Today at 11 AM, raw fish-ologist and Dupont Circle resident Trevor Corson will moonlight as host of Kliman Online.
Got a question about sushi etiquette? Always wanted to know about the ins and outs of the raw fish industry and sushi history? Corson's your man, able to clue you in on matters like: what gives wasabi its lime green color? Or what's the acceptable amount of soy sauce soakage? Or how sushi evolved from snack food to fine dining…
With the release of his new book The Zen of Fish, Corson has proven his sushi guru-ness, exploding myths about raw fish, decoding differences between American and Japanese tuna and addressing the threat of parasite-laden fish.
You can bone up for the chat by checking out his recent conversation with Food and Wine editor Todd Kliman.
Happy eating everyone! Thanks so much for all the great questions, I'm sorry I wasn't able to get to them all, but we covered a lot of ground in this discussion. If you enjoyed participating in this, or just reading my answers, I hope you'll pick up a copy of The Zen of Fish to learn more — it's a good story and chock full of easy-to-digest info. Help support my efforts to spread the word about sushi in America! Best, Trevor
Hi, Trevor Corson here. I'm actually a fan of very simple traditional Japanese rolls. The big rolls with lots of ingredients are yummy, to be sure, and the Erin-Z roll sounds like a winner. But that said, these types of rolls are an American invention, and for me, sometimes they get too complicated and cloying. Occasionally the Japanese make big rolls stuffed with lots of ingredients, too — these are called futo-maki ("fat rolls") — but the most traditional and authentic form of sushi roll is just a simple, narrow tube with one ingredient and the seaweed on the outside, where it will stay crispy. One of my favorites — this may not sound appetizing! — is a roll with dried gourd shavings that have been reconstituted in soy sauce and fish/kelp broth. Crunchy and flavorful in the center, soft in the middle with the rice, and delicate and crispy on the outside with the toasted nori wrapping. Unfortunately, we can't call it the "Trevor-C roll," because it's already quite popular in Japan and has its own name: the kanpyo-maki. (Kanpyo means gourd, I believe.)
This is a big problem, I'm glad you brought it up. In general, good traditional sushi chefs almost always make their pieces of sushi much smaller than what we usually see here in the U.S. If each piece is too big to eat in one bite, the chef is at fault, not you — you definitely shouldn't have to cut your sushi up with chopsticks or have to take multiple bites. As i write in my book The Zen of Fish, really good sushi chefs actually consider it part of their job to assess the size of the mouth of each customer at the sushi bar and adjust the size of the pieces accordingly!
Unfortunately, what's happened in the U.S. is that average sushi chefs have tried to fit our cultural expectations here about portion size — bigger portions are a better deal and will bring more customers. It's natural that they would do that, but it's also a shame. A piece of sushi should perfectly bite-sized, loose, and the different components of it should melt apart and mingle in your mouth — and none of that is possible with a big piece, because the chef has to pack it too tightly so it will hold together, and because you have to break it into several bites.
Another quick thing — sushi aficionados actually avoid using chopsticks altogether, especially when eating nigiri. They use their fingers. Like I said, good sushi should be packed loosely, and you can't pick up a loose piece of sushi with chopsticks or it will fall apart — and splatter rice and soy sauce all over your shirt!
I do occasionally make sushi at home. It's a lot of work, and it's not worth doing unless you've got a crowd of people there to eat it right away, because sushi should never be refrigerated once it's been made. (That's one reason why those supermarket take-out boxes never taste anywhere near as good as sushi freshly made at the sushi bar.)
But a sushi-making party can be a lot of fun. You don't really need much specialized equipment. If you want to make rolls you'll want a bamboo rolling mat, but you can even make nigiri at home — hand-squeezed pieces — and in my book The Zen of Fish, I reveal the inside secrets chefs use to make these, no mat required.
That said, there is some really cool stuff you can acquire for home sushi making, from cedar rice tubs to artisinal aged soy sauce to real wasabi (all the wasabi we normally get is fake). I have a page on my website where I list my secret ingredients and favorite equipment for making sushi at home; click here.
As I mentioned above, sushi aficionados generally don't even bother using chopsticks to eat sushi, they eat with their fingers, and that is perfectly acceptable even at a fine sushi restaurant. But sashimi — slices of raw fish without the rice — should be eaten with chopsticks.
The Japanese people I've talked with about this habit of rubbing your chopsticks together to get out the splinters basically say it's a low-class and impolite thing to do unless you're really at a dive or some sort of impersonal chain restaurant that has really cheap chopsticks. Certainly a sushi bar or restaurant worth its salt ought to be purchasing disposable chopsticks that are high-enough quality that splinters aren't going to be a problem. If you're at a good sushi bar — especially if you're sitting in sight of the chef — he's probably going to be insulted if you rub your chopsticks together at all. if you really think the chopsticks are of poor quality and you're concerned about getting a splinter, do your rubbing discretely under the table or bar, out of sight.
Yes, that's a very widespread practice. And especially if you're ordering any kind of spicy roll — spicy tuna roll, for example — you're almost guaranteeing that you'll be getting the older fish that has started to turn, because the chili sauce masks the flavor. No traditional form of sushi in Japan ever involves chili sauce. (Ditto for any sushi rolls that are deep-fried.)
In my book The Zen of Fish I write about the history of sushi coming to America, and how Japanese chefs realized that they could get away with serving the old or lower-quality parts of the fish here that they could never get away with serving in Japan, because Americans loved spicy food! A high-quality sushi bar shouldn't serve spicy tuna rolls and such; if they do — even if they aren't low-end — you're probably getting old fish.
To be fair, sushi bars have much higher food costs than most other types of restaurants, so they have a big incentive to use all the fish up.
