7 Quick Tips to Become a Sushi Snob

Grant YNovember 3rd, 2008
By: Grant Y

Like many foodies in Seattle, I love sushi and am often found at any one of Seattle's numerous Japanese and sushi restaurants. I'm fascinated by the taste and texture of raw fish, as well as the artful presentations and creative rolls that each chef comes up with. As a restaurant reviewer however, I've found that sushi is a challenging cuisine to judge without any form of study. Since it's hard to be a credible critic if I could be outdone by any old sushi snob, I made it a point to put my own snobbery into high gear: I enrolled in a three course sushi class.

The sushi class I decided to enroll in is taught by Naomi Kakiuchi, a Japanese cooking instructor with NuCulinary, along with Hajime Sato (pictured), who is the chef and owner of Mashiko's in West Seattle. Naomi has a warm and classical teaching style, while Hajime plays the part of your amicable but colorful uncle Leroy after a few beers. Throughout the course, I was able to learn all about sushi: the making sushi rice, rolling techniques, types of ingredients, selecting seaweed, the art of nigiri and most importantly, what makes for great sushi.

It became apparent however, that truly understanding sushi would take far more than a mere three classes. I was able to gather enough of a base to become a more educated reviewer, but was left knowing that there was still much to learn about the sushi craft. So while it would be outside the scope of this article to turn you into a bona fide sushi snob, here are seven quick tips on how to get started.

1) To know sushi, is to eat rolls sparingly

A true sushi chef takes pride in his ability to cut fish, which can take years to master due to the intricacies of the trade. Rolls, on the other hand, can be learned quickly and are often delegated to line cooks. As such, customers that order nigiri or sashimi will be seen (and treated) as more sophisticated eaters, rather than customers who eat nothing but rolls.

Does this mean you have to give up sushi rolls? Of course not! I almost always order a roll when I go out for sushi. What it does mean is that if you want to be a sushi snob and impress the chef of your discerning tastes, you'll forgo the armies of cutesy caterpillar rolls and lean more toward the nigiri.

Chef Hajime Sato from Mashikos
Chef Hajime Sato from Mashikos

2) You eat sushi other than tuna (maguro) and salmon (sake)

There's nothing wrong with tuna or salmon, just like there's nothing wrong with chicken pad thai or fried rice. What makes them similar, however, is the fact that everybody orders tuna and salmon. Chefs and owners rely on these money makers to keep them in business, but enjoy seeing customers open to experimentation. Personally, I love mackerel (saba) and sea bass (though no longer due to sustainability concerns) and would recommend you explore the tasting field.

Coincidentally, mackerel is a difficult fish to cut properly, due to the inherent softness of the meat. Other difficult sushi items are octopus (tako), which requires a fine serration to cut, and egg (tamago), which is laboriously baked in batches. Hajime himself remarked that he had to cook tamago for three straight months before his sushi teacher let him progress as a student. Thus, when I review sushi restaurants, I tend to order these three items as type of barometer.

3) You have sushi chef serve you

In Japanese culture, the sushi chef is not just a guy with a knife - he's your gastronomical navigator in unpredictable waters. If you have a preference for yellowtail (hamachi) and are sitting at the sushi bar, the chef can politely steer you away if he thinks the catch isn't as well as it could be. Remember, he has trained (hopefully) for years and can identify exactly how fresh the fish is based on coloring, texture and other nuances. On the other hand, if you have regular table service, you'll get the hamachi because the chef has no way of communicating with you or understanding your tastes. This is one of the reasons why sushi snobs only sit at the sushi bar.

4) You talk with the sushi chef

In Western culture, many customers at a sushi bar are completely oblivious to the sushi chef, so it's good to strike up a rapport with the chef to let him know that you're no ordinary Joe six-pack. What you want to do is ask questions on what seafood is fresh and most importantly, what the chef recommends. Chefs of all variety - sushi chefs especially - love customers who trust them and are willing to experiment. If the chef thinks you're an open sushi connoisseur, he'll be far more apt to give you some choice cuts that he has reserved for his special customers. And because I hear you asking: yes, sushi chefs often have items that aren't on the menu and only available through request or omakase. Which leads us to...

Articles in Series
  1. 7 Quick Tips to Become a Sushi Snob
  2. 7 Quick Tips to Become a Sushi Snob - Part 2
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