At the sushi bar, Toshi is making Hamachi sushi. Hamachi, Yellowtail is one of the most popular sushi items at Rock ‘N Hollywood Sushi. Hamachi is farm raised and air shipped from Japan, in a tightly vacuum packed a plastic bag, half fillet, and no head. One interesting thing about farm raised Hamachi and Tuna is that they discolor faster than the wild fish. Hamachi becomes darker and browner as it is exposed to oxygen. Discoloring is less appetizing. After opening the package, Toshi fillet it in half pieces, which is a quarter of a fish, separating the belly part form the back part. Belly part is reserved for a special customer and can be served as Hamachi Toro for a higher price. The collar is cut off and handed to the kitchen chef. They will serve it as Grilled Hamachi Kama Collar with Daikon Oroshi, Grated Radish with Ponzu Sauce.
“I like Hamachi,” I said to Toshi.
“Really? I did like it too, until I became a sushi chef, then, I cannot eat it anymore,” Toshi said.
“It’s too oily. You see that it’s farm raised. They feed the fish with too much food. They don’t give the fish enough exercise so that they have more “fat.” That’s why a lot of people like them. It’s fatter fish. Normally, farm raised fish is fatter than the wild ones. They raise in that way. Also, they give antibiotics to farm raised fish. We don’t know what they give to this Hamachi. I just don’t like the taste of farm raised Hamachi anymore. It tastes funny and weird. Just too oily, unpleasant.”
I couldn’t understand him when he told me that. Hamachi, at that point, still tasted good to me, until a few months later when I tasted it, I finally understood what Toshi was talking about. Suddenly, what tasted before did not taste good anymore. It tasted funny, wired just like Toshi said. It was overwhelmingly fatty. The oily flavor seemed unpleasant to my palette. Over the course of my sushi career, I’ve met so many Japanese sushi chefs who shared the same feeling about Hamachi as I did. At the same time, I’ve also met so many people who told me they LOVE Hamachi. When they tell me it’s their favorite fish, I hold back my opinion and say nothing and remind myself that everyone’s palate is different. I don’t tell them that I no longer eat Hamachi and the fact is that, there are many sushi chefs who feel the same as I do. Sushi chefs don’t eat as much farm raised Hamachi as you think.
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.
After years of using and sharpening knives, slicing and gutting fish, I’ve learned some things about a knife. That is, the most important thing is how you sharpen the knife, not about how fantastic the knife is. It’s true that expensive knives have higher quality steel, and somewhere along the way, they will eventually become dull and you must sharpen them. If you don’t know how to sharpen it, they the knife is useless no matter how expensive it is. The second thing to remember is that the best knife for you is the one that feels great when you hold it in your hand. It’s like finding a partner in your life, so it is exactly like find a partner in your life. What’s best for you will be different from what’s best for me. In other words, just because someone said, “This Masamoto Sashimi knife is excellent,” there is no guarantee it will be a great knife for you also. I’ve seen many professional Sushi chefs use Masamoto Yanagiba and learned that it’s one of the most popular Sashimi Knives in Japan and the US. So you may think, automatically that Masamoto Knives must be good for you.
I was strolling in Kappa-Bashi district in Asakusa, Tokyo. There are over 170 restaurant supply stores on 800 meter (half a mile)-long street, selling just about anything you need to run a restaurant: Japanese and western style plates, pots for the kitchen, pots to serve noodle and soup dishes at the table, pans with over hundreds of different sizes shapes and colors, chopsticks that ranges from $1/pair to $30/pair, traditional Red Lanterns with calligraphy style words written outside that are displayed at Yakitori and Ramen Shops, lacquerwares both black, red, traditional and modern, Store Signs, uniforms like the ones worn by Sushi Chefs in the US, To Go Containers, Refrigerated Showcases, Wax Food Displays some of which look better than the actual food, menus and much more. It’s a restaurant supply wonderland!
I was browsing the street and went inside to a knife shop. Inside were literally hundreds of hundreds of knives, Japanese and Western, short, long, small and big, most of which, I had never seen of. As I was looking at the display case, I overheard this conversation between a customer and the store owner. They were looking at several knives on a table.
“So, which one do you think is the best knife?” The customer asked.
“Well, they are all great knives,” the owner replied.
“Yes, I know they are all great. What I’m asking is which I should I buy? Which one do you recommend?”
