Never Tried Sushi
Hey fellow Chowhounders. I know it's hard to believe, but at the ripe old age of 21, I have yet to try sushi. Before I go spend a bit of money, I was curious as to what you enjoy, sushi-wise. I know everyone has different tastes, but I was just wondering.
Don't do it!!! Sure, it starts harmlessly enough; you have a few pieces of indifferent nigiri and a California roll at the local sushi joint. But then you get served something that triggers a near-religious experience, and the next thing you know you're selling your plasma to cover the cost of dinner at Urasawa.
Okay, if you can't be dissuaded, my suggestion would be to keep it simple. As long as you like white rice and the slightly sweet-and-sour dressing that goes on it, you'll be able to find other ingredients you like to put on top. I'd start with nigiri, which are traditionally bite-sized and served in pairs (although many sushi places in the US serve nigiri that are too large to be eaten in one bite). IMHO the whole roll thing smacks of sushi for people who are afraid they won't like sushi. Not that a roll can't taste good, but can anybody really appreciate the quality of a piece of fish when it has been rolled up with everything but the kitchen sink and smothered in four different sauces? Nothing against tuna with mayo, but I prefer it on wheat toast at a much lower price point.
As Caroline noted, your best guide for choosing what to eat is a good sushi chef. He (they're almost all male) knows his ingredients and can help you find things you like based on your reaction to what you're served. If you can, find a place that's fairly quiet and has a significant Japanese clientele and go when things aren't too busy.
If you have to pick your own dishes, I'd suggest starting with the simpler, milder, more popular stuff. It's less likely to present a challenging taste or texture, and turnover helps ensure freshness. Maybe try tai (red snapper), hamachi (yellowtail), sake (salmon), and/or maguro (tuna). If you are intimidated by the prospect of eating raw fish, ebi (shrimp) and unagi (barbequed eel with a sweet sauce) are both good choices. Tomago (sweet omlette) is a nice way to finish up a meal.
Enjoy, and let us know what happens!
I disagree with you on the comment about rolls (maki). I think it's just a necessary part of the the overall aesthetic (as long as it isn't the "kitchen sink" as you say).
The creativity and presentation is at least half the experience. If you want to taste the fish, order sashimi.
The one thing I d recommend to the OP...if you have finally acquired a taste for sushi, then go to a fine sushi restaurant with a Japanese chef and ask for Omakase..."I'm in your hands". You will be introduced to what is essentially Jazz on plates -- improvisation, and off-menu dishes you will otherwise never experience.
The "famous" one here in Vancouver is Tojo's: http://www.tojos.com
I didn't eat sushi until my early 30's because I didn't know anyone else that ate it. I certainly didn't grow up in a home where "exotic" foods were encouraged (of course my mom's attitude towards "weird" foods changed after she saw I didn't die from them).
Ditto what the other said about going with someone who is familiar with sushi, so they can guide you. The first time I had it I went with 3 other girlfriends to a sushi bar, and I tried anything and everythign any of them liked. My favorite was unagi (eel). It's still my favorite. With that courage under my belt, I introduced my husband to it. He now likes it more than I do.
Besides liking unagi, it's easier for me to say what I don't like. I do not like salmon. I kno I know. The horror. But I don't like it cooked, either.
Maybe start out with any kind of a tempura-based roll. The fish is cooked (battered and fried), but the rest of the sushi flavors are there -- the nori, the rice, the roe.
Sushi is a very personal thing when it comes to what is "good." My best advice is to think of what kinds of fish and roes you do like and start out in that direction. And not all sushi is made with raw fish. Never has been. It's a common misconception in this country that you're not eating sushi if it isn't topped with raw fish.
Then go to a really good sushi bar, sit at the bar, not a table! Explain your greenhorn status to the sushi chef and let him guide you. Don't know where you live, but if you can find a sushi bar where the majority of customers are Japanese, and sit at the sushi bar, there's a good chance that most of the Japanese customers seated around you will join in guiding you and giving you advice. Fun!
My daughter shudders and turns green at the mention of sashimi (raw fish), but I once shamed her into tasting tuna sashimi and she couldn't believe how good it is.
