Sushi: The Basics

By on 25 June, 2012 in Food, Kate and Stephen, Restaurant Reviews with 0 Comments

A friend recently said that he didn’t see the appeal of sushi. Upon further questioning, he revealed that it might be possible that he simply had not yet consumed sushi properly. He was open to persuasion.

As such, we went to Sushi Cafe on Zelda Road and took some notes for the following sushi overview, which may, in a pinch, serve as an introductory tutorial for those who are curious about one of the world’s most enduring and delicious (and healthy) cuisines. We’ve already done overviews for Midtown Montgomery on Korean food and Indian food. To that list, add this sushi primer:

Before you order: Take a look at the table. There is a tiny dish, which you may recognize as a receptacle for soy sauce (which is also on the table in a bottle). There are chopsticks, which you don’t need to know how to use (though there are plenty of materials on the Internet that will help you if you wish to learn). Forks and fingers work well, and you shouldn’t let a lack of experience with chopsticks deter you. Still, you get points for practicing. Pro tip: If you rub wooden chopsticks together for a bit, you can get rid of any splinters. However, in Japan, that is seen as rude because it suggests that you have been provided with inferior quality chopsticks.

The setup: chopsticks, soy sauce and a little bowl.

The rice: Most people believe that sushi has something to do with fish. Although some sushi has fish, the word “sushi” actually refers to the preparation of short grain rice gently cooled and mixed with vinegar.  If you’re not a fan of rice, many places, including Sushi Cafe, have a variety of items that come with noodles. And you can also just have the pieces of raw fish, which are called sashimi.

What to drink: Most Japanese restaurants will have some Japanese beers, such as Sapporo, Kirin, or Asahi. You might also have the option of a nice plum wine, which is sweet and not at all like the grape-based wine that is most familiar to folks in Alabama. But to have the true sushi experience, you’ll want to explore the world of sake (pronounced sah-kee). Talking about the nuances in sake could fill up an entire blog post. As much as people get obsessed with the details of wine, there is nearly as much stuff about sake. But the basics that you need to know include these facts: You can order it either hot or cold, and it comes along with its own set of rituals.

Sake with two cups.

When we ordered a small hot sake, it was presented in a ceramic flask, along with two tiny cups (ochoko). We have also recently been served sake whereby instead of the cups, they give you little wooden boxes to drink out of (called masu). Although it is said to be bad luck to pour your own sake (usually it’s left to the junior person at the table), sometimes your dining companion isn’t paying proper attention, and you’ve got to help yourself. Sake is frequently sort of salty, but exists in a wide range of forms, from “packs a wallop” to “almost creamy.” These days you can get sake at Derk’s and even at the Zelda Road Publix.

Appetizers: Most people don’t really know what miso is. It’s a spice, of sorts, and when properly used in soup, it is amazing. Sometimes there are tiny flavorless cubes of tofu floating in there, and often tiny slivers of scallions. Good miso soup manages to be earthy and comforting, without being overpowering. It’s not so hearty that it takes away from the substance of the food you’ll be eating later. But it also could, if so employed (maybe with some shitake mushrooms thrown in), be a standalone meal. Miso is a key source of the umami flavor (a savory taste, different from saltiness).

Miso soup

There’s also a seaweed salad. Don’t be fooled by the nuisance from the beach. This is something else entirely. It is delicious and one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Although there are many recipes for making seaweed salad, the one at Sushi Cafe is exemplary, with little red pepper flakes and not too much sesame oil.

Seaweed salad

The trifecta: Three key flavors in sushi come from from ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce. When you order sushi you’ll get sliced pickled or fresh ginger (sometimes it looks pink, other times kind of beige) on your plate. Ginger is for cleansing your palate in between eats as well as after. It’s supposed to be really good for you, and tastes pretty amazing raw or pickled. There’s also a lump of green stuff. That’s the wasabi. Don’t eat the whole thing – it’s mind-warpingly hot stuff. Wasabi is meant to be put into your small soy sauce dish (usually with the wide end of your chopsticks) and mixed in with some soy. It’s like a really hot mustard. Here in the States, we mostly do not get actual wasabi – it costs about $150 a pound because it’s hard or impossible to grow over here. The green stuff we get is generally horseradish and other ingredients in a tube with some wasabi powder and green color; the real stuff is freshly grated behind the counter and tastes pretty different. You don’t have to be all snobby about it though – the green putty is nice to add a little spice to your meal.

