What is the ideal temperature for sushi toppings?

Tokyo Health Centers stipulate that refrigerated cases where sushi toppings are stored should be kept at 5℃ or lower. This is to maintain the temperature of the toppings at below 10°C at which point bacterial growth is slowed.

However, sushi chefs will remove the topping from the refrigerator and leave it standing out for a while (in the case of tuna, the fat will melt at around 23℃). They do this because if the topping is cold, it becomes difficult to taste the essential nature of the fish. The temperature of the shari is best at human skin temperature (around 36℃) to maximize the taste and sweetness of the rice. However, the ideal temperature differs very slightly depending on the topping.

For example, conger eel which is often lightly grilled or prepared in another, similar way, should have a slightly higher temperature (around 42℃) than the shari, and kuruma prawn, which are boiled, should be the same temperature as the shari.

Overseas, there are laws that state that sushi must be served at 10℃ or lower. This ignores that sushi is best enjoyed at skin temperature. Serving it straight out of the refrigerator makes it no better than purchasing takeout sushi from the supermarket.


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Revision date: November 18, 2019

What is Red Snapper the same as “Tai” (Sea Bream)?

In the United States, Sea Bream is often called a Red Snapper. However, strictly speaking, this is not correct.

Biologically, Snapper is a generic term for all species in the snapper family. Over 100 different species of snapper inhabit tropical coastal waters. Red snapper is mainly fished in the Gulf of Mexico.

So, what is the fish that Japanese sushi restaurants call “tai”?

They say there are over 300 different species of fish with “tai” in the name, making up 10% of Japan’s fish. When we say “tai” in Japanese, we are referring to “madai” or red sea bream. Red sea-bream is categorized in the “madai” (Pagrinae) subfamily.

Incidentally, relatives of the sea bream often served at sushi restaurants include red sea bream (madai), crimson sea bream (chidai) and yellowback sea bream (kidai). While “kinmedai” (Splendid alfonsino) and “amadai” (horsehead tilefish) have the name “tai/dai” in them, they are not part of the same family as “tai” (sea bream). Splendid alfonsino is a type of deep-sea fish.

Red sea bream and red snapper look similar, but when served as sushi, their texture and flavors are entirely different. So if you come to Japan, please try and eat natural red sea bream (madai). There is no “zatsumi” (overpowering bitterness) and it has a slight sweetness to it. This is the taste of sea bream, known as king of the white fish. Just for your own reference.


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Revision date: January 29, 2019

Why do we use the counter “kan” for sushi?

When you sit at the counter and order nigiri a la carte, they will come out in pairs.* There is nothing wrong with counting these in the regular Japanese way “ikko,” “niko.”

*It is said that nigiri-zushi in the Edo period was bigger than it is today, and too big to eat in one bite. In the Meiji period, the custom emerged of splitting this one big portion into two to make more easily consumed portions, and this is why it is common to get sushi in sets of two. However, nowadays making one piece of nigiri-zushi at a time is not very efficient. We think it’s actually easier for the sushi restaurant to make them in sets of two. Of course, you can order them one by one.

But the sushi restaurant won’t count them like that. Formally, sushi is counted in this way: Ikkan (one), Nikan (two).

We have absolutely no idea where the custom of using the “kan” counter came from. It’s also not clear when use of that counter for sushi started.

Of course, there are theories. For example, there is a theory that back at a time when a single unit of money was called “kan.” The price for one piece of sushi was around 1 ‘kan’, and the counting method gained popularity. There is another theory that one sushi roll was counted with the counter for roll “巻” (also pronounced “kan”), then a different kanji was used for it later. However, these are just theories that were created after the fact and the mystery remains unsolved.

Even if you ask the owner of a sushi restaurant, they’ll probably cock their head to one side, think for a moment, and tell you that the “kan” mystery may never be solved.

Sushi rolls wrapped in seaweed rolls are counted in units of 本 (hon/bon/pon) in the wrapped state, and when cut with a knife, the units change to 切れ (kire). While these units are fairly straight-forward for Japanese language speakers and easy to understand, only the enigmatic 貫 (kan) remains a mystery.


