There is a sensor on the tongue that feels the degree of saltiness. This prevents us from eating too much of things that are extremely salty. Chemical seasonings confuse that sensor. The chemical seasoning palliates the degree of saltiness felt by the tongue. Even if you were to, for example, dunk your sushi into the soy sauce and chemical seasoning mixture, it won’t feel salty. If you eat sushi with the sauce, you can take in a high volume of sodium, which is a pleasure trigger for the human body, without feeling the saltiness on your tongue. In other words, it may be more accurate to say that with commoner sushi, you actually drink the sauce, not dip into it.
The difference between common people who eat this sauce and foodies is a delicate nose, meaning their sense of smell. This sense is acquired through childhood experiences and repetition after becoming an adult. Tasting through sense of smell is a person’s food culture. The reason that the so-called celebrities, or the upper class made through business success, don’t have an appreciation for high-class sushi restaurants is because they don’t have this culture of distinguishing by smell, or the culture of feeling the seasons. Also, in order to target the upper-middle class clientele, it is important to use strong flavors and give a performance that is easy to understand, while worrying about details is not necessary. That is why the obvious show of using a burner for searing is popular.
There is a theory that when pairing Japanese sake with cuisine, the two should complement each other. This means that one should complement the shortcomings of the other, and thus a harmony is achieved with the compatibility of the two pieces.
Of the five tastes, the components of sake include a balance of sweetness, umami, sourness, and bitterness. It is only missing the saltiness. However, sushi contains salt in the vinegar rice and topping, tacitly complementing sake. Sushi is delicious even eaten alone with its multi-layered umami components including acetic acid, glutamic acid and inosinic acid. By pairing with sake, you are adding the organic acids specific to sake, such as succinic acid, malic acid and lactic acid, further enhancing the taste experience.
Let’s discuss how science backs up drinking sake with sushi.
If you are looking for a new favorite sake, you should sample as many different types as you can. If that’s your aim, then filling your stomach with sushi is going to get in the way. The goal here is to ultimately find a sake that pairs well with sushi.
First, you should ask for a small amount of Junmaishu and Ginjoshu (or Junmai-Ginjoshu) recommended by your sushi chef. See the sensation they create in your mouth, whether there is a sweetness or a dryness, and note the fragrance and acidity. Immediately after eating a piece of sushi, try tasting the sake. Your impression may change a lot when paired with the sushi compared to the first sip. This is the true pleasure of pairing sushi and sake.
Feel free to enjoy two glasses of your favorite or try one glass each of two types. With the first tasting, you will end up having a total of about two glasses. This is said to be the perfect amount for your 2-hour stay, giving you a slight buzz without dulling your taste buds. In other words, it is the perfect amount for enjoying sushi. The cost for this option is JPY 3.500 per person. Please write “Pairing Sake” in the Special Requests field.
Natural fish are part of the food chain and have concentrations of harmful substances. Since 2000 the amount of mercury found in fish has become an issue. The American Natural Resources Defense Council has said tuna is a fish that should be avoided if pregnant or planning to get pregnant. A more recent problem is the large amounts of micro plastics found in fish meat. This shocking phenomenon will likely be reported by research organizations at some point in time. If it does reach that extreme, then it will be better to avoid the danger of eating fish.
Tuna at top-end restaurants is light in flavor. Its Akami (red meat) has an indescribable acidity with a delicate harmony between the shari vinegar, the nikiri soy sauce, and wasabi. However, on the other side of the coin, it feels almost like a waste to eat it without a sense of luxury. Of course tuna with delicious akami, also has delicious fatty tuna (toro). And you’ll never get tired of it. It would be easy to polish off 10 pieces as a light snack. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the high fat content that makes it so easy to eat. However, it is because of that popular belief that many people feel that the big chain store farmed fish with lots of fat is more delicious than luxury natural fish.
The other day I had a very interesting guest at Sushi University from America. I’d like to introduce them to you. It was their first time in Japan and they stayed in Tokyo for a week. They planned to see Asakusa, the Shibuya scramble crossing, Meiji Shrine, the robot restaurant and all the other usual tourist sites. However, the conversation all seemed to be focused on food.
I asked what they planned to eat. They answered that they would be going to restaurants like Tsunahachi (Tempura), Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta (the first ramen restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin star), and Steakhouse Sato. They had already lined up early in the morning at the Sugamo ramen restaurant, Tsuta, to collect a numbered ticket apparently.
The thing that surprised me most is that they were going to Sukiyabashi Jiro the day after their Sushi University experience.
If you are visiting Japan, I hope that you too will come to Sushi University before going to an expensive Michelin Star restaurant, so you can learn a bit about Edo style sushi. The reason is that sushi masters are just humans who want to provide something delicious to customers who will understand their sushi. For example, just slightly different parts of tuna have a totally different tastes. In order to understand these kinds of details for your chef, you need to have some knowledge of sushi toppings and Edomae-style sushi.
If you like sushi, you can’t continue to only judge the toppings on freshness and the fat content. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, with repetition, I hope you will reach a level that you can meet the challenges set forth by the sushi chef (understanding the Edomae-style techniques that have gone into each piece).
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with a special trip to visit a restaurant with a Michelin star as part of your vacation so you can boast about it with your friends. I have also visited Paris’s Guy Savoy and Florence’s Enoteca Pinchiorri, and treasure those memories myself.
Returning the conversation to the American guest, they did already have impressive knowledge about sushi. Even their sushi chef was impressed at their knowledge. They had also done their own research and were talking about Ginza’s Sawada (two Michelin stars) and SUSHI BAR YASUDA. On top of that, they had come to Sushi University to test their skills and took that knowledge to Sukiyabashi Jiro. In the major American cities, there are a wide range of omakase sushi courses that cost over $300, at which they had eaten many times and had negative comments.
They didn’t want California Rolls, they had an interest in traditional Edomae sushi.
Perhaps they were a Michelin secret eater.
If so, that’s perfectly fine. You can find sushi delicious even if you don’t have the knowledge. But with each learning experience you will enjoy the sushi even more. I hope it helps in improving your experience, even if it’s just a little bit.
Before continuing, please read the exclusive articles in major media and research papers.
The red tide (algal bloom) frequently occurs off the coast of Chile and it is resulting a large amount of salmon deaths. In 2015 27 million salmon died in a mass event, of which 25,000 tons were powdered and then fed to the healthy salmon (according to the UK’s Guardian reports).
Chilean fish farmers are using large quantities of antibiotics to control fish diseases. They use 500-700 times more antibiotics than Norway does. 80% of antibiotics imported into Chile are intended for the fish farming industry. Faced with the risk of bacteria resistant to antibiotics emerging, as highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Chilean National Fish Service is calling for a reduction in the use of antibiotics. (Extract from Le Monde diplomatique Japanese edition）
The bright color of salmon is something that you would never see a long time ago, but is now commonplace. It is likely due to the Canthaxanthin pigment mixed into their feed. Salmon is in fact a white fish. The salmon that is caught in Japan is called “Shirozake” or white salmon and its flesh is not a pink before it goes out to sea. Once it is out at sea, it swims around consuming small plankton and crustaceans such as shrimp and krill. Its body then takes on a pink color due to the intake of natural coloring of Astaxanthin. This Astaxanthin has antioxidant effects and it is noted for playing a part in relieving fatigue and preventing aging. However, the synthetic pigmentation that creates the salmon pink does not provide the same health benefits.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave approval for genetically modified salmon on November 19th, 2015. This genetically modified salmon is called “AquAdvantage salmon.” It grows faster than regular salmon and its body length is almost double. There are groups opposing the sale of this salmon, including US citizen group Center for Food Safety, the Japanese Seikatsu Club, and the European parliament. There are still many unknowns regarding the safety of this type of fish for human consumption, and a number of issues are still being debated. The discussion has been featured in “Nature” magazine.
Endosulfan is a type of organochlorine compound, like Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane, Dicofol, Heptachlor, Chlordane, Mirex, Pentachlorophenol, and is known to be extremely toxic, but the EU approved Endosulfan for use as feed in Norway’s salmon farming industry in 2013.
Researchers analyzed the risk-benefit ratio based on levels of contaminants like dioxins, PCBs and chlorinated pesticides versus omega-3 fatty acid levels. While farmed salmon is higher in omega-3s, it is also significantly higher in these toxins (about 10 times) which can produce birth defects, lower IQ, and cause cancer. They determined the following based on origin of the salmon: “consumers should not eat farmed fish from Scotland, Norway and eastern Canada more than three times a year; farmed fish from Maine, western Canada and Washington state no more than three to six times a year; and farmed fish from Chile no more than about six times a year. Wild chum salmon can be consumed safely as often as once a week, pink salmon, Sockeye and Coho about twice a month and Chinook just under once a month.” (Extract from The Journal of Nutrition)
There is a saying, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It is unlikely that big media outlet and research organizations would join forces to circulate incorrect information. Furthermore, this is not a problem that only affects certain countries like Chile or Norway. It should be considered as a problem for the entire farmed salmon industry.
On the other side of the debate, there are articles such as the following. Norway’s NIFES (National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research) sampled 13,180 farmed fish (of which 90% were salmon) and monitored them for medicines, substances that are prohibited by law, and other pollutants, publishing their report on August 17th 2015. In their latest report, it concluded that Norwegian farmed fish were safe and that illegal and undesirable substances were not observed to exceed standards. Further, it seems that they have confirmed decrease in most of the pollutants analyzed in the investigation.