Which is another way of saying that you should probably be willing to pay a bit more for your sushi if you want it to be good. To me, sushi is like lobster — an expensive treat that I eat infrequently but enjoy even more as a result.
Okay, are you ready for this? Here's the shocker: You should never put any extra wasabi on your sushi at all! Now that's going to piss some people off, I realize, since wasabi has become so much a part of our appreciation of sushi here in the U.S. In Japan, chefs at good sushi bars rarely provide any extra wasabi to their customers, because they put what they consider the proper amount in the sushi when they make it, usually just a tad, depending on how fatty the fish is (a little more for fattier fish, to help cut through the oil). Really, just a very tiny amount is entirely sufficient. And you're exactly right, too much wasabi completely masks the taste of the fish. As I mentioned above, a sushi chef who sees you loading extra wasabi on your sushi is never going to give you his best-quality fish, because he knows you won't be able to taste the difference. The flavors of raw fish are very subtle.
The one case where traditional sushi chefs do serve extra wasabi on the side is with sashimi. But again, you should add just a tad.
And another shocker, related to this: Mixing wasabi into your soy sauce is a huge no-no, even though we all do it! For one thing, the chemistry of it is such that as soon as the wasabi is immersed in liquid it looses much of its potency, so you're actually defeating the purpose of the wasabi. But again, the main point is simply that no extra wasabi is really needed. If you're adding it to sashimi, just add a tiny dab on one corner of the fish, and then dip another corner in the soy sauce.
A related issue is that we all use way too much soy sauce, which similarly masks the delicate flavors of the fish. The best sushi chefs will actually tell you not to use any soy sauce at all, and instead they'll season each piece of sushi before they give it to you with a special bit of garnish or a quick brush of a lighter sauce of some sort. Much of the fun of eating it this way, without soy sauce, is to see what the chef is going to do differently with each type of topping.
No food is without health risks, but I'd say that the distribution networks for the fish used in sushi, and the technologies involved along the way, have become sophisticated and widespread enough that you're probably not at much greater risk of getting a food-borne illness from sushi than from, say, boxed spinach, which as I'm sure you remember recently caused an e. coli outbreak.
What raw fish has in particular is the potential for parasites, and there are some gripping passages in my book The Zen of Fish on parasites in sushi fish! it makes for great, white-knuckled reading. Okay, I'm being a bit melodramatic — sushi chefs have developed many techniques for dealing with parasites, and again, the danger is relatively low, but certain fish have higher potential for parasites than others. It's more complicated than I can get into here in a chat session, but I hope you'll check out the book.
The short answer is that, yes, there is some risk, but it's hard to quantify. Salmon is an interesting example of how complicated the issue is. Almost all wild salmon and some farmed salmon are generally riddled with parasitic worms, which sounds horrifying, but almost all salmon served in sushi are blast frozen before being served in order to kill the parasites, and we hardly ever hear of anyone getting sick from eating raw salmon.
Omakase means "I leave it up to you" in Japanese, and it's a great way to have an adventure at the sushi bar. It's best to do it right at the bar, rather than sitting at table, so you can interact with the chef and tell him what you like and don't like — but some restaurants offer omakase service at the table, too.
As Americans have learned more about sushi, more sushi bars have started to feature omakase as a menu item — often it will say "Chef's Choice," and have a fixed price of $50 or $70 or whatever.
But many sushi bars still don't have it as a published option with a published price because typically, in the context of a traditional Japanese sushi bar, customers always know that they can simply leave it up to the chef to serve them his best fish of the day, and they trust the chef to calculate a fair price based on what he ends up using.
That said, omakase is never cheap, and it's a good idea to research the price range of a particular sushi bar before you go down that road.
But here's another possibility I'd suggest: find a sushi chef who seems friendly, and then be perfectly straightforward with him, and say that you'd like to try a few of his best, highest-quality items, but that you have a limited amount of money to spend — even tell him what dollar figure you're comfortable spending. If that seems too blunt, then say that you want a light meal, and only want to eat five or six pieces of sushi, but that you want to try what he'd recommend is his best for the day. This is not the traditional practice in Japan, of course, and some chefs may not be receptive, but I think it's crucial for customers and chefs in the U.S. to learn to have a conversation about budget, or we're never going to get comfortable letting the chef take us away from the menu into more interesting territory.
You make a really interesting point. I don't think it's a question of "the Japanese way," necessarily — in fact, I think it's not the Japanese way, and that's the problem — it's a conundrum particular to sushi in America. It seems to me that here in the U.S., since most of us don't really know what to expect or what constitutes great sushi, the chefs have gotten lazy and are taking advantage of us. So I'd say you're right in that. And I agree, this is definitely bad business practice, but they get away with it because most of us don't know better. I've tried to shake things up with my book The Zen of Fish, which arms people with the information they need to be an educated sushi eater. The better and more conscientious sushi chefs here will welcome this, and indeed, some of them have told me they're grateful for the book, because now they can serve their good fish to more people who will appreciate it. The less conscientious chefs probably hate me for exposing their secrets and making it harder for them to continue on with the free ride they've been getting; that's fine by me.
As for this question of interacting with the sushi chef, I consider it added value, not a negative. In certain ways a sushi bar in Japan actually has a lot more in common with a neighborhood pub than a fine restaurant, and part of the chef's job is to reach out to his customers, entertain them, and suggest things for them to eat that they wouldn't think of on their own. You seldom get any experience like that at a normal restaurant, and I think it's a lot of fun. Sadly, we miss out on much of that here because of the language and cultural barriers.
So basically I agree with you, and I think we need a "new deal" for sushi in the U.S. — which I wrote about it my op-ed piece for the New York Times a while back.