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Sushi 101

If temaki is still as foreign to you as Tokyo, read on. We tell you all about raw fish and rolls, seaweed and sashimi — everything you need to know to become a sushi sophisticate

By: Laura Facchin
Sushi 101
Photographs by Jennifer May

It’s hardly news that sushi restaurants are popping up all over the place: Sushi has dominated the dining scene for the hip and the happening for more than a decade now. Although our local sushi joints may not be quite as adventurous as some over-the-top Manhattan meccas (here in the Valley, you don’t often see live crabs wiggling around your plate), our region does offer a wide variety of world-class sushi dining options.

Still, if you’re like us, you may find that — while you often crave a California roll or some other sushi something — you’re not always entirely sure what you’re chowing down on when you sidle up to the sushi bar. Or maybe you never really learned the proper way to deal with your little mound of wasabi. And what exactly is wasabi, anyway? Here, we fill you in on all the basics and background, including sushi bar etiquette, and give you lots of tips to enhance your future sushi experiences. Get your chopsticks ready!

 

Next: Sushi basics »

 

Did you know...?

The Hudson Valley is jam-packed with great sushi joints! Dig in to our Web Exclusive, “Ready to Roll,” to find out where they are.

 

 

The Basics

Maki sushi rolls

Maki:

This popular form of sushi is what many people first think of when hearing the word “sushi.” Maki, or “rolled,” sushi consists of fish and/or vegetables rolled in rice and seaweed. The roll is cut into eight pieces before serving. Diners have the choice of cooked or uncooked maki; the popular California roll (crab, avocado, and cucumber) is an example of cooked maki. The shrimp tempura (deep-fried shrimp) roll is another frequent choice among first-timers. Kerry Hannifan, general manager of Middletown’s Blue Finn Grill and Sushi, highly suggests cooked sushi for newbies. “We usually like to start people off with something that’s cooked, because raw fish makes some people pretty leery,” he says. “Our Volcano roll (a deep-fried roll with shrimp, cream cheese, and Japanese pickles) is a good way to lead people to other types, since everything is cooked and it’s kind of a comfort food.” Popular uncooked rolls include the Spicy Tuna roll (mild tuna, spicy mayo, and avocado) and the Philly roll (smoked salmon and cream cheese).
 

Nigiri sushi

Nigiri:

Most often served in pairs, this common form of sushi consists of an oblong mound of rice pressed loosely between the hands and topped with a slice of fish. Some types of fish, such as eel, may be bound to the rice with a thin strip of nori, or edible seaweed. A small pearl of wasabi is often placed between the rice and the fish. Popular forms of nigiri include ebi (boiled shrimp) and yellowtail or albacore tuna, which are milder than others. The more adventurous may want to try octopus or squid.
 

Temaki sushi

Temaki:

Meaning “hand rolls,” temaki is a cone-shaped piece of nori filled with sushi rice, fish, and vegetables. Many find the taste very similar to that of maki. Temaki must be eaten fairly quickly: the moisture in the filling causes the nori cone to lose its crispness.
 

Sashimi sushi

Sashimi:

Typically the highest quality fish that you can get off the menu, sashimi is raw fish served sliced, and as-is — no vegetables or sauces added. Sashimi can also be served atop a bowl of rice (known as chirashi sushi). Hannifan suggests that sushi newbies try sashimi menu items that end in “tataki,” meaning “seared.” This technique of lightly cooking the fish makes it slightly firmer, adds a grilled flavor, and takes away some of the raw texture that makes many people shy away from this flavorful choice.

"A Sushi Primer" logo


TUNA
Served uncooked; popular with those
new to sushi

Tuna sushiYellowtail sushi

► YELLOWTAIL
Related to pompano;
rich but mild flavor

FLUKE
This flounder-type fish has a mild but sweet taste

Fluke sushiSalmon sushi

SALMON
Smoked salmon with cream cheese is a
popular roll

BBQ EEL
Used for nigiri; the fish
is based with teriyaki
sauce

BBQ Eel sushi"Rock & Roll" signature sushi roll by Amici Chef Makio Idesako

ROCK & ROLL
Sushi Chef Makio  Idesako’s specialty roll features caviar

 

 

Next: Sushi Q&A »

 

Did you know...?

The Hudson Valley is jam-packed with great sushi joints! Dig in to our Web Exclusive, “Ready to Roll,” to find out where they are.

 

 

Sushi Q&A
 

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

What does the word “sushi” mean?
You may be surprised to find that the word “sushi” doesn’t mean raw fish; it is an outdated Japanese term that literally means “it’s sour.” It refers to vinegared rice, commonly topped or mixed with fish or vegetables. Over 600 years ago, rice and raw fish were fermented together to create what is now known as narezushi. In later years sushi chefs added vinegar to the rice to increase the dish’s sourness. The recipes evolved to become what we know as sushi today, but some restaurants in Japan still serve forms of the original narezushi.
 

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

Where does sushi as we know it today come from?
During the 19th century, a Japanese chef named Hanaya Yohei decided to create an alternative version that could be eaten on the go with little mess — a sort of “fast food” form of the original. Since the fermenting process took a while, he developed a fresh fish and rice dish that became quite popular. It was originally called Edomae sushi because it was made with fresh fish caught from the Edo-mae (Tokyo Bay). Some traditionalists still insist on using the term for modern-day sushi.
 

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, so am I out of luck when it comes to sushi?
No. Certain types of sushi do not use fish as an ingredient at all; Inari typically is made up of only rice and tofu. You can also ask for temaki or maki without fish. Some popular vegetarian maki include umeshiso (salted plum and basil), oshinko (pickle), avocado, cucumber, or asparagus rolls.
 

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

What is that spicy, gritty-looking mound of green paste on my sushi plate?
It’s wasabi, of course! Real wasabi is the grated above-ground root of the wasabi plant, a small leafy sprout native to Japan. The paste that results is a highly sought-after culinary ingredient and is used in only the most elite Japanese sushi bars and restaurants. Most sushi joints here in the U.S. use an imitation wasabi mustard from Japan that consists of horseradish and mustard powder and is dyed green.
 

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

Is it true that certain types of sushi can kill you?
One type of sushi, fugu, that has been named the deadliest food in the world. Fugu is the meat of the blowfish, those little sea creatures that puff up when frightened. The organs and roe of the fish contain deadly toxins that, when ingested, cause paralysis at best and death at worst. (You might remember the famous Simpsons episode in which Homer goes through an existential examination of his life after downing a fugu meal.) Japanese chefs train for seven years before becoming licensed to prepare the deadly dish, since the smallest twitch of the wrist can cause the toxins to leak into the meat. “Fugu is thought to be one of the most delicious fish,” says Makio Idesako of Amici Sushi in High Falls. “The people who die from it are usually those who want to try to get high from tasting the liver.” (In minuscule portions the poisons in the liver cause numbness in the lips and a floating feeling; this high is occasionally not lethal, but in many cases is followed by respiratory failure.) Even though dozens of people die from ill-prepared fugu dishes each year, fugu is becoming more and more common in Japanese homes and supermarkets. As far as finding fugu in this country, about 10 restaurants in New York City are licensed to serve it. Who’d think that such a cute little fish could be such a killer?
 

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

Why do I rarely see women working as sushi chefs?
Traditionally, women could not become sushi chefs because their hands were thought to be warmer than a man’s. It’s important to have very cold hands when making sushi because rice sticks to warm fingers. A cold-water tap often runs near the sushi bar so that chefs can rinse their hands. Today, many women are training to become sushi chefs.

 

Next: How to be sushi-savvy »

 

Did you know...?

The Hudson Valley is jam-packed with great sushi joints! Dig in to our Web Exclusive, “Ready to Roll,” to find out where they are.

 

 

Sushi Bar Etiquette

So you’ve just seated yourself at a sushi bar and are all ready to dig in. If you’re confused about what to do next, then read on:
 

illustration of a hand holding red chopsticks

If you’re handed a hot towel, use it to wipe your hands and fold it again neatly, leaving it next to you in case your fingers get sticky. Pour a bit of soy sauce into the small dish found at your place, and — if you’re into a little spice — mix in a bit of wasabi with your chopsticks. “We do not usually mix wasabi in with the soy sauce in Japan,” says Idesako. “But this is America — here you can do whatever you like.”
 

illustration of a hand holding red chopsticks

The itamae (sushi chef) behind the bar only handles sushi, so if you’d like soup or salad with your meal, ask the waitress.
 

illustration of a hand holding red chopsticks

The soy sauce in your dish is great for dipping, but diners often soak up a little too much and are left with an overly salty surprise. To avoid this, dip your sushi fish-side down; the rice soaks up sauce like a sponge. The pale pink or white pickled ginger slices on your plate are perfect for cleansing your palate: eat just a small piece after sampling different types of sushi so your next bite will be just as flavorful as the last.
 

illustration of a hand holding red chopsticks

Chopsticks or your good old fingers? Eat maki, temaki, and nigiri with your fingers; use chopsticks for sashimi, inari, and chirashi. Rolled sushi and nigiri easily fall to pieces otherwise, and you don’t want a mess on your hands. Although sushi is typically eaten in one bite, it’s perfectly acceptable to take two bites if you think the piece is too large.
 

illustration of a hand holding red chopsticks

Always tip the itamae separately from the waitress, but never hand over the money directly. An itamae is trained to only touch the knife, towel, rice, and fish. Leave the tip on the table in front of you.

 

Next: Our favorite Valley sushi bar (it's closer to you than you think!) »

 

Did you know...?

The Hudson Valley is jam-packed with great sushi joints! Dig in to our Web Exclusive, “Ready to Roll,” to find out where they are.

 

 

Interior of Amici's Sushi BarMaster chef: Makio Idesako goes to work preparing what some are calling the freshest sushi this side of Manhattan

Amici Sushi

A hidden gem in High Falls serves up the real deal
 

It was 2005 and Makio Idesako had just closed up his Japanese restaurant in Mamaroneck after a very successful 16-year run. Satsuma-Ya had quickly become a popular neighborhood joint where regulars (who called Idesako “Mike”) raved about the freshest fish in town, creative culinary plates, and the welcoming reception from the bubbly Idesako and his family. But Idesako was looking forward to retirement. Then came the phone call from his friend John Novi, chef and proprietor at the DePuy Canal House in High Falls. “He wanted to add a sushi restaurant to the Canal House, and I was the first person he thought of,” says Idesako. So much for retirement. Two years later, the Amici Sushi Restaurant at the Canal House opened for business.

To say the locals were intrigued would be an understatement. Sushi — that modern must-have for the oh-so-hip — served up in the basement of a famous old stone colonial home? The DePuy Canal House was renowned for its old-world style and fine dining. How would the two mix? Apparently, just like sushi and sake. Within weeks, the word was out: for the freshest, most authentic sushi fix this side of Manhattan, stop by this hidden gem.

Exposed wooden beams and antique lanterns add to the rustic charm of Amici’s sushi bar, which seats four people in front of the chef’s station. Minimalist track lighting and a traditional countertop add a touch of modern style to the space. But perhaps the restaurant’s most delightful detail is Idesako himself, whose warm smile and chatty manner draw diners to the bar the minute they walk through the door.

Trained in Satsuma and Tokyo, Japan, Idesako came to New York in 1972 to perfect his craft and work towards opening his own restaurant. (Talk about motivation: As a young man in the city, he often played baseball in Central Park with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.) Armed with 10 years of training, Idesako worked as a sushi chef at Tokubei 86 and the famed French-Japanese fusion restaurant Cafe Seiyoken in Manhattan before moving to Westchester to open his own spot.

Idesako believes that his Japanese background and extensive training help set Amici apart from other Valley sushi joints, many of which are actually run by Chinese or Korean proprietors. “Presentation is the most important part of preparing sushi,” he says. “In Japan, presentation is important in all things, shown in Ikebana, the Japanese art of arranging flowers. You want to make the sushi too pretty too eat, but delicious when it touches your lips.”

(Continued on next page)

 

Did you know...?

The Hudson Valley is jam-packed with great sushi joints! Dig in to our Web Exclusive, “Ready to Roll,” to find out where they are.

 

 

Amici's asparagus rollsA plethora of vegetarian options, like these asparagus rolls, make sure there is something for everyone

Idesako created Amici’s menu with both presentation and flavor in mind; choices include a wide variety of fresh fish nigiri and sashimi, shumai appetizers, and mixed seaweed salad. His most requested items are his specialty rolls: from vegetarian to shrimp tempura to his signature “Rock and Roll” (a mixture of tuna, yellowtail, and salmon topped with avocado slices and caviar). “People order a lot of the rolls because they’re familiar with them,” he says. “They also like to try the new versions that I come up with; I’m always trying create new varieties.”

One sushi aficionado from New Paltz, on her first visit to Amici in January, had nothing but praise for the food. “There was no sliminess to the fish whatsoever,” she remarked. “For the first time ever, I could distinguish the individual flavor of each fish; it was so pure.” She went on to rave about the Rock and Roll and the oversized Veggie Delight Roll: “It was huge. I mean huge. It has avocado and cucumber and asparagus, but it also has this amazing cooked squash.”

A more adventurous favorite is the Omekase, or “chef’s choice,” dinner. Idesako chooses a full five- or six-course dinner, served only at the sushi bar. “I will select the freshest choices and best combinations for these dinners,” he says. “It’s always nice to surprise people and let them try new things.” Easing into new territory is something that the chef wants to help the locals to do. Valleyites are much less adventurous, Idesako says, than the Manhattan crowd, who will go so far as to try “live” sushi dishes (think wiggly octopus and shellfish on your plate), which were his specialty at Satsuma-Ya. “People in the city like to try new things and tend to be more picky about how their sushi tastes,” he says.

Salmon sashimi

Shrimp tempura and avocado rollsAmici’s über-fresh offerings: Salmon sashimi (top); Crunchy rolls (above) combine shrimp tempura and avocado

While there are no live sushi dishes at Amici, Idesako ensures that the fish he serves is spanking fresh by trekking to a Bronx fish market twice a week to handpick his favorite pieces. “I can tell which are the best fish by the color, texture, odor, and appearance of the eyes,” he says. “They have a wider variety than you can find locally, and I can select only the best.” Idesako asserts that the best-tasting fish is aged three to four days after catching, and has no fishy odor. “You sometimes hear people saying that they caught a fish and ate it right there on the boat, and that was the best fish they ever tasted,” Idesako laughs. “They’re wrong!”

Amici Sushi is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. The sushi bar is actually located in the Chefs on Fire bistro, which is in the wine cellar of the DePuy Canal House. It seats up to 45 people and Italian, Japanese, and some Mexican food is served there a la carte. You can also order sushi in the upstairs dining room. Amici also offers off-site party catering and takeout.
 

Amici Sushi
1315 Rte. 213, High Falls
845-687-7778

 

Did you know...?

The Hudson Valley is jam-packed with great sushi joints! Dig in to our Web Exclusive, “Ready to Roll,” to find out where they are.