Go Ahead, Maki My Day

There was a time when just the utterance of the word Sushi would cause men, women and children to flee in terror, their eyes bulging out of their sockets, the words, "I will not eat raw fish" escaping repeatedly from their lips. It was not a pretty sight. Thankfully, times have changed and sushi has become as ubiquitous as Lo Mein or Pizza. In fact, supermarkets all over the country have begun to sell freshly made sushi in their deli departments. The time has come to learn more about this delightfully invasive cuisine.

Sushi has been a part of American culture for about the last quarter of the 20th Century. It has been a staple of the Japanese diet since the Heian period, AD 794-1185, where it existed in the form of pickled fish without rice. It wasn't until the 17th Century that cooked rice was used as packing material to preserve the fish and eventually people began to eat the rice along with the fish. During the Edo period, AD 1700, vinegared rice was added to further season the fish.  Nori, the sheets of roasted seaweed were added during the Tempo Reformation, AD 1841-1843, a time when when expensive food was forbidden. Instead of fish, soybean cakes were wrapped in the Nori with rice because it was cheap and convenient. Over the next century, pickled fish was replaced with Sashimi , which means raw fish in Japanese, and was placed atop vinegared rice to create the Sushi we eat today.

The development of Sushi within Japan has been predicated on the different regions that specialize in the different ingredients indigenous to that area. There are two distinct styles that have emerged, the first is Kansai style from the city of Osaka. The sushi developed in this region consists primarily of seasoned rice mixed with other ingredients and formed into a very ornamental and decorative bundle. The other style of sushi hails from Tokyo and is called Nigirizushi, which features a piece of seafood on a small pad of seasoned rice and is the most familiar method known to foreigners.

The Japanese believe that food should satisfy all the senses, and this achieved through elaborate presentation, painstaking preparation and most important, unique and pristine ingredients. Ideally, a Japanese meal should consist of "...something from the mountains, and something from the sea." Sushi is a perfect representation of that formula since rice is grown in the mountains and the seaweed and fish come from the ocean. In addition to its cultural importance, Sushi is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. It is impressively well balanced because it is high in protein and low in calories and cholesterol. Fish is very high in the omega fatty acids which are so wonderful for you and fish is also incredibly easy to digest. And if that's not enough, seaweed is quite high in protein and minerals and rivals carrots for their Vitamin A content.

So let's talk about taste. A common response from Sushiphobics is that they don't like the texture of Sushi. There is no one texture of sushi. There are thousands of different combinations of Sushi and in fact, some of the fish is cooked. For example ebi (shrimp) is most definitely cooked and has the consistently of shrimp cocktail primarily because it is shrimp cocktail.  Unagi (eel) is broiled and then topped with a succulent barbecue style sauce that is very delicious. For the uninitiated there are the various kinds of maki which are rolled sushi that contain a small amount of fish (and sometimes other ingredients such as.ucumbers, asparagus, avocado) along with rice and nori that are rolled up and cut into bit size pieces.  Maki's are a wonderful introduction for the novice and a delightful standby for the veteran.

The Japanese also believe that a meal should be a complete aesthetic experience that simultaneously delights the eyes, the nose and the palate. As a result, Sushi chef's are one of the most highly trained chefs in the world. They apprentice for many years and are trained not only to prepare the dish but to, in essence, learn to create art with food. The presentation found in Sushi restaurants is unrivaled, down to the last detail. It has been said that the most highly trained Sushi chefs can prepare Sushi with all the rice grains facing the same way.

In addition to the Sushi, condiments play a central role both in the aesthetic and gastronimc experience of the meal. The pale pink pickled ginger is used as a palate cleanser between bites of sushi so you can experience a more profound differentiation among the delicacies you are tasting. Ginger is also excellent for aiding digestion. The ball of green paste, known as Wasabi, is made from a special japanese horseradish that is not as spicy as the horseradish indigenous to America. The Wasabi can be mixed into the little bowl of soy sauce for dipping the piece of Sushi. It serves to add a sharpness and bite that excellently contrasts the fish.

Eating Sushi is more than just a meal, its an experience. It contains thousands of years of culture that evolved into a food that is not only gorgeous to look at, delicious to eat, but is downright good for you. There is no contest involved in eating Sushi; you are no better off if you eat Uni (raw sea urchin) instead of Sake (smoked salmon). However, eating Sushi is meant to be an adventure, so try stepping out on that gastronomic limb, the farthest you'll fall is into your bowl of rice. Sayonara.