Let’s Talk (the 12 Commandments of) Sushi

Sushi at Sky Modern Japanese

Food Republic’s George Embiricos recently published a list of 12 commandments for the eating of sushi which got some play on Twitter from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Iron Chef’s Masaharu Morimoto.  Although lacking Bourdain’s experience or Morimoto’s Michelin star, I do have a couple of things in my corner that make me qualified to talk about sushi: I have eaten everything from cheap grocery store rolls to high-end sashimi; I also got engaged in a sushi restaurant over an order of spider rolls and some tuna nigirizushi .  So without further ado, here’s something that very few people probably will care about — the opinions of a land-locked food writer about the so-called commandments for consuming raw seafood.

1. Thou shalt not Drown Thy Sushi
I agree with this one, although I break it quite regularly.  My tendency to drench my sushi in soy sauce comes from the days when all I knew of sushi were the spicy tuna rolls from the Kroger deli and the (usually) pitiful sushi bars at various Chinese buffets.  Drenching sushi in soy sauce was a way to cover up the flavor of fish that might not be the freshest.  Of course, that’s the whole point of this commandment — stop eating crappy sushi.  And when the fish is good and fresh, I don’t use nearly as much soy, but I refuse to stop breaking the last part of this one: I will continue to touch the rice to the sauce because I like how the sauce soaks into the rice.  For me, it distributes the flavor better.

2. Thou Shalt Use Chopsticks
I’m on board with this one 100%, mostly because I’m not a big fan of eating with my fingers (even with ribs and chicken wings I’m a serial napkin over-user).  So my method of sushi eating is this: pick up with chopsticks, light dip in soy sauce, pop in the mouth.  Jess, on the other hand, is an eat-with-fingers type of gal when it comes to sushi, which she says is because she isn’t very good with chopsticks (and enjoys because it irritates me).  Bourdain and Chef Morimoto weighed in on this one specifically, though, and it appears that they agree with Jess and not me:

This won’t stop me from eating my sushi with chopsticks, but I’ll have to quit giving Jess such a hard time about eschewing them.

Various rolls from Igibon

3. Honor Thy Ginger
Jess doesn’t normally touch the ginger at all, and I only occasionally eat it.  I’m with Food Republic here: don’t destroy the delicate flavor of fish by heaping it up with ginger; eat a bite or two to cleanse the palate between different cuts of fish.  Or just ignore it like we usually do.

4. Thou Shalt Not Take More Than One Bite
This is one that I have no problem with in theory.  I prefer bite size sushi — each piece should be a perfectly balanced mouthful.  Unfortunately, some of the more ornate rolls out there make the “one-bite” rule almost impossible to achieve, so instead of either taking multiple bites (and making a mess) or cramming an uncomfortable amount of food in my mouth, I just tend to avoid anything that looks like it’s too big for a single mouthful.

5. Diversify Your Order
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Many sushi places, including one of our favorites, Igibon, do a “happy hour” sushi menu that allows you to do this without breaking the bank.  Igibon’s menu lets you get a couple of pieces of sushi with different fish, and I highly recommend taking advantage of this in order to explore the different types of sushi out there.  Sky Japanese Restaurant also has an excellent sampler platter that I think is one of the greatest groupings of sushi around.

Tuna and Spicy Salmon from Sushi Cafe

6. Avoid the Insane Green Racoon Roll
What they mean by this is to avoid non-traditional sushi created to appease the tastes of folks raised on Big Mac Sauce and ketchup.  This could also be known as the “avoid any sushi with cream cheese in it” rule or the “hey, Guy Fieri, pulled pork nori rolls are disgusting, you gel-headed assclown” rule.  This is a good rule.  They further stipulate that rolls named after American states should be avoided as well, which is a good rule.  I’d also add cities to that, as the “Philadelphia Roll” is an abomination.  But yeah, cream cheese — decent on bagels, crappy in sushi.

7. If You Order Rolls, Eat Them First
Good rule, I guess, but I don’t tend to order many rolls, and I’m not a fan at all of gunkan maki (battleship sushi).  My ideal sushi platter has little pillows of rice with a fat slab of fish delicately placed atop them.

8. And On The 7th Day, He Did Not Eat Sushi
Ok, it was Bourdain himself that made that “no fish on Mondays” thing such a meme of the early 00’s.  And yes, I suppose that if the fish isn’t fresh on Sunday/Monday, it should be avoided.  Despite that, one of my favorite sushi places is a little buffet in Benton (oh yes, a buffet) and they do some of their most creative work on Sunday.  This is the Bible Belt, and Sunday dinner is time to shine for local restaurants.  Apply this rule on a case by case basis.

9. Beware of Freshwater Fish (Maybe)
Again, consider who is making your sushi and what the quality is.  Case by case basis here, too.

Sky Modern Japanese

10. Thou Shalt Avoid All-You-Can-Eat Sushi
Well, this one is just snobby.  One of Little Rock’s best places for sushi is Tokyo House, a very high-quality place that also happens to be a buffet.  The sushi is fresh, and the owners of Tokyo house also happen to own that buffet in Benton I mentioned earlier.  As a general rule, buffets are not great for sushi — but Tokyo House is a notable exception.  I’ve eaten everything from tuna to salmon to octopus to oysters on the half shell there and it’s all been fresh and good.

11. Thou Shalt Not Covet Wasabi
Don’t mix wasabi in with your soy sauce is the gist of this one.  And I’m going to break this EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  It’s too much of a pain to dab wasabi onto the fish itself, and a nice balance of heat and salt makes a nice dip.  If the sushi already has a touch of the green stuff on it, don’t worry about mixing — but don’t be afraid to do so if you like it.  Besides, here in Arkansas, I guarantee that 99% of places serving sushi aren’t serving real wasabi anyway, so let’s not get snooty about it.

12. Ordering Take-Out Sushi is a Sin
Yeah, I prefer my rolls fresh.  So other than the guilty pleasure of Kroger Sushi, I don’t ever get takeout.  And I don’t think there’s anywhere in Central Arkansas that delivers sushi, so this is an easy one to obey.

Sushi is one of those foods that people get weird and holier-than-thou about if they like it and weird and grossed out about if they don’t.  For me, I love it and so if it takes a few California rolls to get you acclimated and ready to try the good stuff, then so be it.  Don’t worry about being gauche, because unless you’re planning on eating at Masa sometime soon, mixing a touch of wasabi into your soy isn’t going to hurt anybody.  Mostly, just try a bunch of things, be adventurous, and most of all — enjoy yourself, it’s a delicious world out there.

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12 thoughts on “Let’s Talk (the 12 Commandments of) Sushi

  1. Maybe I’m still a sushi beginner, but I still like those Philadelphia Rolls (and they’re the only one my 10yo will eat). But you’ve encouraged me to branch out a little. Hoping to try Sky soon!

    • I just can’t handle cream cheese in sushi. Avocado is good, and it serves the same function of adding something creamy and unctuous to the mix. Cream cheese just overpowers everything else.

      Then again, I have a weakness for spider rolls, which has a big chunk of tempura-battered and fried soft shell crab in the middle, so to each their own.

  2. OMG Michael, I thought I was the only person in Arkansas that was grossed out by cream cheese in sushi! I also agree with you about the all-you-can-eat sushi. Although I’m not much of a buffet fan, one trip to Sushi Club in Reno, NV made me a convert. It’s a non-buffet, all-you-can-eat. You sit at the sushi bar and order as many times and as many different items as your heart desires. The place is packed always.

    • I won’t touch a roll with cream cheese in it. And one of those pics has some volcano rolls on the platter – we weren’t big fans of those either; too much gloppy mess.

  3. Mostly agree with you. I dip my chopsticks into the wasabi before picking up the roll for the sake of aesthetics and enjoying the separate tastes. Props for the mention of Tokyo House, excellent quality and nice, calm atmosphere for when I’m not craving the hipster vibe and overly-loud music at (also excellent) Sushi Cafe.

  4. I love your blog! My husband and I are new to Little Rock from Searcy. I grew up in Dallas and mainly ate at local restaurants so I’m loving having so many new, local restaurants to try! Your blog has definitely offered some insight on what to check out!

    I especially enjoyed this post because I don’t have a lot of experience with sushi. I’ve had some bad experiences with shrimp and lobster in the past, so I tend to stay away from sushi. I haven’t eaten it in several years and am very much a beginner. Have you ever considered writing a sushi 101 post explaining the different options sushi offers? I have no idea where to start!

    • I don’t know that I’m qualified to write a “Sushi 101” post — sushi is kind of like painting; everybody has their own technique and style they like and folks can easily disagree on what is better or more appropriate.

      In a nutshell, though, my best advice for you as a newcomer in Little Rock is to try a buffet like Tokyo House where you can try a lot of things for one price. Either that or try a place like Igibon when they do their “happy hour” sushi, so you can order one or two things of each variety. Trying it is the only way to discover what you like (which is how I know that I’m not a big fan of squid).

      As far as some basic rules for sushi, the smell test is best. If you walk into a sushi joint and it smells fishy, don’t eat there. If you’re served sushi that has a distinct aroma of fish, don’t eat it. Fresh fish shouldn’t have a smell to it at all, or just the lightest hint of a briny smell to it. Really fishy-smelling fish is not fresh and should be avoided. Color is another good indicator – fish that looks pale and dried out has been sitting there for awhile. Lastly, pick rolls that have things you like to eat in addition to the fish — a basic roll of cucumber, avocado, and tuna or salmon with rice and nori is a great starting point for “getting into” sushi (just stay away from the cream cheese, it’s unnecessary calories and covers up the taste of the fish). There’s also usually a good selection of cooked-fish rolls available like smoked salmon, so if the raw aspect bothers you, ask your chef what items are cooked (a lot of menus will tell you cooked or raw). “Spicy” versions of rolls are attractive to some folks, too, since there’s a sauce that accompanies the fish (usually Japanese mayonnaise mixed with sriracha).

      I’ve been lucky to have never had a bad experience with sushi (knock on wood). In Little Rock, Sky Japanese, Igibon, Sushi Cafe, and Tokyo House are particularly good, and there are several other places worth a visit. Hope that helps!

  5. I actually found out recently that the traditional Japanese way of eating sushi is with the hands, not with chopsticks. For me, it just depends on if it’s topped with any sauce. Unagi nigiri (my favorite, although unagi don is awesome as well) sometimes is topped with a sauce and so I usually use chopsticks for it. If it’s not messy-fingers.

  6. Hunter’s first solid food was wasabi paste… wasn’t meant to be that way, but it happened. She adores her sushi, especially eel, but thinks volcano rolls are gross.

    Mt. Fuji actually does decent take-out (I know, I hear the gasping). Both of the last two times I’d had surgery, I would call my order in to Ray and have one of my friends bring it to me. Right after my C-section, I’d just call in and ask for $30 worth and Paul would go pick up the tray. They took very very good care of me — especially since I was barely able to do more than lay in bed 22 hours a day.

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