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Revision date: January 16, 2019

Do you know that there are rankings for negitoro (minced tuna)?

The original negitoro is made from medium fatty tuna or nakaochi* chopped up finely with a knife and then mixed with chopped green onions on top. But the tuna may be switched out with filler, leading to a variety in quality of the negitoro available.

First of all, the lowest in the ranking are the offcuts of tuna that can’t be made into sashimi (mainly Yellowfin or Albacore tuna) and this is mixed with vegetable oil and minced. The type of onion used is normally green onions. You can pick this type out because it will be whitish in color. This version is normally served at conveyor belt sushi.

The medium quality uses the nakaochi of cheap Albacore tuna or Swordfish.

High quality negitoro uses the nakaochi of Pacific bluefin tuna or Southern bluefin tuna. Sometimes the green onion sprout is then rolled up inside. If you have a chance to try negitoro in Japan, we recommend you try the top quality options without a doubt. One piece will probably cost around $15 USD. But that’s the price for the real thing!

Finally, let me introduce some negitoro trivia. There is a lot of flesh on the middle bone (spine) and the surrounding area for tuna and the like. This is called “nakaochi*”. Scraping the meat from this area surrounding the spine is known as “negitoru”, which is where the word “negitoro” comes from. In other words, the name “negitoro” is not actually from the words onion (negi) and tuna belly (toro).


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Revision date: January 8, 2019

What is Kakushiaji?

Kakushiaji refers to a technique where a single seasoning (For example, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, etc.) is added to a dish. The Kakushiaji contrasts with the finished dish’s flavor, and is added in an amount too small to notice when served. This produces a clear improvement in flavor.

Examples include adding a little salt to heighten sweetness, or adding a little vinegar to a simmered dish. Sometimes these combination of flavors can be quite surprising, like adding a touch of chocolate to a curry.


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Revision date: November 7, 2018

What is Umami?

Umami describes the delicious taste of savory flavor essences. For many years, people held to the belief that humans can taste only four basic flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter) unitil a japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda discovered a fifth flavor (glutamic acid) in the early 20th century.

The main umami ingredients are glutamic acid in seaweed, inosinic acid in dried bonito and meats, succinic acid in shellfish, guanylic acid in shiitake mushroom.

Many ingredients contain a wide variety of umami essences. In combination, they create a  synergistic effect which produces an even more potent savory flavor.


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Revision date: October 31, 2018

Is the handmade ginger in quality sushi restaurants free?

The ginger served in sushi restaurants is called “gari”. There are people who just chomp down the gari since it’s all free.

However, in certain prestigious restaurants where the gari is handmade, it does end up on the bill. This is because considering the time and ingredients that go into making the gari, the restaurant will be losing money if they don’t charge for it.

 

However, most sushi restaurants purchase their gari from companies that specialize in it. These mostly include pickling manufactures that have expanded to China or Southeast Asia and have factories there.

When made at these factories, large amounts of ginger is soaked in the stock solution, creating gari in bulk. The quality has improved greatly over the years, but often the fibers are crushed making it soggy, or the gari is stained from ume vinegar.

On the other hand, homemade gari and gari made in Japan is flavored with vinegar and salt while sugar is used sparingly as a subtle flavoring. Handmade gari is crunchy and chewy. The color is also the original pale yellow of ginger.

And during the fresh ginger season at the beginning of summer the price of fresh, domestic ginger jumps up to thousands of yen per kilogram. Since ginger has a high water content, it can be wrung out to reduce 1kg of ginger down to 300g. Making delicious gari by hand costs money. It is also a daunting task of making a year’s worth in advance. Once it’s done there has to be a refrigerator dedicated to storing only the gari.

When you put it that way, homemade gari is far more expensive than its imported equivalent. Providing homemade gari is one of the things that sets sushi restaurants apart from each other. Of course even if you’re not charged for the gari, eating too much will affect your sense of taste for the meal.


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Revision date: October 8, 2018

What is the difference between “鮨,” “鮓” and “寿司” (all ready “Sushi”). Most Japanese people don’t know the answer to this question.

