Foods made to go well with alcohol like ‘shiokara’ salted fish parts or dried mullet roe, don’t go well with shari (vinegar rice). Also, restaurants mainly serving alcohol and foods to pair with it are either bars or Japanese cuisine restaurants that may also serve sushi, but not Edo-style sushi. Many years ago sushi chefs would even get angry saying things like, “Sushi restaurants are not bars. If you want to drink, go next door!” Even Rosanjin wrote, “Sushi restaurants that served alcohol first appeared after WWII. Before the war sushi was served with tea.” In other words, Edo-style sushi restaurants originally didn’t serve alcohol. Perhaps it is true that the increase in sushi restaurants that feel like bars is a natural progression with time.
You can determine how good a sushi restaurant is just by glancing at the topping box (neta-bako). The toppings should all be bright and shiny. This seafood was selected that very morning throughout Tsukiji Fish Market. Even when marinating in vinegar, it’s clear how lively and fresh the fish is.
Every single good sushi restaurant is small. The maximum counter space for a single sushi master to keep up with each customer is 10 seats. These excellent restaurants also have a number of regular customers and almost seem like an exclusive club.
The master conditions his customers to enjoy the toppings that he believes to be the best and the customers train the master into making the dishes they like. After all, making sushi may be a single profession, but it is a relative business and it takes time to build this deep understanding between the chef and customers.
Good sushi chefs do not play favorites to their regular customers. Good regular sushi customers are well-mannered and don’t make an unpleasant atmosphere for first-time customers. Both the chefs and customers are educated in this way. There is this sense of pure pressure in the restaurant.
Good sushi restaurants close their doors early. They need to get to Tsukiji Fish market first think in the morning. This means they need to get to bed by midnight. So the regular customers at these restaurants get up to leave when closing time rolls around. Somewhere along the way they’ve been trained to do this.
If you visit a premium sushi restaurant, such as one that places piles of salt by the entrance for good fortune, you’ll notice there are no price displays.
There’s not even a menu. All you find is a slab of wood hanging down the wall with names of the daily offerings such as Conger Eel (anago) or Spotted Shad (kohada).
This is not a place to get angry and ask how customers can order without knowing the price. First time customers may not know the market price and worry about budget, resolving to pay with a credit card if they don’t have enough cash in their wallet.
I guess you could say that sushi restaurants that don’t display prices are accepted by customers as being more traditional, like the old days. But actually, at pre-war sushi restaurants, there were wooden panels that listed prices such as “Fatty Tuna: 2000 yen”. It was during the 1960s that they stopped displaying prices.
The 60s was the start of an era of high-growth in Japan. Prices were rising rapidly and sushi prices also went up drastically. At the same time, the business practice of entertaining clients was gaining popularity and suddenly about 80% of the clientele of high-quality sushi restaurants were these types of business groups, rather than individual customers.
In situations like these, if there was a sign that read “Medium Fatty Tuna: 3000 yen” then it makes it difficult for the business guest to order what they like, without worrying about the price. Considering the total bill, they may also order fewer dishes than they want. As you can see, this practice of not displaying prices at sushi restaurants was in consideration for the business customers who were entertaining clients, as well as those being entertained as clients. At the same time, the well-known “Omakase” was created, the “chef’s choice” system in which the customer orders a menu created by the chef on the spot.
The Japanese were not in the habit of eating salmon raw. Salmon was not a traditional topping in Edo-style sushi. The reason for this is that the existence of parasites has been well-known since long ago and there was no way to prepare the salmon raw.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, salmon must be frozen at -20℃ for at least 24 hours in order to completely kill all parasites. Salmon served at sushi restaurants must be stored frozen and then thawed before serving.
The type of salmon (sake) you find in Japan is Chum salmon. However, most of the salmon served raw at sushi restaurants is Atlantic salmon. This is a popular topping throughout the world due to the high-fat content and smooth texture achieved by sea farming in places like Norway and Chile. The fish are strictly managed from water quality to the effects on the environment, so there are very few issues with parasites and the salmon can be eaten raw. However, the fact remains that the fish are administered a number of chemicals due to concern of the spread of disease-causing germs in the farms.
Even when salmon roe and sea urchin first started to be used as toppings, most sushi chefs said that these didn’t count as Nigirizushi and refused to use them. However the favorable reputation of sea urchin sushi in Ginza won out, it started to be used by more chefs and eventually became one of the major dishes.
The fifth-generation sushi chef at one long-standing shop says, “If it’s what the customers want, then salmon may also be rolled as Nigirizushi in the near future.” It may even become part of the standard menu.
At a pre-Edo sushi shop that features Hokkaido toppings, they are actually serving ultra-high grade salmon such as Keiji* and Tokishirazu**.
*Keiji are young salmon with immature ovaries or testes. Only 1-2 Keiji are found in a normal catch of 10,000 salmon. Normal salmon fat content is 2-15% but the Keiji has a very high body fat percentage at 20-30%.
**Tokishirazu are salmon swimming upstream at the beginning of summer. They are the same chum salmon found in the fall, but since they aren’t caught during the spawning season, the fish don’t have eggs or milt, and instead have a high-fat content. The name “Tokishirazu” stems from the fact that these fish are caught out of season, in summer and the name means ”ignorant of time”