It was my second week since started working at the sushi bar. I was still standing and watching, not making any rolls, nigiri or sashimi. I did have my Sashimi Knife, a $60 Stainless Steel Yanagiba. After two weeks, I had a pretty good idea as to which plate I should use for an order of one California Roll and one Spicy Tuna Roll. I was practicing making rolls during off-peak hours using leftover Sushi Rice from the night before. I was ready and eager to make an order. Honestly, I was, getting bored standing and watching. Of course, there were still a lot to learn. I kept reminding myself that I was fortunate to be working here without any experience, and if I were working at a Sushi Bar in Japan, it would be taking a lot longer to learn. In two weeks, I was already cooking rice, mixing rice with Sushi Vinegar in Hangiri, doing Katsura Muki Cucumber and practicing making rolls.
What I did not know was back then was plating. Plating plays a vital part in Japanese cuisine. “You eat with your eye first,” so they say in Japan. Incorporating the season and nature one a plate is just as important as cooking a dish. Japanese is a firm believer in this. There are plates for spring using color and shapes to resemble Cherry Blossoms. In summer, Chefs use glass plates to serve cold noodles with ice to give “cooler” feeling. Autumn plates are one of my favorites with elaborate colors of red, yellow and earthy tones are present. Japanese call autumn “The season of appetite” because of an abundance of seasonal ingredients: Mushrooms like Matsutake, Shitake, Shimeji, Enoki, Kabocha Pumpkin, Daikon Radish, Satsumaimo Yum, Yamaimo the mountain Yum, Spinach, Lotus Root, Iwashi Sardine, Unagi, Katsuo Skipjack, Salmon, Saba Mackerel, Sanma Pacific Saury, and one of my favorites, Tachiuo Belt Fish. Recently, many scientists had said that our brain starts digesting process from the moment we think about eating food, so Japanese, unconsciously, understood how our brain works and made conscious effort to create a beautiful plate to visually stimulate our appetite.
When plating sushi, a Sushi Chef places nigiri or rolls slightly tilted on the plate, each piece following the direction of 10 to 4 o’clock. By doing so, he will create a movement of the plate. Our brain recognizes the placement of the Sushi and tries to track each piece with our eyes and finds it interesting and stimulating, hence, finds the food more appetizing. A Japanese plate always has the front and backside and the front side should always face the eater. On a sashimi plate, the idea is to create scenery. Tsuma, Shredded Daikon Radish presents a mountain; sliced fish sashimi is either tree or flower in the mountain, other garnish like a Bamboo Leaf, flowers, Seaweed, and Wasabi represent trees and other vegetables and rivers. The Chef must think of incorporating nature on the plate as he plates sashimi and garnish.
Plating sashimi didn’t look that hard. Slicing Sashimi didn’t look hard either. After all, it was just slicing fish, right? How hard could it be? I later learned I was dead wrong. Sashimi was one of the most difficult things I had to go through.
A sushi chef once said, “The true mastery is to make what is difficult appear to be easy.”
So, what makes making Sashimi so difficult?
First, to slice fish beautifully is very difficult. Yes, anyone can slice a fish. To do it very gracefully and beautifully, it takes years of experience. Fish and its flesh are so tender that when you try to cut it, you will “break” the flesh. In my Sushi class, I teach attendees to use less force. This can be very confusing and challenging at the same time because when we are experiencing difficulty in cutting ingredients, our tendency is to use more force. When slicing fish, it’s the complete opposite – less force, more slicing beautifully. The idea is to use the sharpness of the knife and let it “slide” by itself. All you are doing is to guide your knife, as if you are assisting the knife to do the slicing, not you. This is only the first step and it took me several years just to feel comfortable slicing a fish for Sashimi.
It is also extremely difficult to slice the fish “straight.” What do I mean by straight? Ideally, a perfectly sliced piece of Sashimi should have straight sides just like a rectangular box. In addition, each slice of Sashimi should be equally cut or have the same width. If you’ve ever sliced a loaf of bread, you may have found out that slices are not quite straight and have different thickness. Try slicing a block of tofu into the same thickness by eyeballing it – you’ll see how difficult it is.
Another thing about sashimi is this: You have to know the fish just by looking at it. You need to how it will taste depending on how you slice it.
Each fish tastes different. Male salmon tastes different from female salmon. Can you tell the difference just by looking at it? Yellow-fin Tuna is different from Big Eye. How thick should you cut Tuna belly? Should you cut the back of Tuna same way you cut Tuna belly? How about Halibut? How should you cut it? Generally speaking, Tuna tastes good when cut thick around 1cm-2cm or 1/2-1inch for Sashimi. When cut into paper thin, Tuna loses its flavor and it tastes awful. However, when it comes to Toro/Tuna Belly, you need to cut it thin due to its fat content. If you cut Toro into 2 cm thickness, it may be too overwhelming, thus killing the delicate flavor the belly meat.You see that’s how you cut determines how the Sashimi tastes. You must be able to determine just by looking at the fish. This ability is called Mekiki in Japanese and it takes years of experience. The only way to gain this ability it to look and taste as much fish as you can, every day for many years. Let’s just say even if you mastered Sashimi knife skills but you know nothing about fish. Then you’ll be unable to make the great tasting Sashimi because you have no idea how to slice it for great taste.