I have never been a fan of sushi. Or sashimi. Or whatever you want to call nori, sticky rice, roe and fish, vegetables or some combination thereof. Not for lack of trying, mind you. I have experimented with salmon rolls, California-style I was told. Well, one roll to be exact. There was the requisite wasabi and pickled ginger. There was even a cute little dish for smearing some of that wasabi into a splash of soy sauce. Not for me. There were just way too many textures going on. Not to mention the twang of the vinegar spiked rice up against the salinity of the fish eggs. I discretely expurgated my "eat it in one bite" wad into the nearest polyester napkin that, incidentally, was on the lap of the young lady sitting next to me. Good first impression. I also tried a slice of really nice looking tuna nestled on top of a half-candy bar sized mound of sticky rice. It just was not for me. I hate to resort to cliché, but it struck me as ingredients awaiting the next stage of cooking, or more aptly, like bait for luring other fish.
I am not ignorant, if that is what you think I can appreciate the artistry that is requisite to deliver exceptionally fresh seafood, cut with surgical precision and presented in an "ooh and ahh" fashion, neatly placed on some eclectic platter or wooden tray. I can even half comprehend why other people might like to eat this stuff. For one, it is rather macho to eat something that does not necessarily look appetizing. After all, it had to be a brave soul that first popped open an oyster and said "yum"!
In which I ask two 'pros'
A fellow teacher rather enjoys bringing in offbeat, exotic ingredients and consuming them in front of an audience. There is a certain machismo, he will deny of course, that comes from slurping down a half-dozen just shucked oysters in front of an audience of impressionable, teenage culinary students. Or dropping into class when we are discussing beef cuts and noshing on a piece of raw filet. So it would follow that he is the sushi fan amongst the faculty. Any time there is opportunity for Pat to bolt to one of the sushi joints, he makes quick work of the distance between school and House of Sushi. And given that are almost as many sushi places as there are Starbucks, he has little problem making the round trip in the 25 minutes allotted for teachers to eat. But, is there more? Is there more than keeping up appearances that would make somebody subject themselves to devouring smoked eel, flying fish eggs, raw shark and octopus? I asked Pat, but he insisted it tastes good and fish is best enjoyed when served "au natural". I am a skeptic. This is also the same person that offered me road-kill venison as "pre-tenderized minute steak". And sushi it is not cheap. So, when something is expensive and inexplicable, my sister is my next resource.
Suzie has always been one to fancy anything off the beaten path. And if costs more than the average person is willing to spend, then she is sure to be waiting at the door. So, I inquired.
"What is it about sushi?" I asked,
"Sushi is great!" she expounded, "We just went for it last night. It was great."
"Well, that doesn't really help me, Suz."
"It's just good"
So elaborate, my sister. Ever since I can remember she has been a devotee of expensive fish dishes that lacked cooking. But, alas, she was no resource to answer my "why".
As any good inquisitive cook worth his salty fish eggs, I turned to more formidable research for answers. I want to know what is the allure and what other varieties of sushi dishes are out there that I might enjoy. Embarking on worthwhile research means gathering the latest information available that appears to be the most relevant. Also important is the position of the originator of the data. Specifically, I want information from an expert, which Pat and Suzie are obviously not. Lastly, I want information that is practiced and not just theoretical. I want sushi information from a sushi chef running a successful restaurant in an area known for its sushi. Well, the scope of my research is defined. Or did I create a quandary more allusive than the original question?
A stroke of luck with a knock at the door
It was with the latest delivery of books that I was lucky enough to have my scope of research narrowed. My need for information quite literally fell into my lap. D.K.'s Sushi Chronicles from Hawai'i appeared to be the answer to all my questions, without even cracking open the cover. You see Hawai'i does seem to make sense as the epicenter of sushi eating. There is probably the most readily available seafood selection in Hawai'i than just about anywhere else in the world. Not to mention the climate is well suited to make things grow there that would probably belong in sushi. Also, Dave Kodama has a reputation about him that reeks of sushi know-how. The "D.K." in D.K.'s Sushi Chronicles from Hawai'i is well known in culinary hierarchy for his Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar on the big island. The likes of Nobu Matsuhisa and Ming Tsai both give nods to D.K.'s style and innovation. That said, I still needed to dig deep to get answers.
D.K. does well to explain his position of authority on the topic. For me, you see, that gives some credibility to the research I am doing. His family goes back in Honolulu to 1894. He gives due respect to Grandma Tsuwa and Grandma Kodama with offering up some non-sushi dishes. But, hey, that ensures that not only am I getting a better understanding as to why sushi is "it", but also a lesson grounded in rich history. There is a brief tale of D.K.'s travels to the mainland and his venture into the restaurant realm. I came here seeking knowledge and I am sure this is the place for where I can get it. D.K. uses his colorful history, fruitful surrounds and the treasure that lurks behind the kitchen doors at his Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar.
Here's a good place to start& Ikimashoo (let's go!)
