Everyone (well, nearly everyone) loves sushi, but it’s amazing how little most of us know about it. What’s the ideal texture? Is it eaten before or after a meal? And is it ever cooked? We met sushi chef Chitoshi Takahashi at Kisaku, one of Dubai’s most authentic Japanese restaurants, for a lesson in sushi etiquette.
‘Sushi has changed a lot in the past 200 years,’ explains Takahashi. ‘Two centuries ago, it was made mainly with mackerel, which we’d preserve in salt and vinegar. A century after that, you started to see more variety, but the fish was cooked. It’s only been in the past 60 years that sushi has been prepared with raw fish.’ The old style of sushi was called ‘hako’, which in Japanese means ‘box’. The rice was packed into a box and topped with mackerel, then pressed tight.
‘Non-Japanese eat sushi as a starter,’ explains Takahashi. ‘In Japan, we may start a meal with sashimi [raw fish without rice], but we’d never start a meal with sushi [raw fish with rice but not seaweed]. Sushi comes at the end of a meal.’
Most people realise that freshness is the name of the game when it comes to sushi. ‘We use the fish the day it comes in. If we have leftovers, we will not use it the next day. Fish is very dangerous after the expiration date,’ says Takahashi, who himself only frequents three sushi counters in Dubai besides his own: Zuma, Nobu and the sushi bar at the Grand Hyatt. ‘Fresh fish should be shiny. If you can smell it, it’s better that you don’t eat it,’ he advises.
Many sushi fans don’t realise the importance of rice when making sushi – or, more accurately, the vinegar used to prepare the rice. ‘In Japan, every restaurant uses a different type of vinegar, and every chef keeps it secret. The flavour of the rice also changes from region to region because each area uses different vinegar. In Tokyo, the vinegar is salty; in Osaka, it’s sweeter.’
Takahashi explains that the ginger traditionally served with sushi isn’t supposed to be draped over the fish. Of course, you can eat it that way if you enjoy it, but it’s just not very Japanese. ‘We never put the ginger on the fish. The ginger is to cleanse the palate between sushi.’
The soy sauce
‘Non-Japanese put way too much soy sauce on their sushi,’ says Takahashi. ‘You can’t taste the fish if you dunk it.’ To demonstrate, he drizzles a trickle of soy sauce onto the fish, using it sparingly, as if it were salt.
Like soy sauce, wasabi is meant to be used in moderation, according to a diner’s taste. ‘You can put some on sashimi, because it’s not already seasoned, but a good sushi chef will season the sushi with wasabi himself.’ Fresh wasabi – not made from powder – is preferable, but Takahashi says the real stuff is extremely expensive in Dubai. ‘The powder was only invented 60 years ago. Before then, it was all done by hand.’
Kisaku, Al Khaleej Palace Hotel, Deira (04 223 1000)