As for soy sauce, it’s sometimes called “shoyu,” but that doesn’t mean you’re getting anything more fancy. The kind that’s served on the table at most sushi restaurants is just fine, but if you want to upgrade for your own kitchen, we suggest going to a place like the Oriental Market on Madison and checking the ingredient lists of the soy sauces there. What you really want is a soy sauce where soybeans are the first ingredient, not water. If you get all fancy, it’s possible to order some excellent soy sauces online.

Yeah, but what about the raw fish part? Well, first of all, you don’t have to order raw fish. You might prefer the frying technique known as tempura (generally reserved for shrimp, oysters and sometimes scallops). There is also plenty of smoked or seared fish in sushi. You might love (as we do) the straight ahead vegetable sushi – Sushi Cafe has a lovely and bountiful vegetarian sushi combo plate. But to really give sushi a chance, you should be willing to experiment with the unparalleled taste sensations provided by the raw fish experience.

Whether you go raw or not, you’ll encounter three basic kinds of sushi. First there is nigiri – these are pieces of food carefully sliced and attached to balls of sushi rice with a little wasabi in the middle.  If you’re feeling safe, you might want to start with the cooked egg. From there, branch out to tuna or snapper. If you want to venture a little further out, you might select eel, octopus, urchin or roe.

Snapper and tuna nigiri.

Then there are rolls. These are cylinders cut into discs. They are essentially tubes of rice, wrapped in a dry seaweed wrapper called nori. And you can pretty much stuff anything in there or put anything on top of them.

The vegetable sushi combo.

Finally, there are hand rolls. These come in a cone – they are kind of the working class food of sushi eaters, meant to be consumed on the go with a minimum of fuss.

The spicy tuna hand roll.

What we ordered: We got miso soup and a seaweed salad to start. Then we ordered a New York roll, the “veggie roll combo,” a spicy tuna hand roll and two kinds of nigiri (tuna and red snapper). The veggie roll combo is great – lots of food for the price, it’s filling and fresh. The spicy hand roll maybe had a little too much mayonnaise sauce but was otherwise good, with a beautiful presentation. The New York Roll was a true winner – it had lightly fried tempura shrimp in the middle, still warm when it made it to our table, and was draped with impeccably fresh salmon. The nigiri were large and fresh-tasting, hanging together with the rice in a classic presentation. It was a great meal with good service in a charming restaurant.

The New York roll

If you haven’t gone to Sushi Cafe, you’re missing out. It looks from the outside that it will be some cold strip mall joint, but inside they have managed to create a warm and intimate space that is well laid out and just as conducive to raucous dinner gatherings as to romantic dinners. We didn’t sit at the counter this time, but will in the future. It’s always fun to watch a trained chef work. The prices are reasonable, too – our large meal (even with sake) came out under $50 on a Saturday night.

Like everything we eat these days, fish isn’t without its complications. A study of catch data published in 2006 in the journal Science grimly predicted that if fishing rates continue apace, all the world’s fisheries will have collapsed by the year 2048. The global tuna trade is in particular trouble, with demand for products like sushi generating an illegal trade outside of global catch regulations. It’s hard to know where the fish you eat comes from, just as it’s hard to know what the cow you eat was fed or how the vegetable you savor was grown. As the popularity of sushi expands, we hope that consumers and providers will be mindful that there are sustainable ways to serve and eat fish.

Many people, like our friend, are intimidated by sushi. But it’s no more complicated than any other cuisine. Who hasn’t had to explain to their out-of-town friends about the bottle of vinegar with the peppers floating in it? We are lucky to be living in a globalized society where we can eat so many different kinds of food just a short distance from our home. We’d love to see even more of this – Montgomery needs a Brazilian restaurant, and an Indonesian one, and definitely an Ethiopian one. Sushi doesn’t have to be rich food snob food, either – in Japan, it’s working class food just as much as it is billionaire food, and the same is true here.


Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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