You may know not to douse your rice with soy sauce or order rolls made with cream cheese, but how much do you really know about sushi? Trevor Corson, author the bestselling book The Secret Life of Lobsters and The Story of Sushi, hosts weekly dinners at Jewel Bako in New York and Zentan in D.C., where he takes on the mantle of the Sushi Concierge, your personal guide to sushi etiquette and history.
Before you sharpen those chopsticks (a sushi bar no-no, by the way), settle down and have a sushi meal as it would have been eaten by a Japanese connoisseur 70 or 80 years ago. What’s not on the throwback menu may surprise you: no tuna, no hamachi, no yellowtail and no unagi, and the only salmon is Tanzanian king salmon from New Zealand.
But what about toro, supposedly the king of the sushi bar? Nope. Corson explained that despite the hype, toro is actually a very recent addition to the sushi menu, a fad developed by Japanese airline executives. “In the 70s and 80s, when they were exporting lots of stuff to the U.S., they were flying the planes back empty. Some enterprising cargo employees were trying to figure out what they could put in the planes on the way back to Japan to make some more money. They realized there were all these sport fishermen off New England catching all these tuna, and they weren’t eating them.” The tuna got flown back to Tokyo, and today’s fatty tuna craze was born. Since bluefin tuna is not only endangered but inauthentic, you now have one more reason not to order the toro.
As you wend your way through an appetizer – on this night, cucumber wrapped in flounder with ponzu sauce (soy mixed with yuzu), garnished with bonito flakes – and a couple glasses of sake, the Sushi Concierge lets you in on a few more interesting facts. Hot sake is the cheap stuff, really just “a fun thing to drink on a cold winter night when you’re having pub food.” In a quality sushi restaurant like Jewel Bako, order your sake cold so you get the subtlety of the different flavors.
Not only is it a good idea to get to know the sushi chef at your favorite local place, it’s also important not to unintentionally insult him, for instance, by scraping your chopsticks together after you break them apart. Corson explained that “chefs think ‘This is a good restaurant, we actually buy really good quality disposable chopsticks, so they’re not going to have splinters.'” But when sushi chefs see customers scraping their chopsticks together “they get a little insulted, because it makes them feel like the customer thinks they’re too cheap to buy good chopsticks.”
“It’s perfectly acceptable to eat sushi at a high end sushi bar with your fingers,” not chopsticks, Corson said. “A nigiri should actually be fairly loose when you put it in your mouth. It shouldn’t be this dense, gummy wad of rice squished together. But we all think it’s Japanese food and we’re supposed to eat it with chopsticks. And the chef is squeezing the sushi really tight so it doesn’t fall apart when you pick it up with chopsticks. Ask them to pack the sushi loosely, that you’ll eat it with your fingers.” In between pieces, you wipe your fingers on a little napkin in a dish, pictured above.
What about sashimi? Because the rice is such an important part of the meal – chefs spend all day making it to the exact sweet-vinegary specifications – you’re doing yourself a disservice by ordering sashimi instead of nigiri at a good sushi restaurant. Sushi rolls are also an American invention. In Japan, rolls made with eggs or vegetables are eaten as picnic food during hanami, the cherry tree viewing season.
Rules, rules, rules! But as Corson said, he’s not trying to be the “sushi police.” Rather, all this etiquette can help you get the good stuff when a sushi chef sees that you’re a knowledgeable and appreciative diner. “Many times where I’ve sat down at a sushi bar with a chef that I know, even though I don’t say a thing, I start getting this amazing, interesting meal. Everybody else at the sushi bar says, ‘How’d you get that?!’ It’s just because I’ve gotten to know the chef or I’ve done the right things.”
The main meal would normally be served piece by piece at a sushi bar, but because there were so many of us in the group, we each got a platter of traditional sushi. In the far row, from left to right: Tanzanian king salmon, sea bream (a type of snapper), sea scallop, kanpachi (amberjack) and red snapper. In the near row: sweet shrimp, jack mackerel mixed with miso and ginger topped with a mint leaf, fluke, sea eel, sea urchin, old fashioned box sushi with pickled mackerel.
This last piece turns out to be a history lesson in and of itself. It’s a rectangular piece of sushi as it would have been served in the 1800s, when fish was not usually sold raw. It would have been pickled or blanched and sold in “pickling places,” not sushi restaurants. In fact, sushi originated as a way of preserving fish, not the ocean fish we eat today but fresh water fish that were abundant at certain times of year. It wasn’t in Japan but in northern Thailand where rice farmers figured out a method of preserving fish in pressed rice.
In Kyoto, the Japanese started taking the preserved lake fish out of the rice earlier when the rice still had a tang to it. The rice and fish were pressed together and cut in rectangular pieces like the 1800s-style piece of sushi on the far left, a layer of rice, a layer of pickled mackerel fillet, and a sheen of white kelp on top. Nigiri – hand-squeezed sushi – are the modern version.
And no, you’re not supposed to dunk nigiri in soy sauce or a mixture of soy and wasabi, an American quirk that also annoys sushi chefs. So how are you supposed to get just the slightest film of soy sauce on top of the fish without looking like a complete rube?
For that little trick, you’ll have to take the class.
The Sushi Concierge
Mondays at 6:30, $105 per person at Jewel Bako
239 East 5th Street, between Bowery and Second Avenue
New York, NY
reservations required – book through sushiconcierge.com