Updated: Apr 29, 2019
Let's put our fingers where our mouths are, and get straight to the sushi.
Many people might be wondering why go so fancy for sushi or 鮨. Afterall, it's just rice and raw fish or other seafood. Some may even feel that they can't tell the difference between "great", "good" and "maa-maa" sushi. I'm not going to pretend that I can decode this either. So why did I go to over-extended lengths for this trip? Well, I could live my life under a rock, believing I don't know this, that and couldn't care for the other, or be open-minded and adventurous and try something if only just one time. This extremely short trip gave me so much more insight on something I had no clue about, and motivated me to dig up more on its history, meaning and culture. If I didn't go, then my life would not be that much richer in knowledge and experience. Of course the latter have a price.
So I learnt that sushi rice is sometimes referred to as shari by sushi chefs. What is shari? "...a Buddhist term that refers to tiny pieces of the buddha's bones. According to Japanese folk tradition, each grain of rice contains not just one spirit but seven." - The Story of Sushi by Trevor Corson
I'm going to go on a limb here and label this as nodoguro or black throat sea perch nigiri-zushi (握り寿司). Nigiri refers to squeeze or grab by the sushi chef when forming neta (or ingredient) and shari together as a sushi. Right before this, we were served the lightly seared version.
Buri or "cold yellowtail" is highly coveted in winter (hence "cold"), and is the pride and joy of Toyama Bay, Himi. Technically, the whole fish weighs 10kg on average. It was at its oiliest (read: tastiest!) when it was served in season.
Kohada falls under the category of hikarimono or shiny, silver fish. Sometimes it is confused with iwashi (sardine). Its unassuming look hides the menial work that's behind-the-scenes and can last for days before it is ready to be served. It's a small-sized fish (at least 4 inches but less than 10) that has many tiny bones which have to be removed, then filleted before it is preserved employing sujime technique that includes repetitive cycles of salting, washing and then pickling in vinegar. The end result is sweet and umami flavors, without any hint of fishy-ness. This sounded to me pretty stressful especially for newbie or inexperienced chefs. At Sushi Tsubomi, chef Makoto Maruyama pulled it off gracefully, which clearly showed how highly skilled and seasoned chef he is.
Some of you may feel a little eek-ish looking at the skin but it's so worth it just to try it at least once in your life.
Cuts of Maguro
I can only guess that anyone who's into sushi wouldn't mind some tuna in the line-up. The different cuts of maguro were from the same 150kg fish that was on the previous post. Akami aka "red flesh" is the leaner cut as compared to the other two - chutoro and otoro. These cut slices were briefly marinated in a little pot via zuke preparation that usually involves shoyu (soy sauce), mirin (rice wine) and sake (Japanese fermented rice "wine") to bring out depth of flavors and the much sought after umami taste.
Chutoro & Otoro
Here, we were presented with the choice cuts of maguro that's known to be fattier and extremely pricey because of how scarce the belly fat (or toro) is compared to rest of the fish's body. Simply put, chutoro is medium fat, and otoro, as you can see, has a lot more fat on it and can be mistaken for high-marbled beef. I used to stop at random sushi stands before and get just a pair of otoro slices as a snack, but it cost me $20 each time. Needless to say, the three different cuts of maguro are a must for me no matter which sushi place I visit, the common man stand, mid-range hotel restaurant or high-end intimate spaces like Sushi Tsubomi.
The white squid nigiri-zushi or 握り寿司 (nigiri meaning to squeeze or grab by sushi chef when forming it) was sweet to taste and firm in texture (not stiff or chewy) yet yielded willing to every chew. This tentacled ika is in season from winter time till early spring, and that means expect to pay a high price to net them during their peak season. A slight squeeze of sudachi lime from Tokushima perfecture on the squid completed it.
Or dancing shrimp was perfectly butterflied and presented on the large-grain shari bed. Kuruma ebi (I'm guessing) or "car shrimp" from Yamaguchi in Western Honshu looked like it was "dancing" because it kept moving for a short while. I was shocked! Not so much that it moved, but that I was not forewarned that it WOULD move. Many refer to odori ebi as live shrimp, but the head has been cut off before laying it out on rice, so it's technically dead. A little salt or lemon sprinkled on it would make this neta move. The timeliness of when to cut off the heads and serve these shrimps mark how skilled the chef is, in preserving the freshness. The flesh was naturally sweet and succulent.
Boiled this time, this was tasty when dipped in a little shoyu. Usually a dab of ebi miso from its liver is added between the shrimp and rice to enhance the existing flavors.
Kuruma Ebi Head
It was small but it was grilled and crunchy. This head probably held the most umami flavor of the whole shrimp.
This was a nice break in momentum when Chef Makoto Maruyama presented shime saba or cured mackerel in a partial seaweed wrap. Also categorized as hikarimono, the shiny blue skin on this reddish flesh fish is usually marinated simply in rice vinegar and salt. Biting into this, the slice is far thicker and wider than the other sushi I had at this meal so far. The flesh was also firmer, due to the curing process. The fish is good to eat all year but ma-saba is in season from November to March. The oily, omega-3- rich fish married well with vinegared rice and the touch of sesame seeds.
This needs no introduction. Once rejected because for years my memory was marred by an expired, off-tasting uni or sea urchin at a conveyor-belt sushi chain, I was finally reintroduced to the creamy, unctuous and sweet uni by my husband when we first started dating. I would like to think that I have this a lot more often than he does. The uni was super chilled and piled high but I stuffed those gonads in my mouth anyway in a truly ruffian way. I'd guess that by its bright orange color and smaller dimensions that this could possibly be bafun uni from Hokkaido.
Unlike unagi that's bold and rich in flavor, and also of the freshwater variety, anago (which is also eel) is bred is saltwater and has a sweeter taste. The latter is usually simmered before made into sushi. It really felt like a big gargle of fats mixed with creaminess while I was chewing the whole thing in my mouth. But it didn't leave an oily aftertaste.
A sweet ending to my very first proper high-end sushi omakase in Tokyo, Japan. Tamagoyaki, a layered and sweet omelette that is served at the end, reminded me vaguely of ma lai gao that's a steamed cake made of brown sugar. And the pickled maki sushi that was both sweet and sour.
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