About Sushi

By Dena Ribner

If you're not already a sushi fan, you have probably at least heard of, wondered about, or been intrigued by this unique food. You may have rejected the idea of eating sushi as too foreign or exotic, and the idea of eating raw fish - not big in Jewish cuisine- too far removed from the familiar. But before you exclude this specialty from your dining pleasure, let me offer some simple explanations of what sushi is made of, how it is prepared and how the people who do love it feel about eating it.

Your first sushi experience will likely be at a sushi bar - special counters that are part of many Japanese and other Asian restaurants. A quality sushi bar will have clean, glass enclosed counters where trays of varied and glistening fish are artfully displayed, along with the other ingredients used by the sushi chef. These will include a vat of cooked and seasoned rice, sheets of pressed seaweed (nori), sliced ginger, fresh vegetables, along with a collection of surgically sharpened knives. Diners sit at the bar in front of this counter and watch the amazing display of culinary prowess as the sushi chef performs his art before their eyes.

The process by which these ingredients become sushi and its counterpart, sashimi is sometimes entertaining, always precise and usually riveting. The results are beautiful. These are no less that food served as art forms, with magical blends of texture, color and flavor.

Sushi can be ordered in one of three traditional forms: Nigiri, which are small slices of raw fish served on tiny pillows of rice; Temaki - cones made of pressed seaweed wrapped around fish, rice and vegetables , and Maki - which resemble fat rolled cigars formed by spreading fish, rice and vegetables on seaweed sheets, rolling them and cutting into bite-size pieces. Sashimi are select pieces of fish, beautifully arranged, served without rice. One can order individual makis, nigiri, temakis and pieces of sashimi, or combinations thereof.

The small wooden cutting board on which it arrives will hold pieces of ginger (gari) and mounds of a fiery green Japanese horseradish (wasabe). The ginger is used to clean your palate between pieces so that you can savor the unique flavor of each sushi type. The wasabe should be mixed with soy sauce in your favorite proportions - also provided to each diner-as the perfect sushi-enhancing condiment.

The presentation of the sushi is almost ceremonial. It will be decorated with beautifully and intricately cut vegetables, or presented in exquisite patterns. The result is food that is almost too beautiful to eat. You will be furnished with both chopsticks and regular silverware, with which you may dip your pieces of sushi or sashimi into your soy sauce mixture. You may then proceed to enjoy your sushi.

What can't be described without tasting, are the exquisite flavors of these delicacies. The fish used by sushi chefs are extremely fresh and usually available only to professional cooks. They are morsels of shining, silken fish that literally melt in your mouth. Your sushi may be created from mouth-watering salmon, creamy yellowtail, or succulent fresh tuna. When combined with slightly tangy rice, crisp seaweed, some cucumber strands or avocado chunks and seasoned with a dollop of soy sauce and a lick of wasabe, you will have a masterpiece. There's a reason for the ever-present blissful look on the face of sushi devotees, and why despite its often-exorbitant cost, the number of sushi fanatics is skyrocketing.

If the idea of raw fish puts you off, there are countless variations of vegetarian sushi. These use not only standard vegetables but may include pickled Japanese condiments or tamago - a kind of sweet folded omelette. There is also sushi that is made of parts of cooked fish such as broiled salmon skin. This is a crisp delight, and fantastic when paired with avocado and scallion in a temaki handroll.

Some more innovative restaurants have devised sushi that is itself cooked such as the tempura handrolls offered at. Yakimotoo. The beauty and creativity of these dishes is limited only by the chef's imagination. One of the most exquisite sushi handrolls I've seen was composed almost entirely of vegetables and wrapped in the sheerest wrapper of carrot. I never even missed the fish. Non-raw options are not only delicious, but enable fish and non-fish eaters to dine in harmony.

If there was ever uncertainty as to whether sushi could thrive in the kosher milieu, those concerns are long gone. The wide variety of fish used in making sushi - at least six different types in most sushi bars - guarantees an extravagant selection and makes the absence of non-kosher seafood a non-issue. Sushi chefs have also devised kosher substitutes that imitate the non-kosher items such as mock crab served in many kosher sushi bars. As with other exotic cuisines, the "feinshmecker" Jewish diner has embraced this unique food with gusto.

This is certainly borne out in Israel, with its rapidly rising number of sushi bars, sushi caterers, sushi nights in non-Japanese restaurants, etc. There seem to be more exotic types of fish in Israeli sushi restaurants than in those I've sampled in the U.S. Perhaps this is a result of the many importing options. My first taste of arctic char--a delicate, salmon-like fish, was not in my local gourmet fish shop in New York but five years ago at one of the first sushi bars in Jerusalem. The quality and types of salmon imported into Israel in the past ten years has risen dramatically. The inclusion of local fish favorites, such a denis, also expands the range of sushi possibilities.

Whether in a five-star hotel, or your neighborhood sushi bar, take a look at the faces of sushi-eaters when next you walk past. Note the serenity, the intentness, and the delight. Then order yourself a piece, and see whether you are destined to become one of them.


Dr. Dena Ribner is a Clinical Psychologist and an avid sushi enthusiast. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three children. You can contact Dena at ribnerfish@aol.com