By Natalie Richoux
Raw fish, dried seaweed and rice. On their own, it does not sound that appetizing to most. Combined masterfully, they come together for a unique, flavorful experience that can have your mouth watering. We’re talking about sushi! Sushi comes in a variety of forms, flavors and sizes for individuals to experience and you could go through endless combinations of this delightful, delicious food and be surprised and awed by each unique recipe.
Sushi is an ancient food originating in Japan. According to Chef Jeff Allen of Dragonfly in downtown Gainesville, “its origins go all the way back to the Yayoi period of Japan (BC-300AD).” The beginnings of sushi, known as Narezushi, were quite different than the sushi we know today. Narezushi was made in the rice paddy fields and the fish was fermented using the rice, but the rice was then discarded and not consumed as food. While today’s sushi is extremely different than the original sushi of the Yayoi period, Allen relays that there has been a resurgence of consuming the “granddad” of sushi Narezushi. If you are not looking to consume the ancient, fermented form of sushi, there are numerous options for you to try.
There are three common ways to find sushi served today. The first type is sashimi, which is raw fish without the rice, served plain. Another type is nigiri, which are bit-sized pieces of raw fish laid over rice. And, last but not least, the most popular form of sushi, the roll form commonly known as makisushi, hosomaki or temaki. While sashimi and nigiri are fairly straightforward in what they are generally made of, the roll forms of sushi can include a variety of ingredients.
According to Chef Allen, “whether you go with traditional temaki (handrolls), hosomaki (typically single ingredient rolls) or makisushi, the makeup is still the same.” Roll forms of sushi include fish, rice and other ingredients and/or sauces such as cucumber, avocado, ginger or eel sauce (a thick, sweet and savory sauce that accompanies grilled fish or sushi made with eel). While the most popular forms of rolled sushi include raw ingredients, there are certain styles of rolls that include cooked ingredients that would include items like shrimp. When it comes to sushi, customers are only limited to the chef’s imagination said Chef Allen. Sushi can take many forms, and it can be a bit overwhelming to begin eating sushi (especially if the thought of raw fish is not appetizing).
Anyone can begin a successful foray into eating sushi. Every sushi roll will consist of rice and a seaweed wrapper, but what is within the seaweed wrapper and accompanying the rice varies greatly depending on the roll you choose. If you are hesitant, choose rolls that include basic and understandable ingredients, such as California rolls, which contain crab, cucumber and avocado. If you are not big on crab and still want to experience sushi, you could begin with the Kappa Maki roll, which is just cucumber. Chef Allen recommends going with friends and let everyone order something different and try a sample of everyone’s different sushi rolls. And the most important part of trying sushi for the first time is, “just enjoy the experience,” said Chef Allen, “it can be liberating to try something new!”
If you are still nervous about your new journey into enjoying sushi, Chef Allen offers one final piece of advice, “grab a seat at the sushi bar. Tell me it’s your first time. Let me know what you like (or don’t like) and I’ll prepare a meal especially for you” and he will even, “recommend sauces for some.”
As fun as it is to eat the delightful, colorful rolls of goodness, it doesn’t hurt that sushi is an excellent source of iodine, which, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supports fetal and infant development, cognitive development during childhood, fibrocystic diseases, radiation induced thyroid issues and a healthy metabolism. Sushi is also great for weight management because there are a limited number of ingredients, many of which are raw and unprocessed, which means they come packed with nutrients. Two nutrients common in sushi are omega-3 fatty acids. According to the NIH, omega-3 fatty acids are excellent for fighting cardiovascular diseases, cancer, dry eye disease, cognitive diseases (such as Alzheimer’s or dementia) and rheumatoid arthritis. Even the accouterments that are traditionally served with sushi have health benefits.
Sushi comes with friends! Many sauces and accouterments such as soy sauce, wasabi and Gari (pickled ginger) that accompany sushi have added health benefits. However, the accouterments are often minimal and determined by the chef of the restaurant. “Traditionally, you would rely on the chef to make it exactly as he wants to make sure the flavors are experienced as intended” said Chef Allen. Soy sauce is high in niacin which is instrumental in heart health but should be used sparingly and as a dipping sauce for any fish or vegetables that come with your sushi roll but never for the sushi roll itself. Often, the rice has already been seasoned and flavored to match the flavor profile of the fish and vegetables being used and therefore, using soy sauce on a sushi roll could be an insult to the chef (you should therefore nix the common habit of mixing soy sauce and wasabi for dipping).
