Think of Japanese food and you’ll probably think first of sushi, the tasty bites of rice and raw fish that are fun to order, thanks to descriptive names like Dragon Roll and Caterpillar Roll. But once you visit Japan—and believe us, you should—you’ll discover they treat sushi a bit differently. There, they reserve it for special occasions. When it’s made properly, sushi is an expensive treat, bearing little resemblance to what we often see outside the historic island.
Sushi means “sour tasting” and refers to the sticky rice mixed with vinegar that is its base. Every sushi chef has a secret recipe for this sumeshi. For best results, it’s cooked in an iron pot then mixed in a cypress wood bowl before being cooled with a traditional hand fan.
Although fish is definitely not essential to sushi, the best place to eat it is still the fish markets in Tokyo or Osaka, where you’ll find the freshest samples. Tokyo's Tsukiji is the most famous—surrounded by notable restaurants such as Sushi Dai, Daiwa Sushi or the harder-to-find Kagura Sushi that invented seared sushi. Tsukiji is the place to try delicately delicious sensations such as uni (sea urchin) and hokkigai (surf clam) as well as the creamy toro (tuna belly).
The Typical Sushi Restaurant
Sushi is best eaten in a specialist restaurant, called a sushiya. Many are surprisingly small, taking as little as 12-20 customers—so you’ll know when you’ve found a good one judging by the number of people waiting in line by the door. Seated at a counter in front of the chef, or itamae, you can watch him expertly prepare the food and chat about what’s on the menu, as this will vary with the day's catch.
Most often, the itamae is male, as female hands are said to be too warm to make sushi rice properly. This prejudice has made it hard for a woman to break into the market, as few chefs will train them and customers may avoid their restaurant, but there are many welcoming signs of change.
The Importance of Training
Sushi training takes many years under the tutelage of an elderly chef. The experienced supervision is most important for those chefs making sushi with fugu, or poisonous blowfish, a specialty of Osaka. These chefs require a three-year apprenticeship, and only 35 percent pass!
That's not to say you can't learn the basics of sushi in a short lesson, depending on how much you know your way around a kitchen. Tokyo Sushi Academy, Japan's only sushi college, trains students in courses lasting from three months to a year, but also offers a two-hour lesson as a fun way to grasp the basics and gain a better appreciation of the skills of a top itamae.
The strength of Japanese cuisine, like Italy's, is its regional variety, for each part of Japan has its own specialty. In Osaka, the taste is for rice with more vinegar and sushi pressed in a box. This is part of Kansai-style sushi, the type first introduced to America, often using cooked ingredients such as an egg or tofu pouch with the sushi rice inside. Edo-style sushi is the classic Nigiri of raw fish on top of rice. California rolls, as the name implies, were invented in America to hide the seaweed, but this 'inside-out' style has now been imported back to Japan.
Sushi portions in Japan might be smaller than you’re used to at home. They’re bite-sized, so you can savor them slowly in one go. And feel free to use your hands rather than chopsticks, as you’ll be given a hot hand towel before and after the meal.