Like most things in life, quality is often what you perceive.
My introduction to sushi was at my university canteen. Every week I would buy a small sushi lunch box filled with salmon, tuna, prawn and other such exocitisms. I loved it.
A few years later I moved to Japan and things began to change. On my first trip back to Sydney, I once again bought one of those sushi lunch boxes. I hated it.
It's hard to avoid sounding elitist once you have had the 'real' stuff but truth be told, there is a difference between good sushi and bad sushi. There is even a difference between good sushi and good sushi since even now, over a decade since I moved to Japan, I am discovering that the sushi I used to think was good has now become a stepping stone to even better sushi.
The first rule to keep in mind with sushi is that if you are enjoying eating it, it is good enough quality. However, should you start to notice something different, then do not resist what will happen next. Move with it.
Here are five things you might notice about your sushi as your appreciation of it grows:
1. The rice itself starts to take on more importance
Given that sushi is vinegared rice, this shouldn't come as a surprise. But if you are like most people and think of sushi in terms of its topping, then it will be one. Sushi masters consider rice to be the most important part of sushi and each one has their own take on it but in general, it should be somewhat light and even airy. If you notice any hardness, coldness or mushiness, take note. You may still enjoy it but probably not for much longer.
2. The size of your sushi starts to concern you less and less
In the old Edo period of Japan, sushi was much larger than it is now but has evolved into a bite-sized cuisine. If you are one who expects your meals to fill your belly until you are gutted, step back and remember the old Japanese saying, 'hara hachi bun' - eat until you are 80% full. Quantity is not the same as quality.
3. You start to wonder why there are other foods being offered at the sushi restaurant
Like most everything else in life, the better something is, the more attention it has probably been given. Sushi is no exception. The more attention it requires, the more likely it is that you will not be offered the choice of hamburgers, noodles, tempura or sushi.
4. Mayonnaise starts to get at your nerves
There seems to be two kinds of sushi, non-Japanese sushi and Japanese sushi. The non-Japanese style relies on the addition of flavours and their combinations. Nothing wrong with that. Japanese sushi relies on drawing out the intrinsic flavours of its ingredients. Remember, too, that Japapnese cuisine is listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage...
5. The distinction between topping and rice starts decreasing (or increasing...)
The better the sushi, the more the topping and the rice work together. Like a good pasta and sauce, one should not be more noticeable than the other. If you don't like your al dente pasta mixed with canned sauce or a fresh tomato-based sauce covering soggy pasta, then you will understand.
As you can see, appreciating sushi is very much a personal thing. If you enjoy eating it, it won't be long before you will also enjoy appreciating sushi's many subtleties
Eating sushi really isn't that difficult. You only need to enjoy it.
You see, there is no rule saying that you cannot dunk your sushi into an overflowing bowl of soy sauce. So if you enjoy your food salty then dunk away. But if that is what you want then you may be better off going for a pizza instead.
After all, unlike pizza where the flavours punch you in the nose and hide non-performing ingredients, sushi is basically a topping and some rice. It is hard for one to hide the other. There just simply aren't enough ingredients to cover any mishaps.
This means that enjoying your sushi is pretty much in direct proportion to your being able to appreciate the levels of subtlety contained in the topping and rice.
Here is some good advice when eating sushi - watch the people around you. Are they dunking away in the soy sauce? Are they using chopsticks or their fingers? Mimicking the clientele is not a bad thing. It shows an awareness of your surroundings and that's a good start when it comes to learning to appreciate sushi quality.
By being observant you will eventually find that a lot of the trapdoor etiquette associated with sushi turns out to be not much more than a kind of good manners towards the chef.
So with that in mind, here are some of my do's of sushi eating:
So there you go, the easiest culinary rules in the world. Enjoy!