Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sushi 101 - What is Fresh Sushi?

As some of you may know from reading my posts, I am a sushi FIEND and aspiring sushi connoisseur. I have been a fan for a few years now, but my obsession was sealed by my trip to Japan last fall- ten days in Tokyo and Kyoto which included a visit to Daiwa at the Tsukiji fish market in the wee hours of the morning, the highlight of my sushi life (and even better than the $250-a-head omakase we had at a very fancy sushi place at the New Otani hotel in Tokyo, which I will write about at another time). As my Sasabune review shows, though, I have very little tolerance for bad sushi. I find it very depressing and sad that many sushi fans lavish praise on places (and therefore, lead me to go drop bank on these establishments) that have crappy, soft, unfresh, unyummy sushi that is way overpriced and way overrated. (When people say the sushi somewhere is awesome because it is buttery, soft, melts in your mouth, or similar descriptions, I get very suspicious that they are talking about such a place-- and very often, they are!)

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A photo from my visit to Daiwa.

So, I am on a mission to spread the word on what makes sushi good, how you can tell when it's fresh and high quality or not, and where to go to find the best options in LA and wherever else I have occasion to eat my beloved sush. I don't have all the answers-- I am a student, not a master. But I hope that as I continue to learn and explore you can come along for the ride.

Part of the mission includes scouring Yelp to find promising options. Upon reading reviews of The Hump, a place in Santa Monica one of my Japanese sushi maven friends swears by and which I am filling my piggy bank for, I happened upon an incredibly knowledgeable review (excerpts of which are posted below) and immediately contacted the author to ask his permission to share it with all of you. His name is Michael, and by some strange coincidence he, too, is a lawyer. He became a fish expert when he used to work at the Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley, California, where he cut, bought and sold fish professionally. He is also a fisherman.

A few weeks ago Michael and I got into an email conversation about fish that has continued to this day. Michael also went to Daiwa in the fish market in Tokyo in the early hours of the morning and agrees that it's the gold standard. He has also given me a tip-- tell sushi chefs at nice places you've been to Daiwa, and they give you a respectful nod (and extra attentive bites, perhaps?). Oh yeah, and he totally agrees with me about Sasabune- which was a relief since I thought I was the only nut who didn't like it. I hope to continue to ask his opinion, which is much more expert than mine, on sushi places I frequent and share his thoughts with all of you on an ongoing basis.

Educational Excerpts from Michael's Review of The Hump (from Yelp)

"So, I went to the Hump...Coincidentally, Brian, the owner, had just come back from Japan, bringing a huge purple chunk of Himalayan rock salt (Japanese chefs love weird salts) and would be sitting for dinner. We chatted briefly - because we were there by ourselves - and Melanie [the hostess] said that we would be sitting next to each other.Over the course of the evening, I discussed with Melanie and Brian the following:
1. Proper handling of fish is of paramount importance to fish
2. Fresh, unfortunately, does not equal properly handled
3. Live fish that is quickly killed is best
4. Fish that has not gone into rigor mortis is not firm, and thus gummy and rubbery
5. Tsukiji's Bluefin Tuna Auction (been there and it is an amazing thing to see)
6. Daiwa Sushi, considered by some to be one of the best places to eat sushi in Japan because it's IN Tsukiji, (and sushi in general in Japan) is not served with overly warm rice or loosely packed rice
7. There are a lot of mediocre sushi bars now
8. Most Bluefin Tuna is coming from Spain because they're harvesting spawning tuna in the Mediterranean Sea and pen raising them off the coast of Spain
9. The Hump pays for top quality, carefully handled fish
10. The Hump keeps a number of its fish live in tanks

While Brian disappeared for a bit, I was seated at the end of the bar. What followed next, I can only describe as a revelation. Most fish sold to sushi bars are sold dead. That's not news to most of the world. And all the talk of eating "live" sushi? It's straight BS unless the fish is still breathing (the Hump serves that here too - I saw a breathing okoze (sculpin) cleanly filleted for live sashimi).

What is news is how poorly fish is treated once it's caught (like the news about how Chinese fish oftentimes does not pass USDA standards because it's filthy). Fish, like all living animals, goes into rigor mortis soon after it's dead. As time passes, the meat will relax and become softer. However, when the fish is well taken care of, and not handled like junk, the meat will stay firm for several days. Handle it like crap, and it will become soft very quickly. (At almost all sushi bars, you're most likely not getting fish that's so fresh it hasn't gone into rigor mortis. So, if you're wondering why a piece of fish is soft, it's because it's OLD.)

The Hump's fish is REALLY fresh. It's rigor mortis fresh. It's so fresh, that the texture of some of the fish, I can almost describe as "crunchy." I primarily had Shiromi. I started off with Tai and Hirame, then had Sujiara, Nodoguro, Managatsuo, Konbujime Ayu, Sanma, Tairagai and Uni. The Tai (with lemon juice and salt) was very good. It was rich and fatty; very rich for a summer fish. The Hirame (with ponzu, momiji oroshi and green onions) was an indicator of things to come. The flesh was firm, much more firm, sweet and substantial. The Sujiara (aka Kue, or Coral Grouper), had a rich, strong, flavor. The flavor got stronger as you chewed on it and it was so firm, it felt so much more substantial than your ordinary white fish sushi. Some people would consider the flesh "hard." But it really is a sign of true freshness. And the flavor was tremendous. The Nodoguro (a perch), also had firm texture, mild sweetness and excellent flavor. The Sanma was rich and oily and firm. (Get the picture?) The Tairagai was simply the best ever. So firm, sweet, and rich. It was amazing.

These fish were so firm and meaty, they were completely different than any place that I've had sushi in LA. I wish I tried more. Brian came back, asked for one of the chefs to use the rock salt he brought back for something. Well, the chef served him up some usuzukuri sujiara, with the salt shaved onto it. It looked fantastic. I thanked him for a great meal and great fresh fish. Brian's a warm and charming owner, who takes real pride in what the restaurant is doing. This shows everywhere. The staff is well trained and very attentive. The chefs care about the work they do and take great care.

So F serious sushi bars. F anyone who claims to know what "truly fresh fish" or who is a "expert on sushi" who hasn't gone fishing, can't fillet, doesn't know that freshly caught fish that hasn't gone into rigor mortis is going to be like chewing something with only slightly better texture than rubber. Stop the BS. Stop the trendiness. Eat really fresh sushi. Eat at the Hump. (It'll be #1 on my list if it's this good all the time.)"

Thanks, Michael! :-P


Anonymous said...

I read through the Yelp reviews and, while interested, I saw a few red flags - they served black truffles in July (????), tuna rolls, and other sorts of rolls.

I'm curious how this holds up against the heavyweights of the US (reviews of all on my site):

- Urasawa (Beverly Hills)
- Kuruma Zushi (NY)
- Masa (NY)
- Sushi Yasuda (NY)
- Sawa (Sunnyvale)

The whole "this fish is still alive" sounds unnecessary at best, and suspect at worst. What tank(s) do they keep the fish in? How could this possibly be better than the ocean?

- Chuck

Michael said...

Wow. Thanks for the huge props P & E. I'm very flattered. =)

Chuck - I certainly hope to go to all of those places. Although I may not make it to NY anytime soon, I do hope to go to Urasawa or Sawa since I am in LA and do visit the Bay Area regularly.

You're right that fish held in tanks are not superior to fish pulled out of the ocean. However, how many places do you know that have truly fresh fish (e.g. within 24 hours out of the ocean, well handled, and in rigor mortis) out of the ocean? Of the places you named, none of them will be able to claim that they get all of their fish locally, straight out the ocean. Chances are, they're getting most of their fish from far away places.

If we were to eat only locally caught fish, straight out of the ocean, we would only be able to eat a handful of fish that were "fresh out of the ocean." Luckily, right now, you can get local albacore and yellowtail from SoCal, which may be caught within a day or two out of the water and makes excellent sashimi/sushi! And since you're in the Bay Area, hopefully you're getting get fresh local okoze, hirame, ama ebi and uni!

Anonymous said...

I've been reading about this recently and I'm not sure that in rigor fish is necessarily 'best'. It might be firmer and with some fish I really like that crunchy mouthfeel but there are some fish that might be better pre or even post rigor. The length of time it takes to enter rigour also varies widely dependent on stress, the actual chemical composition of the fish, temperature it's stored at etc. so how do you know when it is 'in rigor'? If in rigour fish is best, the quickest way to get that crunchy freshness that you like so much would seem to be to spend a good 15 minutes pissing off an aquarium fish so it enters rigor pretty much as soon as it's killed before spiking, bleeding and filleting it for sashimi as quickly as possible? Proper handling - no bruising etc. seems pretty obviously important but if you want fish to enter rigor quickly, the more stressed it is the better (?) When so much care is taken to stop fish flapping around and doing themselves a mischief, spiking to keep the heart pumping but without movement, ULT flash freezing at point of catch (I'm thinking mainly of tuna here) the easy assumption would be that these are efforts at keeping fish at pre-rigor stage as long as possible? This is a pretty tricky area of discussion and like so much of the sushi world, seems pretty inpenetrable to the non Japanese speaker. My guess is that really good sushi joints have a pretty sophisticated understanding of when it's best to serve which fish - pre, in or even post rigor. What do you think?