There is a certain, inconspicuous sex appeal to sushi. A perfect slice of raw unadulterated fish poised eloquently on top of glossy plump rice, secured in place with a dollop of wasabi, all of it embraced by a single band of nori. This is Nigiri sushi in its ultimate form. The fish, subtle in flavor true to the nature of Japanese cuisine, is robust in texture, like velvet on the tongue. Smooth, delicate, remarkably fresh, and intensely raw.

In Japan, the word sushi refers to a broad range of food prepared with sumeshi, vinegared rice. Here we use it as a more general term to describe a type of food, like Thai or Italian, as we rarely say Japanese but rather Sushi. Regardless of terminology, if someone recommends going for sushi jump on the offer because you will be in for a culinary experience of the freshest ingredients combined to produce a feast for the eyes as much as for the palate. If the raw fish component has you running in the other direction for Italian, there are a few sure fire ways to ease you into it, a Fisher-Price approach for your first sushi experience.

The best place to sit is at the sushi bar, watching the sushi chef perform. Seemingly less intimate or private than a table, it is entertaining and provides you with an opportunity to interact directly with the chef. If you sit at the sushi bar at Restaurant Miso in Montreal, Chef Van Ha will be the one asking you a few questions to gage your level of comfort with sushi. As a number of experienced sushi patrons pass through his restaurant, he is often given carte blanche to put his creative side to work, producing original and unique platters of sushi. For a sushi chef, there are no changes to form and preparation of sushi once the standard repertoire is mastered. The sushi chef has creative license to experiment with ingredients and Chef Ha certainly does so with his menu. It contains interesting and unique combinations showcasing his drive and devotion to this art. With so many ideas Chef Ha says he could create a new Maki everyday but opts to stick with introducing two new Maki as weekly specials so that his customers get comfortable with the menu.

If you can’t find an experienced sushi connoisseur to dine with, don’t shy away because you don’t understand all aspects of a sushi menu. The ingredients are decoded for you, such as Ebi: shrimp or Unagi: fresh water eel and so on and the sushi chef is amiable in assisting you. It is important to be aware of the different types of sushi before you order, considering the “raw” factor, these are listed from most to least:

Sashimi: means “raw” in Japanese. Sashimi is an assortment of fish and seafood, sliced and served with dipping sauces and accompaniments that enhance the flavors of the fish. This is the best way to experience the full, natural flavor and texture of fish in season.

Nigiri: means “squeeze” in Japanese. Bite size pieces of fish or seafood and small balls of sushi rice are gently “squeezed” together, the fish or seafood sitting on top of the rice, sometimes secured with a dollop of wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and/or a band of nori (seaweed). Depending on the type of Nigiri, the fish or seafood can be raw or cooked.

Maki, Futomaki and Temaki: are thin sushi rolls, thick sushi rolls, and handrolls, respectively. All three types are made by wrapping sushi rice and ingredients in nori, which forms the outside of the roll. For thin sushi rolls, usually only one type of ingredient, such as avocado or cucumber, is used. The thick sushi rolls are where the creativity and in my opinion, the fun starts because they can consist of countless combinations of ingredients and flavors. The hand-rolled cones of nori, Temaki, are filled with sushi rice and a variety of ingredients and often reflect what is in a Futomaki roll but is usually more of a one-person indulgence.

Not typically eaten in Japan, the inside-out roll has the sushi rice on the outside of the nori. Other interesting “wrappers” include a thin omelette usually formed tightly around the nori. Chef Ha is making his Futomaki rolls using soy paper as a wrapper. This started a few years ago and is gaining in popularity because the paper is sweet, delicate, colorful, and a great compliment for spicy fish, not to mention a great change-up from the nori.

Gunkan: also known as battleship sushi. Any semi-liquid ingredients such as sea urchin or salmon roe will not stay on top of the rice unaided, so it is necessary to wrap the whole sushi with nori sheets to hold it together.

Chirashi: means “scattered” in Japanese. This is a great one-dish meal in which a bowl is filled with sushi rice and the ingredients, either sashimi or those found in the various Maki rolls, are scattered decoratively over the rice.

Fear not, you are making progress. Having mastered the types of sushi, you can now order using the sheet of paper that came with the menu when you first sat down. It lists the various types of sushi and ordering is as simple as marking your selections. If you are airing on the cautious side, I recommend ordering a few Nigiri that contain cooked fish, and a variety of maki rolls containing vegetables, omelette, cooked fish, and tempura seafood combinations to get you started. Select Nigiri with smoked salmon, shrimp (Ebi – the shrimp is cooked), omelette, and eel (Unagi – the eel is cooked and lightly brushed with a delectable Kabayaki sauce (a combination of mirin, soy sauce, and sugar); Maki with cucumber, omelette, shiitake, or avocado; and Futomaki containing soft shell crab (Spider), tempura shrimp (Dynamite), or crab stick (California), or a vegetable Maki. The Spider, Dynamite and California rolls or some derivative of, are popular sushi found on nearly every sushi menu and depending on the restaurant there will also be other ingredient combinations in Futomaki that do not contain raw fish. If you are ready to venture just a bit, try a spicy salmon or spicy tuna Maki or a Futomaki containing either of these in its combination.

A set of chopsticks, a rectangular plate, and a small rectangular vessel nearly representing a bowl, are placed in front of you after you order. Before the platter arrives on the table, you need to be aware of proper sushi etiquette. Your sushi platter will contain, along with your sushi selections artfully and colorfully arranged, pickled ginger (pink or white) and wasabi (that bright green lump is potent Japanese horseradish that can clear all your nasal passages so use sparingly but you will find it addictive) and on your table will be a bottle of soy sauce or shoyu. The rectangular plate is for the pieces of sushi you choose from the main platter, the small bowl vessel is for your soy sauce, and the chopsticks are optional.

