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Sake it to me

There's more to sushi than a California roll

There's more to sushi than a California roll

April 16, 2008|By JORDAN LESSIG / Special to The Herald-Mail

There are two types of Americans: those who eat sushi, and those who don't. Those who don't enjoy it typically abstain for the obvious reason that sushi's main component is, of course, raw fish. It can be difficult for some to get past the stigma of eating something uncooked. But for those who appreciate exotic food, sushi is a cuisine experience not to be missed.

Many sushi beginners choose items such as the California roll or the Philadelphia roll, examples of maki sushi. Maki are straightforward rolls, consisting of three ingredients or less, wrapped in rice and nori (seaweed). They are less intimidating because they were created specifically for the American palate, with ingredients like imitation crabmeat and salmon with cream cheese. They differ from anything resembling conventional sushi, because they were meant to be tame and tidy. In actuality, what is known today as the sushi "roll" did not exist before sushi's introduction to the American diner in the 1970s.

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Traditional sushi is rarely rolled, but principally served in the form of nigiri (cuts of fish placed on balls of vinagered rice), or sashimi (cuts of fresh fish, served on a platter). The sad truth is, the inception of rolls came about from the Japanese sushi chef's lack of confidence in the typical American's readiness to embrace the real thing. The Americanized version of the sushi restaurant has simplified the menu so as to appeal to the general public, and in doing so the incredible scope of flavors, textures and colors of traditional sushi have become muted.

Thus, while the California roll might be a good place to start, it's hardly all there is to the story.

First of all, keep in mind when looking at the menu that "crabmeat" (the chief ingredient of the California roll) is code for artificial crabmeat. Unless it is described in detail - snow crab, soft-shell crab - it is not the real thing.

Don't be afraid of the different forms sushi takes. Branch out - from the simple maki rolls, try next a futo maki. These larger rolls contain three to five ingredients, opening up new flavor combinations. A wise choice would be a spider roll; it's an excellent option, even for those who don't care for raw fish, as it contains a lightly battered and fried (tempura) soft-shelled crab.

Consider next the multitude of fish available for your nigiri. The Western diet has infiltrated sushi restaurants across this country, saturating menus with popular items like salmon, shrimp and tuna. Sushi has been a staple of Japanese fare since the time of the Samurai, utilizing every flavor the ocean has to offer: mackerel, flounder, shellfish, eel, squid and even fish eggs, known as roe.

In fact, the Japanese originally considered fatty fish like tuna unfit for sushi. But with the proliferation of the American version, the bluefin tuna is quickly disappearing from our oceans. If nothing else, reflect on weaning yourself off of the familiar fish as your contribution to the eco-friendly movement.

Experimentation is key: Sushi is meant to be exciting and varied, so each time you go to your favorite sushi joint, try something new.

The neighborhood sushi bars you would encounter in Japan offer intimate surroundings and wide-ranging menus, handcrafted by the sushi masters. Most Americans are not willing to hand over their stomachs to a severe looking sushi chef, but this is the best way to recreate a more customary experience. Simply ask what is most flavorful or what is in season. Not only will you familiarize yourself with a wide array of fish, but your chef will come to know what you would or would not like, just as your favorite bartender knows your drink of choice.

Much like becoming a wine connoisseur, educating yourself in the ways of fantastic sushi is a process. It will change the way you think about food and dining, and you will no doubt gain appreciation for this ancient art form. Plus, you'll have some superb meals along the way.

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