A little "sushi etiquette." It is perfectly acceptable to pick up sushi with your fingers instead of chopsticks. Japanese etiquette is that you put the whole piece of sushi in your mouth at one time. They're designed as one mouthful. But in most sushi bars in America, everyone is used to "gaijin" Americans who take bites and put the remainder back on their plate. When you dip sushi in sauce (not a requirement, but often done) you dip the topping, not the rice, as the rice will fragment and mess up the sauce. And while wasabi (Japanese horseradish, aka "that green stuff") is often offered alongside the dipping sauce, the sushi chef normally places a balanced amount of wasabi on top of the rice before topping with whatever you have chosen, so do try the sushi without additional wasabi before adding more. And it's an "American thing," not traditional Japanese, to mix wasabi into the dipping sauce. But as I said, American sushi bars are used to our gaijin (foreign) ways and tolerate us with good humor.
And do be cautious with wasabi. I once treated my parents to a full kaiseki dinner as a thank-you for staying with them much longer than planned, and my mother (with all of their Japanese friends, I assumed she knew what she was doing) put the whole cone of wasabi in her mouth and had fire coming out of her ears! When she could finally squeek again, she pointed to it and squawked, "I thought it was Japanese guacamole!" It is not. Proceed with caution.
And most important, for those sushis served in nori, or with nori served inside them, nori SHOULD NOT be like black bubble gum! That's a sign of sushi that has been sitting too long. Therefore be sure that any sushi rolls you order are made after they are ordered. In a good sushi bar, they always will be.
My personal favorite sushis? Well, I have to put sea urchin in top slot, very closely followed by salmon roe. Then tuna. And tomago (egg), but it's so much fun to make I usually make my own at home. I also like octopus, but in the U.S. it is almost always cooked. Which is okay when it's cooked right and not tough. Same with abalone, which I also love but is now obscenely expensive. In a sushi bar (and at home) what kind of sushi I eat depends on mood and availability.
You have an adventure in front of you. Here's hoping you enjoy it!
Caroline1, love your explanation of sushi etiquette, it was very informative! I've definitely picked up some gaijin ways.... Another gaijin thing I do is eat way too much ginger with everything. My understanding is that good sashimi should not be eaten with ginger at all. Is that true? I also had another question about dipping the topping, not the rice. This makes total sense, but do you pick up the topping and dip, then put it back on the rice? Or do you turn it upside down and dip?
I like your list of personal favs. I would say that if I were trying sushi for the first time, uni (sea urchin), octopus and abalone would be a bit daunting. Also, they are harder to find, and so if they weren't absolutely fresh and well-prepared, you might get a poor impression and be turned off. So if the OP is in Tokyo, well, go to a nice place and try whatever they offer, it should be wonderful. But if you are in Winnipeg (where I first tried sushi) which is in the middle of the prairies thousands of miles from ocean, well, start with some of the more common items, and perhaps some of the cooked items, then slowly expand.
For your first experience of raw sushi items, I think it would be worth spending the time to research the better establishments in your locale, and to spend money to get the best example of sushi you can find. Order a few pieces, and go on only if you are enjoying yourself. Sushi is a food item that should be judged based on its best manifestation. If you'r trying it for the first time, and you hate it, you want to be sure that it wasn't because you had a poor preparation.
Warning: sushi is a terrible addiction.... Have fun!
Thanks for the compliment. it just seemed to me that going into a sushi bar for the first time can be a bit intimidating, and the more you know, the more you can relax. The only thing that I'm terribly "gaijin" about is the old fashioned "samurai" gutteral speech that many older Japanese men still use today, especially in a sushi bar. Makes me want to giggle. I once started to try to learn Japanese from Berlitz, or whoever, then I found out that Japanese is really two languages, one spoken by men, the other by women. Could never find a course that offers women's Japanese, so I ditched the project.
