Having grown up in an ethnically diverse section of New York, my base of childhood friends was somewhat a microcosm of the United Nations. As a result, I gained an early appreciation for different cultures and different foods. Add to that an upbringing in an Italian-American family where food was the social binding agent, and it was no surprise that my palate became refined at an early age. My paternal grandmother exerted the greatest influence over my appreciation for good cuisine, and she was the guiding light for expanding a willingness to at least sample just about any food type.
Like most anglers, I enjoy frequent meals of fish and other seafood. Yet, the first time I was introduced to raw fish in the form of Japanese sushi, I was hesitant to give it a try. But grandma’s wisdom prevailed as did the tag line of that old 1970’s TV commercial: “Try it, you’ll like it.” And like it I did. Over time, I have grown to make some variety of raw fish a staple food of my weekly diet. For many years, this fish fix was satisfied by dining at Asian restaurants. However, a much broader interest in raw fish preparation developed about a dozen years ago with me trying my hand at homemade sushi.
Some may classify all sliced, uncooked fish as sushi. That is absolutely incorrect. Sushi is indeed made with raw fish or other seafood as a primary component. But that fish is placed atop a small molded bed of cooked and seasoned short-grain rice. The rice is typically seasoned with vinegar, salt, and sugar or Mirin, an umami-rich rice wine used as a food flavoring. The combination of the sliced fish and rice are together referred to as nigiri sushi. Raw fish served without the rice accompaniment is considered sashimi, and the Italian form of raw fish cuisine is crudo. Although similar to sashimi, crudo differs in that a sparing amount of olive oil and Italian condiments are added to complement the flavor of the fish.
Japanese sushi dates back to the eighth century when it was developed as a means to preserve fish in rice that had been blended with fermented vinegar. When it was time to consume the fish, the rice was discarded and the fish eaten. Eventually, someone determined that rice enhanced the flavor of the fish, and as a result, the earliest form of sushi originated. Pressed sushi, made in wooden presses, followed as a form of “lunch box” food for workers, and over time that evolved into the popular and recognizable sushi that we enjoy today. The most common fish species used in the preparation of raw cuisine are of the saltwater variety. Bluefin and yellowfin tuna, mackerel, yellowtail, eel, salmon, shrimp, squid, sea urchin, octopus, scallops, bonito, and fluke are a few of the more popular examples.
Freshness of flesh is of utmost importance, but “sushi-grade” quality has less to do with just-out-of-the-water freshness and more to do with the amount of high-intensity freezing the fish undergoes to kill parasites. The probabilities of encountering parasites in raw fish vary with the species. Ocean roaming pelagic species akin to those in the tuna and mackerel families carry the least risk of parasites, while bottom-dwelling fish have higher risks. Shellfish are eaten regularly at raw bars but can also come with some jeopardy of bacteria. Anadromous species of fish like salmon and striped bass that spend some of their lives in saltwater and spawn in freshwater also hold the potential for parasites. The caveat for anyone who contemplates preparing and eating any form of raw fish at home is to make certain that the fish has been previously frozen consistent with the recommendations of the FDA to kill parasites, worms, or bacteria.
While choices of fish and other selected seafood are obviously an important element in the overall sushi-making process, the ability to make good rice is equally as important. Making a batch of sushi rice is well within reach of the amateur angler-chef. Whether using a rice maker or a pot filled with water, following a few simple guidelines can do wonders for your rice. It’s best to use short-grain rice and rinse it under cold water to remove excess starch. Wash the rice until the water runs clear. A good rule of thumb for cooking sushi rice is 1 1/2 cups of rice to 2 cups of water. Once the rice is cooked, mix in a combination of rice vinegar, sugar or mirin, and salt. The rice takes on a tacky consistency and can then be molded into the form upon which the sliced fish is placed.
Proper handling will ensure suitability of fish destined for the table. Tuna, bonito, and mackerel need to be bled immediately once caught, then packed in ice. When preparing fish for slicing, limit the amount of handling time. The warmer the fish, the more conducive the conditions become for bacteria to develop. Always use a clean surface when filleting or slicing fish, and wipe any bits of flesh from the cutting board. And never slice fish that are to be eaten on any surface used to cut bait, since that is an environment that supports the rapid growth of bacteria.
There are a few other things the home chef needs to transform fish into a delectable portion of sushi, sashimi, or crudo. A sharp knife is essential for slicing fish into the desired size and shape. The knife typically used by Japanese sushi chefs is a yanagiba. This willow-leaf-shaped blade has a single beveled edge that enables the knife to efficiently slice through fish. A double-beveled western-style chef’s knife or slicing knife can also be used. Always pull the blade through the slice rather than saw the fish as one would when slicing bread. Sashimi is typically sliced straight down while cuts for nigiri sushi are done on an angled bias against the grain of the fish. Other items that the angler-chef might want to have in his or her kitchen are: a fillet knife; fish scaler; cutting board; bamboo rolling mat for sushi rolls; and a wooden bowl for preparing the sushi rice. It also pays to read a good book or two about sushi preparation and recipes and to check out some of the numerous Internet videos on the subject. Fishing and sushi are both addictive pursuits. Combine them, and you’ll broaden the pleasures of both your angling and dining experiences.