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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Cooked And The Raw

Making sushi at home is one of those things that is, like learning tai chi or getting along with your family, neither as difficult as you fear nor as easy as you could hope. I(If you watch JIro Dreams Of Sushi, you'll never even bother to try) If you've heard that the hardest thing to get right is the rice, you heard right -sushi is not just about the rice of course, but ideally, there's a balance between warm rice and cooler fish, between the clean protein savor of the seafood and the sour-sweet-salty lushness of the rice, that's easy to hope for but hard to achieve. I'm going to commit heresy and compare it to a really good burger --I don't know of any burger that compares to a really masterful piece of sushi (OK, the Black Label Burger at Minetta Lane Tavern's pretty damned good) but the idea's the same --protein plus the cushioning of a starch radiant with the promise of rapidly absorbable glucose. If the rice isn't still warm, there is no qi, to put it in Chinese medicine terms --quite literally; the old character for "qi" is an ideogram for steam rising from a pot of cooked rice.

You need really fresh fish, obviously, although that gets complicated too; real sushi chefs sometimes age tuna, for instance, for several days. Still, as a rule of thumb, the best possible fish and the best possible fishmonger aren't good enough; sushi calls for intolerance (polite intolerance, but intolerance) and communication --let whoever's behind the counter know you're going to be eating this stuff raw.

Eating sushi nowadays is a political statement too --crashing bluefin tuna stocks, wild sea eel, and other fish populations make it impossible to choose certain types of fish, at least if you have a conscience (as Jiminy Cricket said, that little voice inside you no one listens to.) Farm raised is tricky because so many fish farms practice atrociously bad management and wreak havoc on the surrounding environment, and unless you're really determined to be blindly, gluttonously selfish, you can't hoover up a plate of o-toro and unagi with the same relish as in bygone days (besides, do you know how much mercury is in that stuff?) Fortunately there are still good choices --wild Alaskan salmon is still ok for now (avoid farmed, in general, and avoid wild Atlantic completely, at least according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.)

There are some great books and videos on cutting fish for sushi --the only thing I'll mention for now is that a long, thin, extremely sharp knife is best; you cut by drawing the knife toward you and ideally, make one cut per piece; the last thing you want to do is saw at the fish. Everything should be even cleaner than you think it should be. The rice should still be warm when you start assembling the sushi --you season it with a warm mixture of rice vinegar, salt, and sugar, and the most important thing to remember is to not compact the rice too much. It needs to breathe --think of the qi of the rice circulating through it; if you crush it, it dies. With the fish married to perfectly warm, fluffy rice with just a tiny dab of wasabi (or none at all; real wasabi's hard to come by in the USA and the fake stuff is just green-dyed horseradish) you have something very delicate and fragilely delicious, like a sugar cookie fresh out of the oven --it needs to be eaten right away; after a few minutes it's already fading, like a cut flower.

The other thing you can do, of course, is not eat sushi at all. The fish are going, going, and though the idea that we're entitled to whatever we want whenever we want it is a hard one to break, there is something to be said for the pleasure of avoiding pleasure. The tuna, certainly, will thank you. And if you would rather have one perfect piece of o-toro than ten of mediocre, stringy utility sushi on gluey cold rice, maybe the next and even best step is to have none at all. Fish gotta swim.

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