The fine art of sushi

Story by BC Rausch  +  Photos by Veronica Tarashkevich

Part art, part theater. Visiting a sushi bar is a little bit of both and, most importantly, a sensory taste experience. Sushi is an edible art form in which the sushi chef brings together his skills of preparation and the freshest ingredients: fish, rice, shoyu (soy sauce), wasabi (Japanese horseradish), and other seasoning, adds rice, and rolls it tantalizingly in nori (seaweed). 

What makes a sushi meal so special? Is it the variety of fresh options, the sharpness and precision of the knives, or the personalities creating these delectable treats? Or all that and more?

For 20 years, Hinoki (which means “cypress wood” in Japanese) has been a mainstay among Hilton Head Island’s sushi restaurants. Chikara “Chi Chi” Yamaguchi, who arrived on Hilton Head in 1992 from Kyoto, and business partner, Teruyuki Suzuki, have brandished the tools of their trade, creating specialties that delight visitors and locals alike. With fresh fish deliveries at least twice weekly and locally caught favorites like soft shell crab and flounder, coupled with a “white board” of daily specials, a visit to Hinoki is different every time. Practice and technique play a major part in their work, but unraveling a few myths about sushi eating and etiquette will elevate your appreciation of the total experience. 

For starters

How should a “sushi virgin” approach their first try? Don’t think about the fish being raw; concentrate on the texture and the sensations. Chi Chi recommends starting with something simple, like a California Roll (all vegetables) or a roll where the fish is cooked tempura style, to ease customers in. Some sushi creations, such as sea urchin (uni) with quail egg or giant clam, are acquired tastes and may take some time to enjoy. Some people are just more culinarily adventurous than others, and a good sushi restaurant will be able to accommodate everyone. If you can, sit at the sushi bar and watch the master craftsmen at work. Science has proven there is a direct link between how food looks and how we think it will taste. These chefs spend their whole careers improving presentation skills, and their talents should be a big part of your enjoyment.

What’s the difference between sushi and sashimi? Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there are small differences. Sashimi is raw fish, thinly sliced and served without rice. Literally translated, sushi means rice seasoned with vinegar, sugar and salt. That’s what you’ll get, usually mixed with vegetables and sometimes other ingredients.

How to eat it 

What are the commandments to eating sushi and sashimi? There are no hard-and-fast rules, other than to enjoy the meal, says Chi Chi. But he offers a few pointers:

  • Don’t worry If you’re not proficient with chopsticks. It’s perfectly okay to use your fingers to eat sushi. This only applies to hand rolls and cut rolls; do not use your hands to eat sashimi.
  • Sushi is generally served with pickled ginger and wasabi. Don’t eat the ginger with your sushi; have it between bites to cleanse your palate.
  • Dip your sushi fish side down. Only the fish (not the rice) is meant to be dabbed (not saturated) in the soy sauce.

Staying sharp

The knives used in sushi restaurants have evolved with one explicit purpose: achieving the perfect cut, neat and clean. The sashimi knife, in particular, has hundreds of years of history behind it. Whether you’re a professional chef or hoping to prepare sushi in your own kitchen, choosing a proper sushi/sashimi knife is essential. Typically, good sushi knives aren’t cheap. Invest in one, however, and it will last a long time and serve you well.

When considering which knife to purchase, look closely at its craftsmanship, materials and engineering. Sakai in Japan is world-renowned for its products, and it is where many of the top sushi knife brands are made. Ask a chef in any restaurant of any kind what sushi knives they recommend; no matter what sort of food they cook, they’re almost certain to use a sushi knife in the kitchen, even if not specifically for sushi dishes.

But there really is nothing better for slicing fish than a good sashimi knife. They should be so sharp that they leave a smooth shiny cross section in the fish that doesn’t change the texture, taste, or mouth feel. A clean cut prevents damage to the flesh, stops moisture loss, maintains color, and leaves a tastier, fresher piece of sashimi. 

The finest sashimi knives have rounded wooden handles, shaped like a D or more angular (usually a hexagon or octagon). This makes them easy and comfortable to use and hold for long periods. There should be no hard, straight edges or irregular shapes that would dig into your hand.

Good sashimi knives are expensive, ranging from $200 for a baseline product up to thousands of dollars for a hand-forged Japanese blade made from the finest metals, usually carbon steel, which is sharper than stainless steel.

Nearly all sashimi knives are 7 to 12 inches long, which allows the chef to pull through the fish heel to tip without having to move the knife back and forth. There’s no sawing action, no pushing or pulling that could lead to ripped, jagged, or torn edges. 

All knives need proper maintenance to stay consistently sharp. Washing and drying knives after each use is key to precision and longevity. Use a damp cloth to give the knife a good wipe. Watch sushi chefs at work and you’ll notice they stop to wipe their knives every few minutes. Not only are they cleaning moisture and debris from the blade but also enzymes and chemical residue from food that could cause a knife to corrode or rust even if on the blade for a short amount of time.

Rubbing a little oil into the blade and wrapping it up well in some newspaper adds to its longevity. 

Finally, there’s the sharpening process, which is trickier than it looks. You’ve got to rub the knife along the stone at exactly the right angle to get a sharp edge on the blade. Use the wrong angle, and the knife will dull and not sharpen.

The perfect slice

Great sushi knives – Dalstrong

1. Dalstrong Shogun Series X 6″ Nakiri Knife. $120

2. Dalstrong Ronin Series 6″ Deba Knife. $120 

3. Dalstrong Ronin Series 10.5″ Yanagiba and Sushi Knife. $120

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