FOOD: Leave No Sushi Behind

"Don't even try the stuff if you're not gonna be able to afford it," they warned me. Young, brash and eager to experience big-city life, I recklessly plunged into the nether world of the South Florida bar scene. Sushi bar, that is. I had just moved to Miami and was already hooked. While the hoi polloi of Coconut Grove were blowing hundreds of dollars up their snouts, I was developing an expensive sushi habit.

I blame my rapacious craving for sushi on those damn Yankees I befriended down there. Barely had my toes touched the sands of Miami Beach when they commenced my sushi education with the fervor of Henry Higgins. First, they introduced me to California rolls (crab, avocado and rice) and shrimp tempura rolls (fried shrimp and mayonnaise). Next they trotted out the barbecued eel. What Southern girl wouldn't like anything starting with the word "barbecued," they reasoned. Well, I hate to support their flagrant stereotyping, but they were right. I was so proud of my newfound sushi sophistication, I could have danced all night.

The joy fest continued when I returned to Jackson in 1987 to discover Little Tokyo Sushi Bar had opened. But no one I knew would eat sushi. The Jackson sushi bar of the late '80s was an eclectic mishmash of people. Nary a soccer mom with three kids in tow, and never a table full of suited businessmen like fill the place now. Bikers, out-of-towners, night managers, people you wouldn't necessarily stereotype as gourmands, were the mainstay then. We would sit up at the bar together and split sushi rolls. That's right. I shared sushi with perfect strangers. Seems odd now, but it was brilliant. "Who wants to split a dynamite roll?" "I really only want one piece of uni; anybody wanna go in with me?" Good times. Now the sushi bars are chock-a-block with true connoisseurs, and I just can't resist people-watching.

I study another sushi aficionado as he goes for the dunk. I wait with an inexplicable nervousness as the sushi sits bathing in the soy sauce, low sodium, of course. And I wait. I'm thinking now, now, now, get it out, get it out … it's been too much time, bring it up ... For the love of God, get that sushi out of the water, uh, I mean, soy. And then it happens. It always happens. The patron removes the sushi with his chopsticks, and the whole damn thing falls apart. He follows the whole drowned, brown mess with his gaping mouth all the way back to the soy saucer where it now sits laden with bits of rice. Well, at least he learned his lesson, right? Well, not exactly. The next piece of sushi is already sitting in the somewhat solid form of soy sauce, wasabi and now rice, of course. That poor, expertly crafted piece of sushi seems a little sad, embarrassed, defeated. I imagine it's thinking what I am:


The sushi rice is sacred. It is never to touch the soy. Dipping sushi rice is the equivalent of dousing Tabasco all over a French chef's Hollandaise. There are Japanese chefs who are solely responsible for preparing sushi rice. It is an exacting process that involves rinsing the rice to achieve the perfect concentration of starch, adding the precise measure of water to attain the proper concentration, seasoning the rice with a measured mixture of vinegar, sugar and salt, and fanning the rice to ensure the ideal texture. If the rice is bad, the sushi is bad.

The good news for soy lovers is that the unseasoned, fresh fish merits a spot of soy. Too much, however, will destroy the subtle flavors of the fish. When eating sushi, place the piece, fish side down in the soy, and eat it fish side down in your mouth. This will produce ultimate sushi enjoyment, Japanese style.

I once saw an entire table full of Japanese tourists eating hamburgers with a knife and fork. Amusing, right? Well, maybe, but Americans' use of chopsticks draws a close parallel. Traditionally, sushi is finger food. Isn't that wonderful? It's delicious, and you get to eat it with your fingers. Just like fried chicken, only poles apart. While in Japan, I noticed the locals ate sushi with their hands and sashimi with their chopsticks. In fact, at high-end sushi bars where sushi is presented by the sushi chef to the patrons, it is actually disrespectful to eat it with chopsticks. According to Little Tokyo II manager Bethany Pepper, "The younger generation of Japanese sushi-lovers have begun using their chopsticks, but eating it with your fingers is the accepted norm."

So go ahead, finger your flounder, fondle your futomaki, maul your mackerel. Well, maybe don't maul it, but you get the idea. I'm tired of getting "were-you-born-in-a-barn?" looks when I handle my hamachi. Especially from people who have a chunk of tuna hanging down their chins like my Labrador presenting a half-eaten squirrel.

Which raises an interesting question: To bite, or not to bite.

Biting into a piece of nigiri sushi (hand-shaped sushi) presents problems for many. It is the accepted norm in Japan to eat nigiri sushi in one bite. Pocket-size Japanese women have no problem with it. It's a mouthful, but they do it. Regularly. Gracefully. Women in Jackson of supermodel stature and mouths as wide as Julia Roberts will not brave the bite. Mysterious. Personally, I'd like to see what they do with their takeout. Regardless, in public, they insist on taking a dainty bite, after soaking the rice in soy, and yes, the macerated morsel disintegrates. They manage to look surprised every time. If you wish to eschew the Japanese big-bite experience, the sushi chef will cut your sushi to a size where it may be eaten with poise.

I'm glad I don't have to eat sushi in solitude any longer. Let's face it, the bikers and I were running out of things to talk about. It's funny to think back to the '80s. We sushi-bar loners were bellied up to the bar, wishing friends and family would support our addiction. Blood may be thicker than water, but those families just could not condone the fact that raw fish was being served right there in that establishment. Serving tempura, teriyaki, pork dumplings and fried ice cream could never negate the shocking fact that the fish-was-raw.

Those same friends and families, 15 years later, crowd the place. As I wait for a seat in the packed entrance, an inappropriate sense of entitlement creeps over me. These new sushi lovers who are occupying my table pretend they embraced the whole sushi concept back when hair was big and shoulder pads were bigger. But I remember the old days. And I imagine the owner of Little Tokyo,

Tomsan, does, too.

Kathleen Bruno is a chef and writer in Jackson.


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