Sushi started as finger food and it is still ideal to eat it with your hands. For Nigiri, pick it up, dip it fish side down into the soy, so that the rice does not soak up the soy as that will dramatically change the flavor from delicate fish to just salty soy sauce, and place it on your tongue fish side down so it meets the taste buds. A small bit of wasabi can be placed on the fish before you dip it (this is best executed with the tip of your chopsticks) and although this is personal choice and the cause for much debate, do not dissolve your wasabi into your little vessel of soy sauce because you will drown every single piece of sushi from here on out in the flavor of wasabi.

For Maki sushi, resist dipping the entire piece face down into the soy sauce, dip only a corner of the nori (you can put wasabi on the Maki before dipping as well). Before eating a piece of sushi, eat a piece of the pickled ginger to cleanse the palate, have a sip of tea, and then eat your next piece. It is traditional to drink Japanese green tea with sushi, as it removes the oiliness after eating fish and prepares the palate for the next piece. Light Japanese beer is a natural companion, as is sake (chilled and warm is another debate), and some delicately flavored white wines will also balance well, enhancing and complementing the flavors of the sushi.

There is no real guideline to the order in which to eat sushi, however in Japan sashimi is typically served as an appetizer and the sushi as the main course. If you are eating at the sushi bar, the chef can not only recommend the freshest and best sushi but he can serve them in the appropriate order.

Finding a good sushi restaurant is paramount. Sushi restaurants should be using and selling only the highest quality freshest fish, prepared only upon order, but there is a cost to sourcing and providing it to their customers. Sushi is not necessarily a cheap ride but a thrilling one. Sure all you can eat sushi, sushi buffets, or supermarket sushi do deliver sushi at a value but keep in mind this often comes at the expense of quality.

Both word of mouth and restaurant reviews will lead you to the better or best sushi restaurants. When they exist, people know about them - take Nobu (world renowned yes, and in New York I know). In Canada, people most often mention Tojo’s in Vancouver and quite frankly there is a handful of amazing sushi restaurants in our fair city on the pacific coast and for good reason, the ocean!

What defines a great sushi restaurant:

  1. The fish has to be extremely fresh. I mean just off the boat, melt in your mouth fresh. Ask the sushi chef when the fish was flown in or received at the restaurant. Chef Van Ha always welcomes this question from customers because it shows his confidence in the freshness of the fish. For those landlocked locations in the Prairie Provinces it is especially important to investigate first.
  2. The rice, almost more important than the fish, may be the most basic element, but rice that is not short-grain, high-starch, glossy, plump and flavored in perfectly subtle fashion with rice vinegar, salt and sugar (sometimes mirin), is just not sushi rice worthy of the fish, plain and simple. Take my word for, a trip to a restaurant with less than perfectly seasoned rice and you will detect it immediately, the entire piece will have a completely different flavor and texture and unfortunately that sushi experience will fall flat on its fin! Think about it, the most naked food is going on here, and there is nowhere to hide, not under a sauce or behind a vegetable. Traditionally, two years of apprenticeship in Japan is spent just on the rice.
  3. How tightly is the Maki rolled, are the end pieces trimmed to look like the rest of the roll, and how precise are those cuts? I am far from an anal person, but when you pick up a piece of Futomaki and it all starts to unravel from platter to soy or from soy to your mouth, then it just isn’t all working together anymore to give me the balance of flavors and textures the sushi chef intended when he created the combination in the first place. And besides that, it is just plain sloppy to have the remnants of the ingredients that should be snuggly tucked inside hanging out two of the six pieces (unless it is the claws of the soft-shell crab or a the tail of a tempura shrimp).
  4. The originality of the Futomaki. As you gain experience you are going to drop that California roll in a flash and start looking for something with more pizzazz. Put me down for a Manhattan from Miso – lobster, snow crab, scallop, shrimp, avocado, cucumber, massago, lemon, and spicy sauce or the Chef Spicy Tuna – Flash fried tuna tempura, grilled asparagus, onion, Jalapeno massago and spicy sauce. I think you get the picture.

Make sushi at home with a group of friends, rolling, noshing, and sipping sake. It is usually best to make sushi serving 4 people or more, as you can invest in ingredients to provide a good variety of Sashimi, Nigiri, and Maki on the platter. I suggest buying a book, consulting the web (at a minimum), or taking a sushi class for some preliminary instructions to making sushi, starting with proper seasoning of the rice. I took a four-hour class offered at Miyamoto's Japanese Cooking School in Montreal and not only did I learn a lot about sushi I also came home with enough self-made great tasting sushi for dinner, a rolling mat, and a bottle of shoyu.

Time to sushi
Vancouver – Octopus’s Garden; Tojo’s
Edmonton – Yokozuna; Nagano; Kobe
Calgary – Hana Sushi; Kyoto 17
Banff – Sukiyaki House
Toronto – Takesushi; Sushi Kaji; Zen
Oakville – Mye Restaurant
Ottawa – Kinki
Montreal – Miso; Bishouku; Treehouse; EstAsie

Sushi resources
The Complete Book of Sushi, Hideo Dekura
Sushi (from The Essential Kitchen Series), Ryuichi Yoshii

Sushi classes

VancouverCookschool at the Cookshop

CalgaryChinook Learning Services

TorontoLCBO Events & Courses

My Place for Dinner

Great Cooks

Ottawa - Bento Sushi Japanese Restaurant Sushi course

Montreal – Miyamoto's Japanese Cooking School, Miyamoto Foods, 382 Victoria Ave., Westmount. Call (514) 481-1952

Regina - Savour Life

While in Montreal, drop by my favorite sushi restaurant:

Restuarant Miso

4000 St. Catherine West (514) 908-6476