“Let me see…., well, I can tell you from my experience that almost all the professional chefs buy inexpensive knives because they use their knives and sharpen them every day. So, they know they will damage expensive knives if they use them every day. Almost all the amateur semi-pro chefs end up buying expensive knives. I suppose that is because they want to own and collect knives rather than use them.” And the store owner stopped and there was a silence. I left the store after hearing their conversation, so I have no idea which knife this customer ended up buying, or maybe he did not buy any knives at all. If I had to guess, I would say he ended up buying expensive knives because obviously, he was not a professional chef because if he was, he did not ask “Which knife should I buy?”
Since Sushi Chefs use knives when they prep and when they work at the Sushi bar, they have more chance of slicing their fingers compared to chefs from other cuisines. The upside of this is that Sushi chefs have less chance of getting burnt from 425-degree oven, spill from frying oil and, boiling water, being flamed by the high-calorie burner, and getting your fingers slammed in the over door.
How do Sushi Chefs fix their finger cuts at the Sushi Bar? A quick and temporal relief is to wrap the wound with a paper towel and plastic wrap, tightly covered with heavy medical tape. Since we keep our hands wet all the time (because we touch rice with our hands), simple Band-Aid almost never work. Plastic Surgical Gloves are always available but unless you stop the bleeding, the inside of the glove quickly becomes flooded with blood and it makes the wound looks worse than it actually is, Besides, who want to eat sushi made by a chef with blood inside of his plastic glove?
A chef whom I worked with showed me the quickest way to stop bleeding: sprinkle some salt on the wound and let the blood crystallize. The salt soaks up the blood, quickly turning red, it starts to look something like Red-Syrupped Hawaiian Shaved Ice on your finger. I was skeptical first, and then within seconds, the salt hardened and quickly sealed the wound. It worked amazingly like magic. It did not hurt that much either. Salting on the cut is especially effective on large cuts, when a large amount of blood is splashing from your finger, though, I do hope that will never happen to you. After it stops bleeding, all you need to do is to use “liquid bandage” or “liquid skin” to seal off the cut. Liquid bandage is basically, or exactly a liquid cement for plastic models (though that is my guess because they smell the same), except, it has antiseptic agent dissolved in it. Apply the liquid bandage several times and let it dry out completely and you are ready to go.
During my career, I’ve cut my fingers many times. The first time was on my first day and ever since, I have done it so many times that honestly, I have no idea how many times I’ve cut my fingers. I can tell you it feels awful every time I do it. You would think that slicing your finger with Sashimi knife hurts really bad and the fact is that most of the time, it never did. The Sashimi Knife is so sharp that the cut is very clean. However, there were times that it hurt, like when I cut my thumb half way. It feels like knife cuts always happened when I was talking to others and lost my concentration, as I cut the fish, roll and vegetables. I suppose our brain is not wired to perform two tasks at the same time, or maybe it’s just my brain. The deep cut on my thumb happened on a moderately busy Friday night, as I cut California Roll. I was talking to Toshi and Kai as I thought I cut the roll, when the knife cut through my thumb instead of the roll. Blood immediately came out from the nail and I saw the thin line half way through my fingernail. Then, I knew I made a serious mistake, as I saw the stream of blood running out from the wound, making a small pond of blood on the cutting board. I lifted up my left hand and move it close to my face to examine the damage as I told Toshi that I cut my finger. He looked at it and realized how severe the wound was and told me to go back kitchen to take care of it immediately. I wrapped my thumb with a paper towel and quickly rushed to the back kitchen and asked Alejandro to bring out the first aid kit. Suddenly, I started to feel the pain on my thumb and that was when I began to worry a bit because that was an indication of a deep cut. I lifted up the paper towel and examined my thumb, which was still bleeding hard. I thought it was not going to stop bleeding for a while. I grabbed the fresh paper towel and wrapped my thumb tight, applying firm pressure. There was nothing I could do except to stand there in the kitchen, hoping the bleeding will stop soon, but I knew, that was not going to happen anytime soon. One sushi chef down at the sushi bar on busy Friday night and Toshi and Kai had to move their hands faster to spit out their orders. I felt dreadful. After five minutes, I lifted up the blood-soaked-red paper towel to see the bleeding condition and was slowing down, so took out the fresh white bandage from the first aid kit, cut it into a small piece and wrapped my thumb several times and sealed with the white medical tape. I then put finger rubber condom to keep it dry and also grabbed extra bandage, Band-Aid and walked back to the Sushi bar.
