As you enter a sushi restaurant, it may be the invigorating aroma of cypress—the hinoki countertop that is meticulously sanded down, daily, to a feathery finish—that greets you. It may be the warmth of a cup of bitter green tea that melts a chill, or the soothing steam of a hot oshibori towel that wipes your stress away.
What follows is an intimate storytelling session by a chef who has seen many fish through many seasons.
A slice. A dab of wasabi. A gentle press and a flip followed by slow, firm squeezes as fish and rice come together in a piece of nigirizushi. The word “nigiri” in nigirizushi means to “grip,” “grasp,” or “hold.” The beautiful hands of the chef holding the sushi radiate confidence and move with grace and precision. They have survived cuts and burns. Hours of relentless repetition have drilled and hammered the tactile memories of fish and rice into every nerve ending of every fingertip. Knowledge, skill, and intuition have been programmed into those hands, the chef’s most valuable tools and his medium for creativity.
A California food safety law that was put into effect at the beginning of 2014 effectively silenced the hands of sushi chefs by requiring food workers to wear gloves while handling “ready-to-eat” food. The law, which was intended to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses, caused great disruption in sushi chefs’ routines. It changed the way they held their knives, filleted their fish, and prepared each piece of fish. Many of the chefs at the Los Angeles sushi restaurants I used to frequent felt as if they had lost their voices, for it was through their hands that they communicated with their fish, and ultimately, their hungry and loyal customers. Even the sushi chefs in Tokyo, the city I now call my home, were saddened by this news. Thankfully, the new regulation is about to be repealed—eliciting a big sigh of relief from sushi chefs and sushi aficionados alike.
Sushi. It is a simple concept—fish and rice. Yet it is also history, anatomy, and anthropology in culinary form. Each perfectly constructed piece tells a unique story. A translucent slice of flounder is gently draped over vinegared rice and presented on a lacquered plate. That flounder, which has acquired a few extra pounds of fat while traveling through the cold winter seas, glides over your tongue like satin and opens up to a bouquet of elegant flavors.
Running along the curvature of a line-caught sea bream, the sushi chef’s fingertips see everything: fat distribution, water content, muscle thickness. Depending on what he feels, he may decide to let the fish age for a few days, to let flavors come to life and textures mature. He may cure the fish between two strips of kombu, using the kelp to coax out water from the flesh while simultaneously infusing it with umami. Those fingertips will know the exact minute when the fish has been aged or cured to perfection—no more and no less.
Kawahiki (removing the skin), oroshi (filleting), honenuki (removing the bones), sujime (marinating in vinegar). Each laborious step of preparation is a testament to a chef’s precision and attention. No item tests a chef’s skills more transparently than kohada—gizzard shad. This small, silver-skinned fish must be swiftly filleted, deboned, salt-cured, then vinegar-marinated. Marinate it for too long, and the vinegar will overpower the fish, the skin will lose its silver luster, and the flesh will fall apart. Not enough marinade or salt cure, and the finicky fish will instantly spoil and lose its magic. Every step is meticulously quality- controlled and calculated by a chef’s fingertips—he feels for a particular bounce and give in its texture—and must also be adjusted to that day’s humidity and temperature.
But the true test for sushi is in the shari—the rice. Chefs and diners all agree that the majority of flavor, up to 80 percent, is determined by the shari, and the rest by the fish. One chef may prefer to use the soft, sweet grains of a Hokkaido-grown brand of rice and pair it with sharp rice vinegar. Another may create his own blend of rice and flavor it with mild akazu vinegar made from sake lees, the sweet rice paste left over after sake is made. When the chef makes the nigiri, he will use his fingertips to weigh out the optimal amount of rice for each piece—slightly less for squid and scallop, and slightly more for those with a stronger flavor profile like kohada.
A seasoned chef will even manipulate the orientation and position of rice grains when making the nigiri, and may even be able to tell the exact number of rice grains in his hand. Shari made by an experienced chef is more tightly packed on the outside and looser on the inside. When the air pockets are evenly distributed between each uniformly aligned grain, the rice and the fish perfectly meld together for an optimal balance of texture and flavor.
The simplicity of sushi makes each piece vulnerable to even the most minute adjustments and subtle differences. In the same way that a melody reflects a pianist’s train of thought, or a painting reveals an artist’s state of mind, a piece of nigirizushi mirrors a sushi chef’s temperament.
Our emotional and physical states affect the way that we feel with our fingertips, express through our hands, and relate to our environment. To cover those hands with gloves—whether they belong to a sculptor, a dancer, a violinist, or a sushi chef—is to take away a mode of expressing love, adoration, and respect for craft. Perhaps it even takes away these artists’ very reason for being.
There is nothing more gratifying for a sushi chef than to see diners truly enjoying, understanding, and appreciating what he feels is his best work, created and delivered with his seasoned and confident hands. I have eaten sushi made by the hands of talented chefs all over the world, and seen that look of contentment during many delicious sushi meals. I’m glad that California has decided this experience is worth saving.
Tomoko Kurokawa is a doctor, food writer, and world traveler who lives in Tokyo, Japan with a second home in Los Angeles.
This was originally published by Zócalo Public Square on April 18, 2014.
*Photos by Tomoko Kurokawa.