Myths of Sushi

Think those slices of yellowtail and salmon are fresh from the ocean? Think again.

By: Todd Kliman

Myth: Sushi is shorthand for “impeccably fresh”—and nothing is ever frozen.
It depends on your definition of fresh. Did most seafood at a sushi bar come in that day? No. Expect that fish has been out of water five to nine days. The exceptions are the few places—Sushi Taro, Makoto, and Kushi in DC, Sushi Sono in Columbia—that have some fish FedExed from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. Most fish is frozen at the source to kill bacteria. Some tuna is treated to the below-zero temperatures of a subatomic freezer.

Myth: A chef’s most important skills are sourcing and knife work.
Those are vital, but so is the ability to preserve fish. Most sushi restaurants get deliveries of fish Tuesdays and Fridays. The Tuesday shipment is meant to last till Friday; the Friday haul is counted on for the weekend. (That’s why Monday isn’t the best day to hit a sushi bar.) The better places tend to supplement their stock with deliveries from smaller fishmongers.

Myth: It’s all about the fish.
If you want to know what makes a great sushi restaurant, focus on the rice. A piece of nigiri’s rice bed ought to be small and delicate. Each grain should be distinct, firm but yielding. The flavor should be balanced between tang from the vinegar and sweetness from the sugar. You’ll find rice of that quality at only a few places: Sushi Taro, Makoto, and the original Sushiko in DC’s Glover Park.

Myth: Tuna’s the prize.
Fatty varieties such as o-toro and chu-toro are prized, but sushi purists gravitate to yellowtail, mackerel, flounder, and others. In its earliest manifestations, sushi was made up almost entirely of delicate white fish.

Myth: Sushi is Japanese food.
Technically, that’s true. But in Washington, there are as many Korean-owned-and-staffed sushi restaurants as there are Japanese-owned-and-staffed ones—and there are more Koreans here than there are Japanese. The differences between Japanese- and Korean-style sushi? Traditional Japanese restaurants favor restrained portions, while the Korean style is opposite, with large pieces of fish flopping over the ends of their rice beds.