When people think of Japanese food, Sushi is usually the first thing that comes to mind. Much of Sushi’s worldwide popularity can be attributed to people like my mother who, back in the Swinging Sixties, opened the first Japanese restaurant in Europe. Needless to say, that little restaurant located in St. Christopher’s Place in London, and her subsequent restaurants, became extremely popular, attracting the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Back then, getting fish from Japan air-flown in was hardly an option, so she had to source locally. If you ever eat Sushi, chances are you will order salmon (sake), but historically, salmon was not part of the repertoire of Sushi chefs back in Japan since the meat can often host parasitic larvae. But with the abundance of salmon readily available in the U.K., my mother put it on the menu and encouraged patrons to eat the tiny morsals with accompanying wasabi and marinated slices of ginger (gari). Many people think that gari is served perhaps to cleanse the palate but it’s purpose was in fact to kill any harmful parasites that can exist in raw fish since gari has anti-microbial properties. These days, salmon can be found in almost every sushi restaurant, but there are still a handful of sushi restaurants in Japan that do not serve it.
When I take non-Japanese clients for sushi, I am often surprised at how they order, usually going straight for the medium fatty tuna (Chūtoro) and salmon. So I usually take control and order for them, and they often end up having the best meal of their lives.
So here are a few tips to having the best Sushi experience.
Make a reservation and ask for a counter seat – Do not take a table seat since very often sushi served at tables will have been prepared by junior chefs (itamae). When you enter the restaurant, if available, try to sit yourselves down on the far right side of the counter. Very often sushi bars will have two chefs out front. The Master is usually on the right and handles clients on the right. The seats on the right are usually for regulars, but if available, snatch them quickly so you get the Master.
Most likely the day’s menu will be written in Japanese on wooden boards behind the counter, but no doubt you will be handed an English menu. Refuse the menu politely and tell the Master “Omakase shimasu” which means “I leave it up to you”. Now this is not an excuse for them to then serve all the leftovers. The Master will be delighted at your decision and will follow up by serving the very best seasonal dishes that may not actually be on the menu. Very likely he will ask you if there are any items you don’t like, and by all means tell him. He might also ask you if you want to start with Sashimi which is the traditional way to start. This is purely up to you.
Now people think that Omakase can be extremely expensive, which is true. But one of the good things about Omakase is that you will never over order and can tell the Master at any time when you have had enough. Omakase is usually served two pieces at a time (or sometimes even just one piece at a time), and at anytime during the meal you can order something that you really like and it will be added to your tab.
Finally, there are a couple of items that are rarely on the menu that I always ask for. One is Kamayaki, which are the grilled cheeks of a fish head. In a sushi bar every night they may have two or three fish heads left over, which can be ordered if you are lucky. High-end sushi bars in Japan may set these aside just for their regular clients. The kama part of the word refers to the cheek, or collar as some people like to call it, of the fish head. Typically if you ask for this “off menu” item, the Master will let you know what fish head may be available that night (usually, Buri, Kanpachi, Hamachi or such). The typical way they serve this dish (kama shio-yaki, “shio” meaning salt) would be to salt the cheek and simply grill it over a fire, and then serve it with a wedge of Yuzu (a small traditional Japanese citrus fruit), some ponzu sauce and grated radish (daikon oroshi). I tell you now that the kama is the most overlooked part of the fish, but is a delicacy not only in Japan, but also in many countries from Singapore to Jamaica. And don’t break traditional Japanese etiquette by asking how much it is going to cost before hand. It’ll be surprisingly expensive, but well worth it.
The second item rarely found on the menu is Monkfish/Frogfish liver (Ankimo). This liver of one of the ugliest fishes alive is truly a delicacy and in my opinion far better than fois gras. Avoid it like the plague if you are on a budget as Ankimo will likely burn a hole in your wallet.
Finally what to drink with your meal. Although even some Japanese order beer to start their meal, once the sushi is being served, they usually switch to Japanese tea, or a chilled dry sake (karakuchi reishu). Avoid fizzy soft drinks and wine, or anything sweet.
Once you are close to getting full, I recommend you end the meal with perhaps the miso soup (which, if you are lucky will have clams in it), and perhaps one hand roll (temaki sushi).The best hand roll to order that will not break your budget, and will show your guru prowess at ordering sushi is the Umekkyuu. Perfect for cleansing the palate, this hand roll consists of picked plum paste, which has a salty sour taste, and freshly cut slices of Japanese cucumber. It is a delicious way to end the meal and the Master will have total respect for your knowledge of Japanese cuisine.
Dean Owen is Co-Founder of Quimojo, a revolutionary new concept in Global Campus Recruitment.