for shota moments in the making of sushi.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

              Hey Sam, great to see your post!

              Yes, that's a good idea. It does get lost being attached to California (where Kaito sushi just happens to be located). A topic such as this probably can have broader appeal if relocated to a different group.

              I guess I'd have to create a new thread and reference this one - thanks for the tip!

              1. re: cgfan

                I suspect many US readers are not yet familiar with the fansubbed ep's of Shota no Sushi. Maybe a more generic title would broaden the appeal, and then reward those who delved further...

                1. re: trentyzan

                  Again, thanks Sam and trentyz, for your suggestions. I've since started a new thread title "Your "Shota moment" at a sushi bar?" under "General Chowhounding Topics" at: