November 16, 2019

Belly Up to the Raw Bar

An Angler's Primer on Sashimi, Sushi and Crudo

Written by Angelo Peluso

I grew up in a very ethnically diverse section of the Bronx. My base of childhood friends was somewhat a microcosm of the United Nations. As a result, I gained an early appreciation for different cultures and different foods. Add to that my upbringing in an Italian-American family where food was the social binding agent, and it was no surprise that my palate became somewhat refined at an early age. My paternal grandmother exerted the greatest influence over my appreciation for good cuisine and she was the guiding light for expanding my willingness to at least sample just about any food type. That predilection carried forward to adulthood. 

Like most anglers, I enjoy meals of fish and seafood. Yet I must admit that the first time I was introduced to raw fish in the form of Japanese sushi I was a bit hesitant to give it a try. Up to that point all the fish I had eaten had been cooked. But grandma's wisdom prevailed as did the tag line of that old 1970's TV commercial: "Try it, you'll like it." And like it I did, so much so that over time I have grown to make some variety of raw fish a staple food in my weekly diet. For many years my raw fish fix was satisfied by dining at Asian restaurants or from takeout. However, I had begun to develop a broader interest in raw fish preparation and about four years ago decided to try my hand at homemade sushi.  At first, the whole idea was a bit daunting but as with many other interests in my life I jumped in with both feet and learned as much as I could about the subject.  I sourced the Internet for history, techniques, recipes, how-to videos and even took a few cooking lessons. The net result is that I now prepare and consume my own sushi, sashimi and crudo on a regular basis.    

One of the early lessons I learned along this new path of culinary discovery was that there is a considerable misunderstanding about the consumption of raw fish and exactly what sushi is. Some classify all sliced, raw fish as sushi. That is absolutely incorrect.  Sushi is indeed made with raw fish or other seafood as a primary component. But that fish is placed atop a small molded bed of cooked and seasoned short-grain rice. The rice is typically seasoned with vinegar, salt and sugar or some sweetener substitute like Mirin. The combination of the sliced fish and rice are together referred to as Nigiri sushi. And slices of raw fish served alone without the rice accompaniment are considered sashimi. Taking this a step further, the Italian form of raw fish cuisine is known as crudo. Although crudo in many respects is similar to sashimi, it differs in that a sparing amount of olive oil and condiments are added to complement the flavor of the raw fish. Tartare and ceviche are also identified as raw fish preparations. Whether involved with sushi, sashimi or crudo, a wide variety of fish, shellfish, crustaceans and other seafood can be used as the principal ingredients. That said, sushi can also incorporate other food types in preparation and presentation. But sushi's identity is most closely aligned with fish.

Japanese sushi dates back to the 8th century when it was developed as a means to preserve fish in rice that had been lended with fermented vinegar. When it was time to consume the fish, the rice was discarded and the fish eaten. Eventually, someone figured out that the rice enhanced the flavor of the fish and as a result, the earliest form of sushi originated. Pressed sushi that was made in wooden presses followed as a form of " lunch box" food for workers, and over time that evolved into the popular and most recognizable Nigiri sushi that is enjoyed today. The most common fish species used in the preparation of raw cuisine are typically all of the saltwater variety. While many different species of fish and other seafood are prepared raw, some of the most familiar are bluefin and yellowfin tuna, mackerel, yellowtail, salmon; shrimp, squid, sea urchin, octopus, scallops, bonito and fluke. Other species of seafood are also used, with the chef's creativity as the only limitation. But one word of caution is to never eat freshwater fish raw since they carry the greatest risk of transmitting bacteria and parasites.  This leads to another misconception about consuming raw seafood that the best fish for sushi is the freshest fish. The fact of the matter is that "sushi grade" quality has less to do with freshness and more to do with the amount of freezing the fish undergoes. If fish is to be served in restaurants or sold in stores as "sushi grade" it has to have been previously frozen to kill parasites. To minimize the health risk associated with parasites the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recommended that at a minimum sushi-grade fish must be frozen for a at least one week at a temperature of minus 4 degrees. In many instances, fish are commercially frozen at much lower temperatures between minus 10 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  That level of freezing is well beyond what the average home refrigerator can achieve. Freezing fish to those temperatures requires heavy-duty commercial freezers. 

You may have noticed that when dining at a sushi restaurants or other establishments that serve raw fish the menu contains an asterisked FDA advisory that reads somewhat like this: Consuming raw or undercooked meats, fish, shellfish or fresh eggs may increase tour risk of foodborne illnesses, especially if you have certain medical conditions. These items contain raw or undercooked meat, shellfish or fish.The probabilities of encountering parasites in raw fish vary with the species. Ocean roaming pelagic species like those within the tuna family carry the least risk of parasites while inshore and other bottom-dwelling fish have higher risks. Shellfish like clams, oysters and scallops are eaten regularly at raw bars but can also come with some risk of bacterial infection. Anadromous species of fish like salmon and striped bass that spend some of their lives in saltwater and some spawn in freshwater also hold the potential risk of parasites.  The caveat for anyone who contemplates preparing and eating any form of raw fish at home is to make certain that the fish used has been previously frozen consistent with the recommendations of the FDA to kill any possible parasites, worms or bacteria. While the odds are in your favor for having very positive and enjoyable "sushi" experiences, it pays to be precautionary.   That is why one of the best sources for acquiring quality, sushi-grade fish is a reputable fishmonger. You want to find someone who will readily and reliably tell you that certain fish are or are not sushi grade.    

While choices of fish and other selected seafood are obviously an important element in the overall sushi-making process, the ability to make good rice is equally as important. In Japan, an apprentice sushi chef working under a master chef can spend years just learning to perfect rice. But fear not. Making a good batch of sushi rice is well within reach for the amateur angler chef. Whether you use a rice maker or use a pot filled with water, following a few simple guidelines can do wonders for your rice. It is best to use short-grain rice and to rinse it under cold water to remove excess starch. Wash the rice until the water runs clear.  A good rule of thumb is for cooking sushi rice is 1-1/2 cups of rice to 2 cups of water. Do the math up or down depending on how much rice you choose to make.  Once the rice is cooked mix in a combination of rice vinegar, sugar or mirin, and salt. The rice then takes on a tacky consistency and can then be molded into the form upon which the sliced fish is placed.

Proper handling of rod-caught fish will ensure freshness and suitability of fish that are destined for the table as sushi, sashimi or crudo. Fish like tuna, bonito and mackerel need to be bled immediately after being caught and then packed in ice. And remember the FDA guidance regarding the recommended standards of freezing fish before consumption.  When actually preparing fish for purposes of slicing try to limit the amount of handling time. The warmer the fish gets the more conducive the conditions are for bacteria to take hold. Always use a clean surface when filleting or slicing fish and wipe any bits of flesh from the cutting board. While it might be stating the obvious, never slice fish that are to be eaten on any surface used to cut bait, since that is an environment that supports the growth of bacteria.     

Once a quality piece of fish has been obtained there are a few other things the home chef needs to transform that fish into a delectable portion of sushi, sashimi or crudo. For starters, a sharp, quality knife is essential for appropriately slicing fish into the desired size and shape. The knife typically used by Japanese sushi chefs is a yanagiba, This willow leaf-shaped blade has a single beveled edged that enables the knife to efficiently slice through fish. Yet other knives can also be effective. A double-beveled chef's knife or slicing knife can also be used. Just make certain the knives are sharp, and always pull the blade through the slice rather than saw the fish as one would when slicing bread. Sashimi is typically sliced straight down while cuts for Nigiri sushi are done on an angled bias against the grain of the fish. And always be certain to exercise caution with sharp knives and pay attention to each cut that you make. Other items that the angler-chef might want to have in his or her kitchen are: a fillet knife; fish scaler; cutting board; bamboo rolling mat for sushi rolls; and a bowl for the sushi rice. 

As you become more advanced with preparing homemade sushi and other raw fish, other utensils and gadgets might be of interest. It also pays to read a good book or two about sushi preparation and recipes, and to check out some of the numerous Internet videos on the subject. Fishing and sushi are both addictive pursuits. Combine them and you'll broaden the pleasures of both your angling and dining experiences.