But the fact is that, according to these articles, while the chemicals did not exceed standard values, they were certainly found to be present in farmed salmon. The other extreme would be to say that eating natural un-farmed salmon will not expose you to the potential risks from these types of chemicals.
However, that’s not really practical. The global production of farmed salmon is 2.5 million tons a year, approximately three times the 800,000 tons of naturally fished salmon. No matter what way you slice it, the option of farmed salmon isn’t going away anytime soon.
In the United States, Sea Bream is often called a Red Snapper. However, strictly speaking, this is not correct.
Biologically, Snapper is a generic term for all species in the snapper family. Over 100 different species of snapper inhabit tropical coastal waters. Red snapper is mainly fished in the Gulf of Mexico.
So, what is the fish that Japanese sushi restaurants call “tai”?
They say there are over 300 different species of fish with “tai” in the name, making up 10% of Japan’s fish. When we say “tai” in Japanese, we are referring to “madai” or red sea bream. Red sea-bream is categorized in the “madai” (Pagrinae) subfamily.
Incidentally, relatives of the sea bream often served at sushi restaurants include red sea bream (madai), crimson sea bream (chidai) and yellowback sea bream (kidai). While “kinmedai” (Splendid alfonsino) and “amadai” (horsehead tilefish) have the name “tai/dai” in them, they are not part of the same family as “tai” (sea bream). Splendid alfonsino is a type of deep-sea fish.
Red sea bream and red snapper look similar, but when served as sushi, their texture and flavors are entirely different. So if you come to Japan, please try and eat natural red sea bream (madai). There is no “zatsumi” (overpowering bitterness) and it has a slight sweetness to it. This is the taste of sea bream, known as king of the white fish. Just for your own reference.
When you sit at the counter and order nigiri a la carte, they will come out in pairs.* There is nothing wrong with counting these in the regular Japanese way “ikko,” “niko.”
*It is said that nigiri-zushi in the Edo period was bigger than it is today, and too big to eat in one bite. In the Meiji period, the custom emerged of splitting this one big portion into two to make more easily consumed portions, and this is why it is common to get sushi in sets of two. However, nowadays making one piece of nigiri-zushi at a time is not very efficient. We think it’s actually easier for the sushi restaurant to make them in sets of two. Of course, you can order them one by one.
But the sushi restaurant won’t count them like that. Formally, sushi is counted in this way: Ikkan (one), Nikan (two).
We have absolutely no idea where the custom of using the “kan” counter came from. It’s also not clear when use of that counter for sushi started.
Of course, there are theories. For example, there is a theory that back at a time when a single unit of money was called “kan.” The price for one piece of sushi was around 1 ‘kan’, and the counting method gained popularity. There is another theory that one sushi roll was counted with the counter for roll “巻” (also pronounced “kan”), then a different kanji was used for it later. However, these are just theories that were created after the fact and the mystery remains unsolved.
Even if you ask the owner of a sushi restaurant, they’ll probably cock their head to one side, think for a moment, and tell you that the “kan” mystery may never be solved.
Sushi rolls wrapped in seaweed rolls are counted in units of 本 (hon/bon/pon) in the wrapped state, and when cut with a knife, the units change to 切れ (kire). While these units are fairly straight-forward for Japanese language speakers and easy to understand, only the enigmatic 貫 (kan) remains a mystery.
The original negitoro is made from medium fatty tuna or nakaochi* chopped up finely with a knife and then mixed with chopped green onions on top. But the tuna may be switched out with filler, leading to a variety in quality of the negitoro available.
First of all, the lowest in the ranking are the offcuts of tuna that can’t be made into sashimi (mainly Yellowfin or Albacore tuna) and this is mixed with vegetable oil and minced. The type of onion used is normally green onions. You can pick this type out because it will be whitish in color. This version is normally served at conveyor belt sushi.
The medium quality uses the nakaochi of cheap Albacore tuna or Swordfish.
High quality negitoro uses the nakaochi of Pacific bluefin tuna or Southern bluefin tuna. Sometimes the green onion sprout is then rolled up inside. If you have a chance to try negitoro in Japan, we recommend you try the top quality options without a doubt. One piece will probably cost around $15 USD. But that’s the price for the real thing!
Finally, let me introduce some negitoro trivia. There is a lot of flesh on the middle bone (spine) and the surrounding area for tuna and the like. This is called “nakaochi*”. Scraping the meat from this area surrounding the spine is known as “negitoru”, which is where the word “negitoro” comes from. In other words, the name “negitoro” is not actually from the words onion (negi) and tuna belly (toro).