Sushi has been around since the 7th century, but preparation methods were a bit different. Read about how they did sushi back in the day.
by Natalie Sarle
If you have never been to a sushi bar, I hope I can convince you to try it-if only just once. Although I had my first experience with sushi last week, I believe I learned enough to guide the beginner through. My first bit of advice, however, would be, if you do have an experienced friend, take him or her along. If not, don't be intimidated; just listen to what I have to say.
I went to a "mom and pop" run establishment specializing in sushi. I highly recommend this type of restaurant over an ordinary restaurant or one that serves a variety of foods. At a smaller place, you are more likely to get an authentic experience and fresher fish. To receive the full visual and social experience that is personal and intimate, sit right at the sushi bar where you can watch and converse with the chef.
I went to Kiku in Huntington Beach run by Sho and Ruth, the owners. Sho worked behind the sushi bar, while Ruth provided hospitable service to grateful customers who appeared to be regular Kiku patrons. To start off, I noticed by looking around the room that Sake was the drink of choice. Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice and often enjoyed with sushi. I opted for a Kirin Ichiban, a Japanese beer served in a large bottle, enough for two for your first round.
When first scanning the menu, I was pleased to find that the menu included photographed pictures of the sushi selections. This is an added benefit for first timers as it is helpful in keeping surprises to a minimum. I was advised to stay away from the quail eggs and the uni (sea urchin). I graciously accepted this advice and any other tips anyone had to offer. I ordered Maguro, Hamachi, and Sake, translated as yellowtail, tuna, and salmon, respectively, all recommended for beginners. Other options to consider included boiled or raw shrimp (ebi), albacore (awabi), scallop (hotate), eel (anago), squid (ika), and octopus (tako).
Sushi can be prepared as nigiri or maki. Nigiri consists of a piece of fish laid out on a small bed of vinegared rice. We ate the nigiri using our chopsticks; however, I later read that it can also be picked up and eaten with the fingers. Maki is what we novices are used to seeing in the form of a California roll. The rice, fish, and or vegetables are wrapped in seaweed and sliced into small round pieces. Temaki is similar but is served in a cone-shaped seaweed wrap.
Maki is made to be eaten with the fingers. The seaweed coating protects the hands from getting sticky from the rice. Each piece of sushi is served as a single mouthful. In other words, you place the whole thing in your mouth, something that did not come all that easy to me. After a couple of tries, I started cutting my pieces in half with my chopsticks. I don't really know how appropriate this method is, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover how tender the raw fish was as I easily sliced it in two. Raw food doesn't necessarily sound appealing to many of us and connotes the thought of something coarse, tough, difficult to chew. Quite to the contrary, sushi is firm but tender. And it should not smell or taste fishy. The items I tried were rather mild in flavor, and almost melted in my mouth.
Sushi is served with wasabi, green Japanese horseradish, soy sauce, and pickled ginger slices. The ginger is eaten between bites to freshen the palate. I was instructed to take some wasabi with my chopsticks and mix it with some soy sauce in my dipping bowl. I had read elsewhere that making "wasabi soup" with your soy sauce was inappropriate; however, my friend disagreed, so I followed his lead. My decision seemed the right one as I watched those around me doing the same. I was then told to dip the seafood side of the sushi in the soy sauce and wasabi mixture. My friend so graciously referred to me as "rice challenged" as I attempted to use my chopsticks and dropped the bed of rice into my dipping bowl. Remember, eating with your hands is a second option.
Sushi comes in pairs, so every time you order something, you will receive two. Keep this in mind as you make your selections. Sho, our chef, explained that the sushi pairs symbolize husband and wife. The Japanese wife would make two of each item in anticipation of her husband returning for dinner. My first taste was the yellowtail which I found mild and appealing. I recommend this one to begin with. I had a harder time with the tuna, more so I suspected because of its dark red color than the actual taste. The salmon, however, was my favorite. If you enjoy smoked salmon, you'll like it as well.
Sho had some additional tidbits of interesting sushi trivia to share with us. Although sushi is served in pairs, sashimi (raw fillets eaten by themselves) he said, is served only in odd numbers. Even numbers are considered unlucky in this case. The arrangement of the plate is an art and can symbolize such profound things as earth, mountain, and sky representing growth through life. After talking with Sho, we soon discovered that we were experiencing a rich history and culture exemplified through food -- how it is prepared, presented, arranged on the plate, and eaten. Sitting at a sushibar is not just about satisfying your appetite; it provides pure satisfaction for all of your senses. Why not give it a try?