Aug 09, 2012|
The art of sushi making is all about subtlety and precision—and we’re not just talking about the fish. From the ambience of the sushi bar to the very first cut offered by the chef behind the counter; from the garnishes that go with each intricate slice to the temperament of the chef, everything about the sushi experience is managed down to the tiniest detail.
There are many different styles and subcategories of sushi, but the one that’s most popular with Hongkongers is Edomae, or the Tokyo-based style, where fish and other seafood are served raw and fresh, typically matched with vinegar-marinated rice.
We talk to three Edomae sushi masters and get them to share the essentials of making the perfect sushi.
Chef Hirofumi Imamura started taking sushi-making seriously when he first set foot in New York more than a decade ago. A young and aspiring chef, he was trying to get some overseas experience outside his home country by working for a Japanese restaurant in the Big Apple. To his horror, he discovered that customers there ate their sushi with milk, or put mango slices on top of their rice. “I asked my boss, ‘Is this OK for you?’ And my boss said, ‘Yes, it’s OK, because the guests want it this way.’ I was so disappointed,” recalls Hiro-san. “The restaurant didn’t teach guests the right way [to eat sushi], or [about] Japanese culture. California rolls, mango [sushi rolls]—they were so disgusting for me.” So Hiro-san quit his job to work his way up to executive chef at the Zagat-top-listed Sakagura. He even flew back to Japan to apprentice without wages for a year before heading abroad yet again and eventually settling in Hong Kong with K.O. Dining Group’s Kazuo Okada restaurant. “We say it takes 10 years to become a great sushi chef,” Hiro-san explains. “But even after 10 years, you have to keep studying. There is no end [to the learning process].”
When it comes to serving sushi, “we don’t have anything a la carte,” Hiro-san says. “I don’t like to do a la carte. I want to give my guests a balanced and healthy meal.” As a result, Kazuo Okada offers an elaborate kaiseki menu all designed by Hiro-san himself, and guests have no choice but to eat up or go somewhere else.
Getting fresh fish is, naturally, the first step to a successful sushi platter, and the storage of that fish is equally important. Hiro-san has to keep different types of fish at specific temperatures to keep them at maximum freshness. “For example, with white meat fish, you can’t have them too cool. You have to keep them at five to seven degrees. [But any colder,] like three degrees, is no good. It’s very easy for the meat
[to deteriorate] and go from a cream to a white color,” he says. Meanwhile, one of the most popular swimmers across the board—tuna—needs to be kept at precisely zero to minus one degrees.
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Chef Sato Taisuke has not only mastered sushi since calling this city home some 30 years ago, but also the Cantonese language. It’s easy to see, by the genial manner with which he carries on his conversations, how he’s managed to capture both customers’ hearts and stomachs at fancy hotel restaurants and humble sushi bars alike (the Harbour Grand’s Nagomi and Sushi Qube, to name a few). “You need to interact with your customer,” Sato-san says matter-of-factly. “You need to understand the customer. [For a lot of people who go to sushi bars], looking at and talking to the sushi chef is the first and most important part of their experience. Taste and everything else come second.”
Still, if a piece of sashimi just doesn’t make the cut, even being besties with the customers won’t be able to help. In order to become a true sushi master with the skills to justify the title, Sato-san says real-world training is the key. No amount of schooling and solo craft-honing in the kitchen will do any good if a chef doesn’t first gain legitimate practical experience—not to mention apprenticing under someone who’s already done their time and is respected in the industry. “Learning at school and working at a restaurant is not the same thing,” Sato-san says. “One needs to study under a sushi master at a proper restaurant if one wants to become a true sushi master.”
How’s this for an example? If you learned from the wrong sources, you might think salmon is an essential ingredient in sushi platters. In fact, the opposite is true. “The Japanese didn’t eat much raw salmon. They used to cook it because salmon contains a lot of bacteria,” says Sato-san. But the fish’s popularity in other regions—like Norway, where the fish is found, and Hong Kong—led the Japanese to eventually accept it as part of the menu. And this was only as recently as five to six years ago, Sato-san estimates.
Besides sourcing the proper fish from Japan (no local fish is served, because he finds the fish here are milder in taste due to the warmer waters), Sato-san also sources a special type of rice that is naturally fragrant and sweet to make nigiri sushi, in which a slab of meat is molded on top of a rectangular mound of rice rather than being encased within a roll. “Other restaurants add sugar to the rice to make it sweet, but we don’t need to because our rice is already sweet,” Sato-san explains.
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“I’ve been in the industry for 20-plus years,” the very youthful chef Andy Li tells us. “I started off with ramen. I didn’t know much about sushi. I could make a California roll, and that was pretty much it.” But the sushi bug bit, and Li decided to apprentice with proper Japanese chefs to perfect his skills. “I learned how to greet customers, and choose, process and preserve the fish,” he says. Given Li’s extroverted personality, sushi-making was an easy choice. “I like to face clients,” he explains. “[I try to] make the customer open their mouths and start the conversation. Once they start talking to me, the gates to communication are open. And by the end of the meal, we’ve become friends.” Li also likes to be attentive to his customers’ preferences in order to know how to serve them the perfect pieces of fish.“ If the customer is drinking a certain type of alcohol, or if they prefer milder or more flavorful fish—these all have to be taken into account,” he says. Having worked at numerous restaurants across the city (including the highly popular Xenri No Tsuki in Causeway Bay), Li currently plays host at the intimate Sushi Dokoro Hikari, spicing up his sushi with a dab of black truffle here, a dash of garlic there. The key is to never overdo it—the sushi should always be recognizable, and the extra touches should enhance a fish’s flavor, not mask it.
When it comes to serving the daily catch, Li considers the different types of fish available. “Some fish should go with rice. Fattier fish like tuna belly, I would recommend with rice,” Li says. “The rice will equalize the oily component and balance it out.” However, with some milder-tasting white fish, the rice and vinegar will actually cover the taste of the meat—so Li recommends serving it as is, sashimi-style, or with just a pinch of salt to bring out the fish’s flavor.
For Li, teaching customers how to appreciate sushi is what matters. “We like to introduce people to different kinds of fish.” After all, Li knows that he’s in charge—not his customers—of orchestrating a well-rounded sushi experience. “I don’t let the fish control me when it comes to how to present or cut the fish,” he says. “I control the fish.”
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