You probably eat sushi all the time—in restaurants or as takeout, and you might even make it at home if you're ambitious—but how much do you really know about those little morsels? Whether you're addicted to nigiri, maki, sashimi, hand rolls or the endless other varieties that now fall under the "sushi" label, knowing what it's all about and how to eat it the right way will make it all the more delicious. Here, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, owner of Morimoto sushi spots around the world and author of Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking, shares fun facts about the sushi tradition with The Feast, as he prepares to open his latest restaurant in Las Vegas.
1. Authenticity is overrated
Just because a certain style of sushi isn't "authentic" doesn't mean it's not worth eating. Sushi in America is different from what you'll find in Japan, says Morimoto, and that’s how it should be. “It doesn’t have to be the same. Just like many other cultural elements, food travels from its birthplace to another part of the world. Then it evolves, changes and eventually sets down. I’m sure there are things we could learn from each other, but not to be a carbon copy,” says Morimoto.
2. At sushi restaurants in Japan, the price is often a mystery
When you eat sushi in Japan, you may not know how much it’s going to cost you. Says Morimoto, “When you go eat at sushi restaurants in Japan, especially at high-end ones, there is no price on the menu. And sometimes you’re expected to leave it all to the chef. In the U.S., on the other hand, the options are more explicitly presented to the guests, and they eat what they want in the manner they want.” That can even be the case at some "omakase" restaurants in the U.S. (where the chef is supposed to decide what to serve you and when). Whether Americans are just being cautious about money, or control-freakish, Morimoto isn't passing any judgments either way.
3. Sushi was once a street food
Sushi has a rep as an elite food: Flashback to Breakfast Club, when Molly Ringwald's character brings sushi to detention and proves what a princess she is. But that's ironic, since sushi was often consumed in the way we eat tacos or pretzels, off street vendors. That all changed after the giant Tokyo earthquake of the 1920s, which brought down the cost of real estate and led to sushi chefs opening store fronts. The first American sushi spot reportedly opened in the 1960s in Los Angeles, but sushi developed a bigger following stateside with the rise of the health food movement.
4. Chopsticks or hands are equally OK
Tradition dictates eating sushi with your hands, but chopsticks are acceptable too, says Morimoto. “There is beauty in the process of the sushi experience where it’s made by hands, served by hands, and eaten by hands, so go ahead and use your hands. But if you know how to elegantly eat with chopsticks, that’s fine too,” he says. For sashimi, however, Morimoto prefers chopsticks.
5. It takes years before sushi chefs are allowed to touch fish
It takes many years to properly learn the craft of sushi-making. Traditionally, a sushi apprentice may study for nearly decade, the first two years of which he or she is not even allowed to touch the fish. “Any person with a passion for it can become a sushi chef, but it’s not easy," chef Kaz Iimori of Blue Ribbon Sushi Restaurants tells The Feast. "The old-school way to become one is to work your way up from the bottom: You start out as a dishwasher and prep. This way takes at least eight years, in which the person will figure out the how, what and whens of becoming a chef. By the end of eight years, he or she can probably open his her own restaurant," says Iimori. Training is key, and as chefs begin to find ways to cut corners and not get the proper years of training, sushi restaurants can decline: That's why lack of training in sushi spots drives Morimoto crazy. “There is always room for individual improvement, but one of the most important must-dos is quality control and personnel training in quality control," he says, "because sushi is raw food."
6. Seasonal ingredients are crucial
“When we use ingredients that are in-season, it tastes much better. Japanese cuisine also uses seasonal ingredients to show how in touch it is with nature," says Iimori. In Japan, seasonal fish are often emphasized and coveted at sushi restaurants, along with other seasonal ingredients. The ingredient-centric focus is so important, Japan is full of restaurants (beyond sushi) that focus on just one ingredient, like mushrooms. “The restaurant concept that focuses on one food has a very good chance in the U.S.," says Morimoto. "It’s also a favorable business form in terms of loss control. If I get a chance, I want to try it too!”
7. But it's still all about the fish
Sure, you can find chicken tempura or pumpkin rolls, but sushi is generally synonymous with fish. Japan may be a small country but it has endless types of seafood, many of which are unknown to American diners. “Surrounded by the sea, there is a vast variety of fresh local seafood," says Morimoto. "They know how to catch, how to transport, how to sell and buy, and how to prepare them. I think Japan is the country that knows the most about how to eat fresh seafood.”
8. Cold rice will kill your sushi
“I would eat anywhere if I must,” Morimoto says. “But generally I don’t want to eat sushi that has been sitting in a sushi case or a refrigerator for a long time, like at an airport or a supermarket. When the sushi rice gets cold, it dries and loses its sweetness, killing the layers of taste of sushi.”
9. The less you know, the more exciting your meal can be
The best sushi restaurants, especially in Japan, often serve fish you may have never heard of, let alone tried before, including "fatty fish like nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch), kinmedai (golden-eye snapper)," and countless others, says Iimori. "There is also sushi that uses cured fish, through methods like kobujime and zuke; kobujime is where you salt and then wrap the fish in konbu (dried kelp), while zuke is when the fish is marinated in soy sauce," he notes. "It also depends on the chef’s creativity, on how they prepare your favorite fish, just for you," says Iimori. Morimoto says he loves shirako (cod sperm sacks) and fugu (pufferfish, which is often poisonous). Chefs must receive a special license to prepare fugu, and the emperor of Japan is forbidden from eating it because it’s so dangerous.
10. Sushi is a great gateway drug to Japanese cuisine
Sushi is one of the most artistic and world-famous forms of Japanese cuisine, and it can also serve as an excellent introduction to a food culture with dizzying variety—from the gorgeous kaiseki meals to the countless styles of ramen, to the wonders of perfectly prepared tempura, to soba, teppanyaki and beyond. Speaking of teppanyaki, generations of American diners first discovered it at Benihana, over a dinner in which a chef prepared food and displayed virtuosic knife skills on an iron griddle, often directly in front of the guests. This week, Morimoto will introduce to diners to his own posh version of teppanyaki, at his new Morimoto Las Vegas at MGM Grand, a restaurant that will be unlike any he's ever opened before. First of all, “it is different because it’s in Las Vegas, a one-of-a-kind city," says Morimoto. "The restaurant is special not only in its scale but also because it has my first teppan section," he adds. "I’m honored and thrilled to join in the city’s dining scene. How I can make gorgeous Las Vegas kinds of dishes out of the ingredients? That’s what I care about.
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