Ginger is considered a palate cleanser, so you eat a bit of it when you are changing from one flavor to another. So with sushi, it would be appropriate to have a slice of ginger if you've been eating several pieces of a roll and now intend to switch to another flavor. It's especially useful when switching from one exotic (expensive) sushi to another. I like to give the ginger time to neutralize my palate, then a sip of sake, another short wait, then the new flavor. But just a sip of sake also works and skip the ginger entirely.
As for dipping, the sushi is usually dipped into the dipping sauce without removing the topping. Just dip it topping down. If you're afraid the topping will fall off, well, if I'm certain the sushi absolutely needs sauce, I'm not above using a spoon to drizzle it. I don't dip roe, including sea urchin. The best practice is to always taste the sushi first without adding anything. A really good sushi chef knows what he is doing and almost always presents an already perfected product. I've been told that few sushi bars in Japan even offer a sauce. It's a gaijin thing. Sort of like home cooking and salt, I HATE guests who grab the salt shaker and start shaking before they even taste my food! It's insulting when you think about it. Says they don't think I can cook. Same with sushi chefs.
As for far from the sea for sushi, you're absolutely right. I'm a native Californian, and have been eating sushi since you had to dig hard to find a sushi bar, and then there was a great chance that no one in it, even though in California, would speak English. The end result is that here in the DFW area, I rarely (if ever) eat raw fish, whether sushi or sashimi. I also don't know how well trained the sushi chefs are in this area, and if they don't know how to examine a raw fish -- any grade! -- for flukes when they're carving, you can get pretty sick. But as for sushi in Japan, it is possible that traditional sushi may be best there, but there are an awful lot of big-expense-account Japanese business men who get together to fly to California for sushi! I've just never dropped a thousand bucks or so for just my servings of sushi in my life, and it doesn't look as if there's much danger that day will ever come. But I do miss "the real thing" of the past, so I don't do a lot of eating in sushi bars these days. But I do read their menus on line. "Sushi" with cream cheese and jalapenos in it is not my idea of "authentic," you know? The world is racing toward that day when every ethnic menu will feature only one dish: Fusion soup!
Wow! thanks for all the great info! I will rethink my sushi eating habits (although when in a North american cheap sushi joint, I shall continue my ginger vacuum cleaner hoovering behavior - I love ginger!!!) You get into habits you know, like plunking wasabi into the soy. Your point is very well taken about tasting the sushi first and trusting the chef. For example, when I eat oysters, I have gotten into the bad habit of throwing on sauces (cocktail, horseradish, mignonette, etc). Well I had an oyster last night sans sauce, and lo and behold, Magic! Was able to really appreciate the joy that is the perfect raw oyster! I think it is the same for sushi. Cheap sushi joints have become very common, and very popular. Good for all of us who love sushi, because it opens up the market and allows some of the higher end places to have a chance to succeed. But because the general level of sushi quality is a little lower I tend to "season" my sushi with condiments. It is a bad habit, and I shall try to unlearn it. Thanks again for the enlightenment!
As for fusion soup, fear not. There will always be pendulum shifts. People will get sick of the extreme, and want to move back to basics. There will always be people who never wavered from the classics. Fusion can be our friend, you have to love the variety it engenders. More choice, more good. But classics are classics, they are good, and people will always return to good. At least that's how this optimist wants to see the world!
I apprenticed to a Japanese chef for almost two years. I learned a couple of things differently.
1) Mixing wasabi into the soy sauce is fine. Sorry - it may be a regional variation. I do recommend eating one or two pieces first to see if what the chef has already put is to your liking. Another variation I've seen is adding small bits of wasabi to the topping, or between the rice and the topping, before dipping. Here's one web site which addresses that: http://gojapan.about.com/cs/foodinfor...
2) I was taught to reach over a piece of nigiri and pick it up from behind, flipping it over to get the topping side down. As already said, that's the part that gets dipped. Dipping the rice in the soy is like putting ketchup on the outside of the bun of a hamburger.
3) It is polite to order two pieces of nigiri at a time. The word for one apparently is a pun on the phrase to kill someone, and three is is a pun on the phrase to kill oneself. Since I'm not a Japanese speaker (my teacher wanted us to learn food, not Japanese) I don't know if it's true.
