The Lost Art Of Sashimi
There is only one thing worse than bad, cheap sushi and that is bad, expensive sushi. OK, I accept there are worse things.
Having your tongue superglued to a bowl of kimchi while being forced to listen to Gangnam style is probably worse. But if we exclude acts of physical violence and the crappy little tunes of weird Korean dudes with a strange fashion sense and stick to the business of Japanese food, the only thing worse than bad cheap sushi is, as I say, the bad expensive stuff.
Take the stuff I was served at a signature fashion house masquerading as a contemporary Japanese restaurant a few weeks back.
I should, of course, move on but I can’t. The experience keeps repeating on me, like a rancid eel. I wake in the night, the bedclothes clasped in my white-knuckled fists, muttering about revenge and pain.
It was clear I had to do something to exorcise the experience. As firebombing the place is apparently forbidden under some tedious anti-terrorist law, I concluded that the solution lay in the good stuff.
In any case, the news has been full of warnings of deflation and the occasional Pope apologising for getting things stupendously wrong. Hey! It’s just like being in Tokyo. Which was all the excuse I needed to explore the reason why there is so much bog-ordinary sashimi and sushi served in this country.
The reality is that excellent quality sashimi doesn’t need to be served by some chiselled, imperious waiter in Armani, and it doesn’t need to be served in the confines of a faux cherrywood temple, designed by a troop of fey interior designers who had been told to express their vision. God save us from interior designers with vision.
Send in the rabid crows to peck out their eyes.
Great sashimi is actually about simple fresh seafood, treated with care from selection to serving. Seeking this simplest of charters is, you might think, not that hard, but actually finding a place where a chef truly understands the flavour and texture of seafood is harder than you might imagine.
No interior designers have had anything to do with great sashimi; indeed some of the best I’ve eaten has been served at simple counters so modest to be mistaken for the ticket booth the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The art of truly great sashimi require artists of a different kind than those that can match wood panel to brushed leather. It requires a group of artisans who are behind every element of the catching, handling and preparing of seafood which performs best when served raw.
Frankly, some seafood is best served raw, but not necessarily all seafood. This is reflected in the art of sashimi, where the experienced Sushisan knows when to sear, souse or cure, just enough to transform the flavour and texture from a single to a three-dimensional experience.
The key lies in the selection, preparation and seasoning, according to the need of the flesh. Sashimi seafood truly is a cuisine where understanding of the texture and base flavour of the protein stands above everything else.
My mates in terrestrial proteins may say the same thing – that a grass- or grain-fed animal demands different handling; or that a chook and a squab require vastly separate preparation.
But in a sector where over 50 per cent of the supply is wild harvest, I suggest that it is seafood which demands the highest level of culinary intellect and palate memory.
It is not only the selection and handling that makes seafood such an interesting protein to work with – it is the repertoire of accompaniments and preparations needed to best showcase flavour that makes seafood so unique.
Perhaps the science behind the flavour of seafood is worthy of some consideration.
The flavour of saltwater fish is a result of its environment. Seawater ranges from three to 3.5 per cent salinity. As the famous food nerd Harold McGee points out, animals need to keep the total level of dissolved minerals in their cells to around one per cent.
Seafish offset the saltiness of their environment by filling their cells with other compounds, namely amino acids and amines, which have their own taste and flavour implications. Glycine, an amino acid, lends sweetness whereas the glutamic acid present in shellfish, tuna and sardines is ‘savoury and mouth filling’.
Many finfish, however, offset the saltwater flowing through their bodies with the relatively flavourless amine TMAO, which is why they, in contrast, are characterised by sleep-inducing descriptors like ‘mild’, ‘sweet’ and ‘delicate’.
The Sushisan is possibly the best student of the science of flavour in seafood but it is more his skill in the art of matching flavour and texture that makes him a unique character in the world of seafood preparation. There are some terrific lessons to be learned from the Sushisan and the condiments of his counter.
Wasabi and horseradish are close brothers. Their pungent, metallic, almost radish-like characteristics provides the freshness of focus on your tongue. A sequence of flavour-focusing shocks – much in the way that biting a lime after a shot of tequila does – wasabi or horseradish applied discreetly to the flesh of oily or white fish delivers a clarity of flavour.
Soy or shoyu, Japan’s ancient seasoning made from a fermented mash of soy beans, wheat and salt, is the invaluable seasoning standard which is fundamental in delivering the explosion of kakushi-aji or umami characteristics of seafood.
Whilst wasabi and soy are the basic flavour building blocks in sashimi seasoning, master sushi chef Hideo Dekura says they should be kept separate and used sparingly on the flesh of seafood to deliver the best result.
There is nothing like the glare from a Sushisan watching as some ignorant patron whips up a slurry of wasabi and soy into which they dip a puck of sushi rice, not the fish.
Ginger, or shoga as it is known in Japanese, is one of the most universal condiments in sashimi preparations with its sharp, almost citrus-like characteristics, delivering a pungent burst used in Japanese cuisine to freshen the palate, ensuring you appreciate the fine flavours of each different fresh seafood.
For the same reason, purists prefer to eat their sashimi (and sushi) with chopsticks because the fingers (which are perfectly acceptable to use in Japanese etiquette) might transfer the flavour of one fish to another.
The Sushisan considers the flavour and texture of seafood with a level of commitment that a sommelier might consider each wine and their relevance to the wine-list.
Start tasting, investigating and recording what you taste when you try seafood and see if you can’t create a level of appreciation for the amazing myriad of flavours and texture in seafood that you never knew were there.
Go ahead, think hard and cerebrally about every piece of seafood you try – you know it makes sense.
As published in Food Service Magazine May 2013