If its the raw fish youre worried about, relax. If its not knowing what to do with chopsticks, take it easy.
If nutritions your concern, settle in. Sushis got good news on every front.
And if its the expense thats got you buffaloed well, no, its not cheap. And no, were not going to chip in for you. But you dont have to spend a fortune to have a fine sushi meal.
Cities across the country increasingly are blessed with places purveying palatable, pretty, potent plates of sushi. But in 16 years of reviewing restaurants, Ive found theres no meal that freaks people out quicker.
Thats a raw deal. Sushi is great stuff. Lets demystify it for those still on the fence, and offer some lesser-known tidbits to dabblers.
First things first:
Sushi doesnt require raw fish.
Its named for the short-grain rice seasoned with rice vinegar, sugar and salt, and often some dried kelp, used in every piece or bowl of it. (Yes, sometimes sushi comes in a bowl.)
For this rice, every detail from the specific rice used, to the humidity of the kitchen, to how the rice is cooled is critical, and experts judge a sushi restaurant largely on the quality of its rice.
Raw fish is used in some sushi (served alone, its called sashimi), but some add only cooked seafood and/or a variety of vegetarian-friendly ingredients. By the way, commercial flash-freezing, used more than you might think, kills what you might worry about.
Sushi, properly prepared, is not only safe but remarkably nutritious.
Sushi is comparatively low in calories and fat. Estimates vary, but a single piece of nigiri-zushi the name for a pad of sushi rice capped by a piece of fish or other topping ranges from 60 to 90 calories, with less, often much less, than a single gram of fat. One chart is at the entertaining Web site Sushi Encyclopedism: http://homepage3.nifty.com/ maryy/eng/eng.htm.
Its OK not to know what youre doing in a sushi restaurant or bar.
Youre not expected to know everything, and you wont get kicked out for doing something wrong. Some places are easier than others for newcomers at these, you can just look curious and someone will offer to help but if you appreciate good food and are willing to ask a few questions, youll be fine anywhere.
But it is nice, not to mention more respectful, to know some basic guidelines.
So, here you go:
Enter your chosen venue and ask for a seat at the sushi bar. Youll often be brought oshibori: a warm hot towel with which to wash your hands. Do so and lay it back on whatever it arrived in.
Prepare. Remove the wooden chopsticks from their paper; pull them apart and set them down on the paper, if there are no holders parallel to the edge of the bar. Dont rub them together as some do to remove possible splinters: Youre implying theyre cheap, and thats insulting. You wont get a splinter.
You dont need chopsticks for eating nigiri-zushi (fingers are fine for this finger- or hand-shaped sushi), but youll use them to transfer sushi and the pink slices of pickled ginger from the communal plate to yours. Use the ends you dont put in your mouth to do this.
Youll also use them to eat single slices of pickled ginger, called gari, to freshen your palate between pieces of sushi. Dont treat gari like slaw; its not a salad.
Pour a little soy sauce (also called shoyu or murasaki) from the lidded carafe at your place into the little saucer meant for this. (Itll be obvious.) A tip: Skip the hot green wasabi paste entirely. Your chef puts this on the sushi as needed. If you like things a little hotter, tell the chef for subsequent orders.
Now youre ready to go.
Order. Do this by telling the sushi chef, Omakase (oh-mah-kah-say), which means youre asking the chef to choose for you always a good idea, since who knows better whats best that day? Just fess up if youre new and youll get simpler things. Or mark your choices on the paper menu youll get.
Dont order drinks or anything else from the sushi chef: your server will handle that, along with getting you the bill and handling your money.
A final eating tip: Try to eat nigiri-zushi and slices of maki in one bite. That preserves the balance the chef has created. If you cant finish it in one, at least dont set down the part thats left; hold it while chewing, then eat the rest.
How do I eat sushi?
Rule 1: Fingers are fine. Its perfectly acceptable to eat sushi with your fingers; in fact, nigiri-zushi originated as a finger food sold by street vendors in whats now Tokyo. If youre a whiz with chopsticks, have at it but if youre not, dont sweat it.
Rule 2: Trust the chef ... Skip the wasabi. Dont make the mistake many macho folks do by dissolving a bunch of wasabi in a dish of soy sauce, then drowning your sushi in it. Sushi chefs put wasabi into rolls or onto nigiri-zushi as they see fit, so frankly, theres not much reason for you to add any. If youre ordering piece by piece at the bar and youd prefer your sushi with a little more wasabi, just tell the chef. Go sparingly with the soy sauce, too. With nigiri, turn the piece over and glide an edge of the topping (not the rice) in the soy sauce. With sliced rolls, dip only briefly.
Rule 3: Flavor is foremost. Place nigiri-zushi into your mouth upside-down, so the fish hits your tongue first. Eat pieces in one bite whenever possible; that way, you get the balance of fish, wasabi, additions and rice that the chef intended. Go to two bites if you must (and now that some places serve bigger-than-bite-sized nigiri, you might have to) but dont put it down between bites.
Maguro (mah-goo-roh): Tuna. Beefy; filet mignon-like. Deep red meat cut from loin of bluefin, yellowfin or bigeye tuna. (Albacore tuna is shiro maguro or white tuna.)
Toro (toh-roh): Fatty or prime tuna. Melts in the mouth, like foie gras. Marbled meat cut from belly of fish. (Those with even more marbling are chu-toro and o-toro; among most expensive sushi.)
Sake (shah-kay): Salmon. Rich, firm and meaty. Good for beginners. (Not a common sushi fish in Japan, but very popular in U.S.)
Hamachi (hah-mah-chee): Young yellowtail (a specific amberjack). Smooth and buttery, with a little smokiness. (This is not yellowfin tuna; younger forms are called inada and kanpachi, older is buri.)
Saba (sah-bah): Mackerel. Oily and rich. Youll either think yum or cat food. (Usually marinated before serving.)
Ebi (eh-bee): Shrimp. You know this one. Not served raw (typically boiled). Good choice for newcomers.
Amaebi (ah-mah-eh-bee): Sweet shrimp. Served raw, very sweet and soft. An aficionados choice. (Heads, deep-fried and served on the side, crunch pleasantly.)
Hokkigai (hoh-kee-guy): Surf clam. Chewy, with a faint mussel flavor.
Ika (ee-kah): Squid. Chewy and a bit sticky, like white Goodyears on a hot day. Served raw.
Tako (tah-koh): Octopus. Rubbery but delicately flavored. Boiled, then tentacles are sliced.
Uni (oo-nee): Sea urchin (reproductive organs). Think hazelnut creme brulee, except not sweet; nutty, light, custardy. (Not for the faint of heart; expensive.)
Tobiko (toh-bee-koh): Flying fish roe. Tiny and almost crunchy; a sparkling sensation in the mouth.
Ikura (ee-koo-rah): Salmon roe. Think tiny balloons filled with seawater that burst in your mouth.
Tamago (tah-mah-go): Egg omelet. Faintly sweet with a light texture; should not be chewy or salty. (Connoisseurs judge sushi chefs on this; good to order first, or you can make it dessert)
Unagi (oo-nah-gee): Freshwater eel. Rich, like browned bits of pork barbecue. Typically filleted, steamed, grilled and glazed. (Anago, sea eel, is leaner.)