The basics. As good of a place as any to start my journey. D.K.'s Sushi Chronicles from Hawai'i comes complete with the tools necessary for which to build a proper understanding of what goes into, around, on top of and otherwise near sushi. D.K. meticulously lists ingredients that you will find in his recipe collection. Carefully, he details the characteristics of each ingredient that can go into his formulas. Take "Cucumber - Japanese cucumber is best. It's light, crisp refreshing, doesn't need to be peeled and has very few, if any, seeds. English, or hothouse, cucumber is a fine substitute. Good old-fashioned American cucumbers should be your last resort - they have a thick, waxy skin that needs to be peeled and lots of seeds that really should be removed. That's too much work." In his "Advanced Ingredients" culmination, his details about the fish specimens he selects is only paralleled by the vegetable diatribe he offers. There is a rather lengthy discourse on tuna (of course) as there is on shellfish, including abalone, eel and tobiko. The vegetable descriptions are Trotter-esque. Flavor profiles, characteristics and application all accompany his listing. Of course, for us sushi-divergent, there is a comprehensive explanation of all the 'stuff' that goes into making sushi the experience that it is. The fish sauce, ponzu, sake and sansho all get a mention for us novices. To round out the prelude to my sushi exploration, cleverly crafted pictures of techniques used to build Nigiri and conical roles are sprinkled amidst the directions for constructing Makizushi, tatemaki and futomaki. I already feel like I am in good hands. His directions are simple, clear and not at all condescending for those of us not in the know. I am ready to build and discover.
The Yellow Submarine
What I remember most about my ventures into the underworld of sushi eating are the trademark names of the particular sushi chef's signature presentation. Each creator had a particular roll that was his original concept and wore it like a glistening badge for the world to see. At one of the outings that I was dragged along to with Suzie, I recall the Pittsburgh roll. This particular fish handler in the affluent Shadyside area of town crafted a roll comprised of asparagus, krab and other ingredients I do not recall. I do remember, though, that once cut and each roll placed vertically next to one another, this namesake roll resembled the Pittsburgh skyline. In Philadelphia, there is, if course, the Philadelphia roll. Capitalizing on the Philly Brand® cream cheese, this roll is an amalgam of the soft spreading cheese, smoked salmon and scallions nestled into the dried seaweed sheet amidst sticky rice. So, I expected as much from D.K. What I did not anticipate was his astonishing application of the many fishes at his disposal or amazing construction of each dish. The chapter opens with an amazing Caterpillar Roll. Now, I would have to draw a line at eating caterpillar. It is the look, not the lunch that gives this distinctive specimen its name. Eel and Japanese cucumber covered in 'scales' of avocado with salmon roe eyes in one continuous, serpentine shape. The Rainbow Roll, with its striking appearance graces the cover of D.K.'s Sushi Chronicles from Hawai'i is comprised of no fewer than 4 varieties of seafood, layered in a spectrum of colors. My favorite, though, is D.K.'s Yellow Submarine. Granted, great song from the Beatle's best album, but a fish dish as well? I was suspect of this creation. But with cooked shrimp, seasoned gourd and pickled ginger nestled in a yellow soybean wrapper, this piece of D.K.'s handiwork cracked open the door to allow the light to shine on a path away from my dubious beliefs about the appeal of sushi.
But is this enough to raise the level of appeal that I need to make me a convert? Can I relish a trip to D.K.'s Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar and not look like an ass? I dug deeper in D.K.'s Sushi Chronicles from Hawai'i to unearth treasure. Not to say that the Spicy Japanese BLT Roll and Grilled
Veggie Roll are not treasures, but for me gold is in the Asian Rock Shrimp Cake with Ginger-Lime-Chili Butter and the Restaurant Row Escargot. Spinach and pancetta spiked with garlic dresses the escargot with a flavor that, this far into the book, you expect! Cooked, yes. Artful as the sushi that preceded? You bet! After all, it was part of the 240+ pages, so its fair game. My students got a kick out making the Tempura Fried Ice Cream now that's good sushi!
I liked reading D.K.'s Sushi Chronicles from Hawai'i. It made the experience known as sushi fun for me. And I think, ultimately, that is what gives sushi its appeal. It is, first and foremost, fun to eat. There is the element of being slightly bizarre that makes it popular enough to attract folks. It is also appeals, on many levels, to health conscience eaters the raw-terians are in heaven! And sushi eating is a visual as well visceral experience. The presentations I was witness to in D.K.'s tale does, with reluctant reserve, hold appeal to me. The arrangements are beautifully creative and are obviously the amalgamation of history, hard work and a heroic amount of chutzpah (or calculated risk) to deliver such an array of food. The combination of ingredients makes for good eating, regardless of my own reservations. So, perhaps, D.K. will make a convert of me yet. I do not know if I will make a mad dash to the 24-Hour-All-night-sushi-rama, but I may consider not making fun of Pat anymore.