If only there was more joy around so-called sushi, which the mainstream American palate has transformed into another kind of junk food, stuffed with cream cheese and spicy mayonnaise, sometimes deep-fried, to mask the texture and flavor (or lack of) found in inferior fish.
I don’t expect “real” sushi in the Rogue Valley, so close in geography to the ocean yet so far from coastal food culture, any more than I expect superior interpretations of other seafood. But cities like Portland … Let’s just say that a friend visiting from Japan was hard-pressed to ferret out satisfactory sushi in that foodie city long known for fresh, Pacific Northwest fish.
Shoko even shyly implied that a long-standing dispute between my husband and I over the characteristics of “good” sushi had more merits on my side. I don’t like to belabor the point, but as a South Coast native, I expect fresh, wild-caught, properly handled fish, even more so in sushi.
A piece on this very topic recently ran in Newsday. While freshness, indeed, is paramount, training of chefs, like any culinary professionals, is sushi’s make-or-break factor, writes Erica Marcus. She, in turn, cites “The Sushi Experience” (Knopf, 2006), by Hiroko Shimbo, who explains that a sushi chef must have “detailed knowledge of the biochemical changes in seafood after it is slaughtered.” Understanding and controlling this process allows the chef to serve each fish “not just within a window of safety but when it tastes most delicious.”
That’s in addition to spending years learning the proper preparation of “sumeshi,” or sushi rice: Using a bamboo paddle, warm white rice is carefully blended with rice vinegar, sugar and sea salt. During this operation, the rice is fanned (often by an apprentice) to cool it down and give it a nice shine. The resulting grains should cohere, but they should not be mushy or bloated. Nor should sushi rice be served cold but rather somewhere between 90 and 100 F.
Speaking of temperature, cold is the enemy of sushi because it dulls flavors that should be subtle. Unfortunately, so much sushi is purposely filled with all-but-tasteless fillers, including imitation crabmeat, boiled shrimp and mushy roe. Imposters beyond crab are rife in sushi restaurants, whose vaunted “white tuna” is almost always escolar, a tropical, deep-water predator not at all related to tuna (and which consumed in large quantities can cause diarrhea).
And while we’re advocating moderation, I’ll reiterate a mantra of the sushi-savvy: The rice should never be dunked in soy sauce; a little dab on the fish will do. In addition to good-quality soy sauce, Marcus measures the merits of sushi restaurants by the chef’s tamago (scrambled egg), which should be rich, moist, tender and slightly sweet, as well as its house-made daikon, cucumber and eggplant pickles to complement the fish.