As far as I know, there are three ways “sushi” is written on sushi restaurant curtains in Japanese kanji characters: 鮨, 鮓 and 寿司. Do you know the difference?

Broadly, in the Kanto area 鮨 is generally used while 鮓 is more common in Kansai. 寿司 is used commonly everywhere in Japan.

However, of the three, only 鮨 and 鮓 are seen in ancient Chinese literature. 鮨 was seen as a dictionary entry as early as the 5th to 3rd centuries B.C., and it’s origin is described as combining “fish” and “shiokara” (briny flavor) resulting in the term 鮨.

On the other hand, in A.D. 1st to 2nd century dictionaries, “鮓” appeared, and is explained to depict “a storage container for fish.” Toward the end of the second century 鮓 was used for the term “narezushi”.

But around the third century, the briny meaning of 鮨 and the term “narezushi*” written as 鮓 started to be used interchangeably. That is how the words were imported to Japan.

In Japan, the character “鮓” was often used in literature from the end of the Heian era to the end of the Edo era. Eventually the use of “鮨” was revived during the Meiji era (for unknown reasons). It was a natural transition that Kanto came to use “鮨” and Kansai came to use “鮓”.

Incidentally, the kanji “寿司” was created from the phonetics. Its use for celebratory occasions became commonplace throughout Japan.

*”Narezushi” is the primitive version of Japanese sushi. It means covering seafood with salt and then soaking in rice for a few years as a form of lactic acid fermentation, which brings out the acidity.


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Revision date: September 24, 2018

Do you know the difference between “Nami (並)” “Jo (上)” and “Tokujo (特上)”? Of course you know that Tokujo is the best deal when you order, right?

When you go into a sushi restaurant and look at the menu, you’ll see the terms “Nami (並)” “Jo (上)” and “Tokujo (特上). Japanese people know from the kanji that “Tokujo” is the best, but generally they don’t know what the specific differences are.

Today I’ll explain what each set consists of. If you order “Nami” for one person, this is the typical course:

Tuna Akami: 1 pc. Salmon: 1 pc. Shiromi (white fish): 1 pc. Silver-finned fish such as mackerel: 1 pc. Raw squid: 1 pc. Octopus: 1 pc. Egg: 1 pc.
That’s 7 nigiri pieces and there might be 4 cuts or so of dried gourd or cucumber rolls. To be more specific, the white fish may be different each day, depending on what the restaurant has. The silver-finned fish is also often changed to something like Kohada. The octopus will have been frozen. If the course includes shrimp, it will always be a giant tiger prawn.

If you’re a bit more adventurous and go for the “Jo” course, you’ll be served 9 pieces of nigiri sushi. Fatty tuna (chu-toro) is added to the lineup, which means that with the Akami that’s two of the most popular toppings. But you won’t get the salmon. Depending on the season you may be served bonito. The shrimp may be changed to sweet shrimp. Salmon roe will also be added, making the set more colorful. The thin rolls are changed to salmon roles.

When you upgrade to the “Tokujo” set it will include conger, which takes time to prepare, and the white fish will be top class flounder or sea bream. You will also be served more delicious parts of the tuna. The higher cost means you will get higher quality sushi, which is represented by the prawns and sea urchin. The egg nigiri is upgraded to a thick egg omelet and it will also include something like a blood clam. All this will go into 10 beautiful nigiri pieces and rolls worthy of an Instagram pic.

The price of “Jo” is twice that of “Nami”. So “Tokujo” at triple the price is really an excellent deal. Considering the value of the toppings, the price is unbeatable. The “Nami” set is made up of toppings in the “Nigemono” category (Nigemono includes squid, kohada, octopus and egg toppings). To put it bluntly, this set only includes toppings that are cheap and have a variety of uses.

Psychologically people tend to choose the average, so when presented with “Nami” “Jo” and “Tokujo,” an overwhelmingly large percentage of people choose “Jo.” “Tokujo” is a bit expensive, but you came to eat sushi so “Nami” isn’t going to cut it. You select “Jo,” right in the middle so you won’t be judged. The people running these restaurants know this well and they set items they want to sell the most at the “Jo” price. The items they want to sell the most are those with the best profit margins, so usually these are in the “Jo” set. This is exactly what the restaurant wants.

However, they can’t do that for the “Tokujo” set. “Tokujo” is the pride of the restaurant and they want to preserve the quality. Even if they change the type of topping, it will be a topping worthy of “Tokujo”. They don’t want to serve their most expensive dishes and have a disappointed customer.

So if you’re going to pay for sushi anyway, it’s better to pay just a little bit more for the “Tokujo” course.


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Revision date: September 17, 2018

Assessing Fish at the fish market!

One important task of sushi chefs is going to Tsukiji (Toyosu) every morning, looking at fish with their own eyes and assessing the quality. Having a good eye is important in order to get the highest quality possible, but this is cultivated by experience. They are also constantly obtaining information from the fishmongers at the market regarding what the best fish of the season and their localities. It’s almost a game as to whether they can get high-quality fish at the optimum price everyday. The skills of a sushi chef start with this assessment.


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Revision date: September 11, 2018

About a conger eel, there are two way to make sushi, “skin-up ” and “skin-down”. Do you know the difference?

The naval (actually the anus) in the middle of the body serves as the border separating the head part (top) and tail part (bottom) of the eel. The fat is distributed better on the top. People used to say that since the bottom moves more it is more tasty, but is this really true?

It’s also often said, “the top should be served skin-up and the bottom should be served skin-down.”

Skin-up means that the skin side is on top and the meaty side is on the rice.

Skin-down means that the meaty side is facing up and the skin side is on the rice.

Conger eel easily melts apart when it is boiled and broth enters the part where it separates, so the appearance is not as appealing. But unless the crack is extremely obvious, both the top and bottom of the conger eel is often prepared skin-down in sushi.


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Revision date: August 27, 2018

Tuna is allowed to rest before it is used.

Once a bluefin tuna is caught, it arrives in Tsukiji fish market within a day or two. However, that fish is not used as a sushi topping that day. No mater how good the tuna is, it starts out very stiff and is not in a state where it should be eaten. The meat is hard and the white muscle lines are left in your mouth. The odor and acidic taste of the red meat is strong and the unique sweetness of the fish is nowhere to be found. After it has rested the muscles soften, bringing out the fat.

Then, when the sushi chef gets the tuna, he first separates the red, lean meat and the fatty toro portion, rewraps them separately and, seals them in plastic and puts them on ice. Next is waiting for the “young” meat, not yet suitable for eating, to mature. The number of days the fish will be rested depends on the size of the fish and the temperature. The smaller the cut and the warmer the temperature, the shorter the rest time. Generally the time is from 3-14 days.

This “young” fish not ready for consumption is a fresh, deep color but as it matures the color darkens, the fat is brought out and becomes a fleshy color. Proper care must be taken because if it’s rested for too long, the color changes too quickly.


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Revision date: August 13, 2018

Why do most sushi restaurants have 8 seats at the counter?

At sushi restaurants, only the master chef makes the sushi. Depending on the shop, the apprentices don’t even touch the knives. The texture of a fish changes greatly with the way a fish is cut, drastically affecting the workmanship of the sushi. There is a clear difference in taste when the master makes a piece of sushi from when the apprentice does. It is also commonly thought that a sushi chef can only take care of about 8 customers at once while he is also preparing pieces of sushi, so most counters have around 8 seats.


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Revision date: August 6, 2018

Why can’t Pacific saury be caught?

On the Pacific Ocean side of Japan there is a three-way deadlock between sardines, mackerel and Pacific saury. There is a theory that the species take turns with increasing and decreasing populations. In recent years there has been an increase in sardines and, in turn, there has been a decline in Pacific saury.


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Revision date: July 30, 2018

What is the difference between maturing and rotting?

When fish die, stopping the supply of ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), the source of muscle energy, the muscle fibers gradually harden. As time passes, it gently dissolves and the ATP breaks down, changing into umami components due to self-digestion. The umami created by self-digestion of ATP is “maturing” and the process after that is “rotting.”


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Revision date: July 23, 2018