Originally a method for preserving fish by salting and fermenting between layers of rice, sushi has come a long way to become the jewelled and artful dish of today’s modern Japanese cuisine.
Much like the apprenticeship training of the sushi master, it wasn’t a quick journey. The first preserving method eventually developed into one of the earliest forms of fast food for the busy workers of the Edo period, before taking its place in the pantheon of Japanese high cuisine. But despite its long history, sushi didn’t really gain traction as an international cuisine until it found a foothold in California in the 1970s, giving birth to that popular handheld morsel, the California Roll.
Today, sushi is not only enjoyed internationally, but has also settled into a comfortable place in both the fast food and fine dining landscapes, bringing its development full circle and making the most of its varied history. With the rising tide of izakaya dining in Sydney, it’s now also taking its place as the latest incarnation of bar food.
The quality and style of sushi varies widely in Sydney. The expression sushi (though technically the collective name for vinegared rice topped with items that include seafood) often refers to Japanese cuisine that includes sushi, sashimi, tempura and some Japanese bar snacks in Sydney. But on the fishy front, what exactly should we be looking for when it comes to finding the best sushi and sashimi?
According to chef Kei Takamatsu of Erskineville’s Kuki Tanuki (and previously Azuma), for sashimi the fish or seafood item must be fresh, with good colour and no fishy odour, and the cut must be clean and accurate. With 25 years experience making sushi, he’s an authority on the matter.
Chef Jin Kung of Bondi’s newly opened PaperPlanes agrees. “The simple concept of good sushi is freshness and quality of ingredients used,” says Kung. “Fresh fish, seasonal vegetables, texture and flavour of sushi rice…but the most important thing is how the sushi chef handles, controls and combines all the different types of ingredients together and then present them to diners.”
It’s a theme echoed by Takamatsu, pointing out that he trained for several years in Tokyo at top Kaiseki restaurant, Tsurunoya, to earn his stripes. “It’s very important. Even the brightest sushi chefs take at least two to three years to train,” he says.
The intense training teaches the chefs to handle the seafood components with care and to create the perfect sushi rice. “Seafood cannot be too thin and not too thick,” says Takamatsu, “and it should not be roughly handled.”
For the rice you should be looking for short grain, with a good balance of sweet, salty and sour, served at body temperature. And of course presentation is key.
“The whole procedure of preparing sushi is like making a piece of artwork,” says Kung. “You have to be very careful at each step, it takes time to get things right and better, improving professional knowledge and skills day by day is the most fun part and keeps me interested in doing this. When the ‘artwork’ is done and presented to diners, I can see they are pleased and appreciate the efforts and love that I have put into my food, and at that moment I feel satisfied.”
And the best way to get the most out of your sushi once you have found it? “Know and understand what you are eating before you put it into your mouth!” says Kung. “Respect the sushi chef’s recommendation and the way the menu is designed. Simply said: don’t dip everything into soy sauce, because that could ruin the flavours and effort put into it.”
So no matter if it’s a simple hand-roll to go, a full steam ahead sushi train or a complex degustation, take some time to really look at what’s on your plate next time you go for sushi.
Here’s our pick of the best places to try your eye at picking great sushi: