The rice lay on the nori
Winter’s catch clumped inside
There was sushi on the mat.
Okay, so my attempt to comprehend sushi and its siblings was not as tragic as the haiku here. After an erroneous Japanese meal at one of the most popular sushi joints in the city that passed off nigiri as makisushi, I vowed to enlighten all sushi novices. Considering the language barrier between the two cultures is steep, a dish of Japanese origin can never be called for without the assistance of the maîtred’. Under the tutelage of Chef Paul Kinny, who has been researching extensively on Pan Asian cuisine, we start by getting our pronunciation right. “Sushi is pronounced as ‘zushi’ in words where sushi is the second word, for example nigirizushi,” he says.
Much like cheese, the origin of sushi was a matter of coincidence. “In South-East Asia, salt and rice were used to break down fish into amino acids, in order to extend its usage,” informs Kinny. Once the fish was ready for use, the rice was discarded as it had served its purpose. Time-pressed vendors then ditched the salt for vinegar and ate this discarded rice with raw fish, giving rise to sushi. Originally sushi was had with hand, unlike today where chopstick etiquette and accompaniments such as wasabi, soy and pickled ginger have become a major part of savouring sushi.
In Mumbai, sushi is less than a decade old. The rice-based roll gained popularity outside its realm as soon as the well-heeled skeptics got over their squeamishness about raw fish. “It was only during an odd Japanese festival hosted by restaurants such as Pan Asian or the erstwhile Tiffin that sushi made a cameo appearance,” says Kinny. “It was never a mainstay because, the word ‘Japanese’ would always be followed with a squirm, presumably at the thought of creepy-crawlies emerging from the plate,” he laughs. Thanks to Wasabi, Mumbai’s first signature Japanese restaurant, we got to experience bona fide sushi in 2004.
Since its natal phase, oriental cuisine has been shrouded in exoticism. But after Wasabi opened its doors, exuberant vegetables such as wasabi and spices such as miso or furikake that were not locally available, have been ferried to Indian shores on a regular basis. “The chefs too were flown in to give patrons a taste of authentic Japanese fare,” adds Kinny.
Being a healthier alternative to the artery-choking red meat and finding patronage with the likes of Robert de Niro (we hear he is quite obsessed) and Emma Roberts (who apparently went on a sushi diet which we think definitely beats Jennifer Aniston’s baby food diet), sushi might not still be bursting out of sushi bars like it does in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. But when it starts to come stacked in plastic gourmet boxes at stores like Nature’s Basket, we are quite sure the creepy-crawlies are here to stay. Now what we are wondering is if Nyotaimori (body sushi – when you eat if off the body of a naked woman) might make an entrance in the city soon!
Getting Sushi Savvy
This one reminds you of a Yule log. Futomaki, also known as fat rolls, can accommodate more fillings than your six-inch sub. Though it is made using traditional sushi ingredients (rice, nori and fish) the chef has to merge contrasting ones whose flavours do not clash.
This is sushi in its rudimentary form. Rice is hand-clumped to form small pellets and a slice of fish, shrimp, eel or octopus is placed on top. Since nigiri calls for only two ingredients, the chef uses the freshest catch that is cut before being tipped on the rice ball.
I like to call this one the lazy chef’s sushi. A bed of vinegary rice is scattered on a plate. It is topped with ingredients such as cucumber, seafood, lotus root and egg crepes. Though the final product turns out quite different from what contemporary sushi looks or tastes like, it works for those who’d like to skip raw fish.
The most common type of sushi, hoso maki can double up to be a vegetarian’s delight, considering carrot and cucumber are the most popular fillers.
Californian Roll or Uramaki
A case of out-of-the-box-thinking, the Californian rolls are responsible for sushi’s global reach. Also known as inside-out rolls, uramaki is a thin roll where rice is on the outside instead of being tightly clutched inside the nori. It is then dunked in fish roe or sesame seeds.
Inari is the most outlandish and refreshing of them all. Sushi rice is filled in deep fried tofu bags. As you bite into its chewy exterior, a gush of sweet bean curd juice coats your palate. Inari is most popular among vegetarians.
Nori is rolled to form conical cups that are filled with scooped rice, tempura veggies, seafood and some fish roe. This one is eaten with hand instead of chopsticks.
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