4) Following #3, many restaurants have two pieces of nigiri per order, so pay attention - don't wind up ordering twice or half as much as you thought you were getting.
5) If you sit at the sushi bar (always a better bet if that's all or mostly what you're having) try ordering just a little at a time. It keeps it fresher. OTOH, combination platters are usually a better bargain.
6) Ask the chef for a recommendation of what's the best today, and try it. (Don't ask for what's "good"; that's implying there's bad stuff!)
7) Feel free to tell the server to get a drink for the chef; he may not have it then but will appreciate it.
There are a plethora of guides online for sushi etiquette, but don't get too bothered by them. You're not Japanese, and any chef that has worked for any length of time should be delighted you want to learn rather than think less of you for not already knowing.
If you like spice, a spicy tuna roll might go down well. They tend to be small rolls, so easy to eat, and easier to get used to (small amounts at a time). The spicy sauce will give you something familiar to focus on while you get used to the texture of the raw fish, And tuna is the easiest fish to start with.
I agree with the other suggestions of california rolls, unagi (cooked eel), etc. Alnother nice one is Tamago (egg), a piece of sweet egg omelette on rice. Also, Inari sushi is delicious (sushi rice stuffed into fried tofu). All lovely ways to go.
But I do recall that my first piece of sushi was actually tuna sashimi, and I fell in love right away....
You can't go wrong with a shrimp tempura roll. It'll ease you in gently...nicely fried shrimp, rice, and nori, maybe a little fish sauce on top. If you want to be adventurous, try some octopus. It's served cooked and actually isn't that bad. Chewy, but with a sweetish flavor. I'm not at all a fan of raw fish (I've tried to like it, I just can't) and those are usually what I get. I haven't tried any of the egg or omelette, whatever, sushi. I do want to, though!
I was in my 20's too when I started eating sushi. I went for the first time with someone who had spent about two years in Japan. It was extremely helpful, so I would agree that you should go with someone "in the know". I have been eating sushi more than twenty years now. I started my wife on sushi about two years ago and now she is addicted like me! Don't know where you live, but I would make sure your choice of restaurants comes highly recommended.
Just remember that sushi is based on the rice, not the fish. I've made chicken salad sushi!
Suggestions so far are good, but one approach is simply telling the sushi chef -- with, perhaps, information about allergies -- that you've never had it before. A decent chef will be delighted to have a potential customer.
Another is to go with sushi knowlegable friends. Still another -- if you're adventurous -- is to order a combination platter, have the server or chef explain what's what, and go for it.
One more suggestion is to try to go when they're not too busy. Oh -- one more thing -- tip well, and you'll have a better chance at being remembered well.
re: Suzy Q
Sushi pizza is available at almost every sushi place i've been to (suburbs of toronto)..it is very tasty! The combination of a hot crispy base of rice gives a great crunch combined with the texture of sashimi is delicious! I've actually taken to having a philadelphia roll at home, heating up a little oil in a pan and flash frying the base to get the same effect-the cream cheese just starts to melt and the combination is addictive!
Great advice on both starting with California rolls, and on going with someone who knows a little about sushi. There are many sushi treats that contain all cooked ingredients.
Also, unless you like salmon a great deal as a cooked dish, you will most likely not like it raw. Good quality tuna, however, is rarely "fishy"-tasting and has a nice consistency.
I think of California Rolls as sushi with training wheels. All the ingredients are cooked. The ones with the fake crab (Pollock meat) are easier to deal with for people who don't like shellfish.
If you are not hooked after that then try a dynamite roll (which has a shrimp tempura - cooked)
Then you can graduate to tuna rolls or negitoro rolls (tuna belly with scallion). Or Salmon maki or nigiri.
If you are still not hooked, then just give up right now.
I had written off sushi as something i was sure i wouldn't like, partly due to the "raw fish" perception....and also cuz i figured the nori would taste like licking a wharf....lol
I was in my early thirties before i tried it ! Just a couple of years ago , and now i LOVE it. If you have the option, go with someone who knows what they're doing...knows what to order and who can suggest not too scary things for a newbie. I got braver each time I went !