Excerpts from Sushi, by Mia Detrick
Sake (salmon): Salmon is perhaps the most easily recognized fish in the sushi case,
its bright orange color almost too vibrant to be real. Its taste is equally remarkable, and salmon is
treasured as a food fish by all cultures blessed with its migrations. In recent decades, the Atlantic salmon
has been nearly wiped out by pollution and is now rare in Europe as well. Only Pacific salmon are still
plentiful, and in most sushi bars, varieties from Japan and Alaska are used.
Salmon grow fat and robust in the ocean, then head for fresh water where they swim upstream to spawn.
During this heroic journey they do not eat, and they deteriorate rapidly. Only those caught at sea are
considered suitable for sushi. Salmon is never served raw in sushi bars; it is lightly smoked or cured for a
few days in salt and sugar. It tastes sweet, sometimes smoky, and is always meltingly tender.
Occasionally, fresh grilled salmon is served as nigirizushi. Its color is pale peach; its flavor more
delicate than uncooked salmon.
In Japanese, the words for rice wine and salmon are spelled identically and pronounced very much
the same, leading some people to worry that they may be ordering a bottle of fish by mistake. The
word for the beverage is pronounced sah-kay. For the fish, the last syllable is slightly clipped, sah-keh,
with an e as in led. If this is too fine a distinction, you can order the fish as sha-kay, as it is
pronounced in northern Japan. You will also avoid confusion by ordering your fish from the sushi chef
and your beverages from the waitress, as is proper.
Tai (porgy, red snapper): Although tai, translated as "sea bream," appears on standard
sushi menus, the fish the Japanese call tai is not available in the United States. Instead, porgy and red
snapper fill in for tai in American sushi bars. Porgy is a close relation to tai, but red snapper is related to
the Japanese fish in taste only. Both are sweet, lean fish with broad-flaked pink-and-white flesh.
Although the American versions may make excellent sushi, they do not have the character or flavor
uncooked that make tai a Japanese favorite. When you try tai, ask the chef exactly what it is he's serving.
In another season or on another coast, you may be served a different fish altogether.
Hirame (halibut): Halibut are odd, flat fish that flutter across the ocean floor like
swimming crepes. A halibut begins life swimming upright like a typical fish. Eventually, however, it
begins listing to one side, and as it gets closer to the horizontal, its bottom eye doesn't get much of a
view and moves around next to its top eye, giving it a slightly alarming, Cubist sort of visage.
No matter. Beneath this homely exterior is pale pink translucent flesh, a delicate flavor, and the
makings of an excellent sushi. Halibut also make superior sashimi. Cut into paper-thin transparent slices,
it is called hirame usu zukuri, and it may be served with the slices in the center arranged like a flower, a
flourish called hana zukuri.
Halibut is available fresh year round from American waters, but it is at its best in December and January.
Suzuki (sea bass): Suzuki is a Japanese fish without an exact equivalent in America.
Various fish that fall into the sea bass category are served as suzuki here. Sea bass have shiny white
flesh with an easily recognizable broad-flaked structure and a mild flavor. The sea bass season in U.S.
waters is limited to the summer months, and many sushi bars offer it only then, when it is available
fresh. You may also encounter it flown in frozen from Japan.
Like hirame, suzuki makes an elegant paper-thin sashimi, suzuki usu zukuri, which is as pleasant to
pronounce as it is to eat. Suzuki sashimi is often served with ponzu, a lemony soy sauce, or served in the
summertime on a bed of ice cubes with tangy shiso leaf and a scattering of red pepper flakes."
Tomorrow: One last page of fish, then on to some methods of making your own sushi...