Wasabi is likely the most well known accouterment for sushi, and traditional sushi is often made with the wasabi mixed with the rice and fish as part of your sushi roll (you can order sushi sabi nuki, which means without wasabi). Wasabi can help with respiratory disorders, clear sinus passages, promotes healthy digestion and has anti-inflammatory properties. The purpose of serving wasabi with sushi is two fold: it can help mask any smells from the fish and help bring out more intense flavor notes from the fish and vegetables.
Gari is the final common accouterment for sushi. This pickled ginger garnish is commonly known to help nausea, but lesser known health benefits of ginger include reducing muscle pain and anti-inflammatory properties. While Gari is often served with the sushi, it should never be consumed with sushi, but rather when you are done eating sushi to help you cleanse your palate.
Now that you know the intricacies of selecting the perfect sushi for you and how to use any accouterments that accompany your sushi dish, you need to learn what beverages are perfectly paired with your newfound favorite sushi dishes.
While many people follow the old rule of pairing white wines with fish (which is a great rule), Chef Allen suggests that you try pairing your sushi with a sake or shochu. Sake is a rice wine made by fermenting rice that has gone through a polishing process to remove any bran from the rice. Sake is best paired with makisushi, hosomaki or temaki where the flavors are all enveloped in one flavor experience and sake offers an earthy balance to your sushi dish. Shochu is Japanese liquor that can be made from a variety of base ingredients such as Imo (Japanese sweet potato), barley, rice, buckwheat or sugar cane. Shochu is most highly recommended when eating sashimi as you want to experience the full flavor of the raw fish and any accompanying vegetables and shochu offers a softer palate with minimal flavors to enjoy the entire sashimi experience.
Sushi comes in a variety of forms, includes a variety of ingredients, pairs well with several Japanese drinks and is a wonderful, flavorful journey with numerous health benefits. Whether you are a new-to-sushi diner or a well-versed sushi diner, there are plenty of reasons to partake in this ancient Japanese delicacy.
Your Guide to the Etiquette of Eating Sushi:
- Clean your hands before eating sushi (many sushi restaurants offer warm towels to wipe your hands)
- Sushi is meant to be eaten in one go, so don’t slice it or take bites.
- Sushi should be eaten so that the fish touches your tongue first.
- Never dip your sushi roll into your soy sauce. Instead, use pickled ginger to dab a minimal amount of soy sauce onto your roll.
- Never mix wasabi and soy sauce together to make a dipping sauce (Japanese cuisine discourages mixing)
- Eat in a gradient pattern of starting with the lightest colored sushi and ending with the darkest colored sushi (the lightest colors will be the most mild in flavor and the darkest colors will be the most flavorful)
- Eat pickled ginger when changing from one type of sushi to another to cleanse your palate.
- Sushi is meant to be eaten with your hands (this is the traditional and ‘proper’ way to eat sushi), although it can be eaten with chopsticks.
- If using chopsticks, place the tips on the ceramic holder in between eating and resting. Place them across the soy saucer when you are finished eating.
- When paying and tipping, never hand money to the chef, only the waiter.
Meet Chef Allen
What is your favorite food to cook and eat?
My favorite thing to cook (and eat) are smoked ribs, or any slow cooked meats. The depth of flavor and that melt-in-your-mouth greatness that you get from slow cooking is just so satisfying. The slow process is also enjoyable considering the high pace environment I work in. Don’t get me wrong, I love making sushi—it’s my craft and the fact that I get paid to do it makes it all the better—but to sit back and sip on your favorite bourbon while that sweet smell of smoked meat is in the air… there’s nothing better.
What is your favorite food memory?
When Hiro, Ray, and Song (the owners of Dragonfly) took me on a research and development trip to Las Vegas, we ate at the great Charlie Trotters restaurant. The meal was prepared in part by Dragonfly Gainesville Alumnus Hiroo Nagahara and had a glorious 15-course meal all paired with wines, bourbon’s, and saké. It was all izakaya portions (tapas-sized) but everything packed so much flavor and creativity. It was the single greatest dining experience of my life.
What is your favorite kitchen equipment or gadget?
Other than my chef knives, I’m going to have to go with the Vitamix blender—so many great sauces have come from that amazing gadget.