“How are you doing?” Toshi asked.
“It’s deep and still bleeding. I put some bandages and wrapped tight with the tape. I will be OK for now,” I replied.
“OK, make sure you take care of it well.”
“I know,” I said.
Luckily, no one at the sushi bar noticed, but nothing is more embarrassing to cut your finger right in front of your customers. It’s not only shocking to me, but it’s more shocking to those who watch. Three ladies, who were sitting at the sushi bar and held their breath when they saw me, unexpectedly cut my finger. Splash of blood spread on the white cutting board. One of them said, “Oh my god, are you OK?” Embarrassingly I replied, “Yes, I think so. I’m really sorry about that.”
Before you learn how to use the knife, you must learn and master knife sharpening using whetstones. At some Japanese restaurants, just like your knives, you are expected to have your own sets of Whetstones to avoid others altering their flat surface. Improper use and sharpening technique on a gliding stone will result in an uneven surface on the whetstone, which in turn, can make the blade uneven, wavy, curved and dull.
The Whetstones come in different grade -rough to shave off as much metal as you can, medium for toning and fine for the smooth finish. Each stone has a number like 1000 and 2000, where the higher the number is, the finer the stone is. The medium 1000 King Whetstone is what I used in the beginning because that was what they had at Rock N Hollywood Sushi. It looked exactly like a brick, a brown stone. You must first immerse in in water entirely to get it wet until the stone soaks up as much water as it can, then it becomes ready just the perfect hardness to place your knife for sharpening.
The sharpening technique is very simple – I can explain and show it to you in thirty seconds. You glide your knife, angling around 12 degrees or so on one side, flip it and do the dame on the other side. The trick is to keep the same angle, applying the same pressure and glide the knife same number of times on each side. For example, if you slide your knife ten times on one side, you do ten on the other side also.
The knife I was using was called Yanagiba, Willow Leaf Blade. Though many people think it’s a Sushi Knife, there is no such thing as Sushi Knife. Instead, Yanagiba is a Sashimi Knife. One of the most distinctive features of Yanagiba and Japanese Knife is that it is single beveled. Only one side is sharpened and the other side is flat. I always thought sharpening single beveled knife was easier than double beveled western knives because when sharpening a Japanese knife, I just lay it flat on one side, press it firmly and glide without worrying about keeping the same angle on both sides.
Toshi told me how to sharpen the knife. “You need to soak the stone in water until the bubbles stop floating up. The bubbles are the sign that the stone is still soaking water, not ready.”
When sharpening the knife, one thing to be careful of is to keep a firm grip on the knife and avoid slipping your fingers off the surface of the knife. If you are right-handed, you hold the handle with right hand, and place your left fingers on top of the knife blade, applying firm pressure and move the knife up and down. The most dangerous thing is when you slip your left fingers by accident as you move the knife forward/up with your right hand then, you cut your left finger with the knife. Because you are applying a good amount of pressure, if you cut your left fingers, there is a great chance of slicing through the skin off. Luckily, I have never sliced off my fingers as I sharpen my knives, but have cut my fingers and caused bleeding enough times to learn to be careful and attentive when sharpening my knife. When you work in a professional kitchen, there are a lot of chances of slicing your fingers. When you cut your fingers at the sushi bar during the restaurant business hours, it’s not really acceptable. However, they will forgive you as a mistake, so you tell yourself not to make the same mistake again. But, when you cut your fingers when sharpening your knife, it’s very denigrating and embarrassing, like a professional athlete injured his leg during offseason. No matter what, knife cuts at the sushi bar always felt distressing and embarrassing. The worst part is not so much of the pain or bleeding: it’s the fact that you are unable to make sushi for a while until the wound is properly sealed and also the fact that you must wear protective gears like gloves and Band-Aid, both of which make your sushi making very awkward and uncomfortable.
Toshi told me to sharpen my knife only during my break or off hours, never during my shift. I had difficulty understanding this in the beginning and later, I realized why: a chef should always have his knives sharpened and ready to work, just like a soldier takes care of his weapons, always ready to go on a battle at any moment’s notice.
As simple as the knife sharpening technique is, it took me several years just get comfortable gliding my knife on a Whetstone. I can understand why many chefs send their knives to a sharpening professional to have the knives sharpened since it really is a difficult thing to master. I am, unable to say that I have mastered knife sharpening, but I can say I’ve done enough to sharpen and take care of my knives good.