I am a recent newcomer to a world of artistic beauty, cultural discovery, and culinary pleasure called SUSHI!
If you're a sushi illiterate, as I was until a couple years ago, let me start by dispelling a misconception. Sushi does not mean "raw fish." The Japanese language has other words for "raw fish," including Sashimi. Sushi means a 2- or 3-bite-size lump of sticky rice, topped with some kind of seafood (cooked or uncooked), and often held together by a ribbon of seaweed.
My first, tentative experience of sushi took place in Tucson, AZ during a business trip. A co-worker and I had arrived in town at lunchtime and, after fleeing a Chinese restaurant where everything tasted like corn starch, we decided to have an adventure in Japanese food. Neither of us had any idea what we were ordering. The menu was a list of Japanese words with prices and a box for penciling in quantities (in units of 2 pieces) we wanted to order. We picked at random, avoiding things with asterisks next to them, which seemed to indicate a degree of "food safety risk." Of the 6 varieties we tried, the only one we didn't care for was salmon roe, which came a little too close to the texture of boiled tapioca beads for comfort. My favorite kinds were the sea eel (pictured above) and freshwater eel, lightly grilled with a dab of savory sauce on top. We also tried smelt roe (much smaller fish eggs than the salmon roe, and therefore more palatable to both of us), something with egg, and something with sesame seeds and pastry. It was all good, and though we didn't risk any raw fish, we did salivate over the beautiful servings of salmon and tuna on rice that came to our neighbors at the next table over.
The following year, while in New York to perform at Carnegie Hall (I kid you not), I visited a sushi bar on Broadway and ordered the chef's choice platter. This time I nerved myself for a first experience of raw fish. I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't gross at all. I realized afterward that what I had feared the most was that the flesh would be cold, like something just taken out of the morgue. For some reason, discovering that the raw sushi was served at room temperature made it more acceptable. Whatever kinds I had - probably some kind of tuna, salmon, and red snapper - I enjoyed immensely.
This past weekend I visited a fine Japanese restaurant here in St. Louis, called Sekisui. For the first time, I felt a certain level of confidence as I picked my favorites off the menu. Again I ordered both kinds of eel, plus raw yellowtail tuna and red snapper, smelt roe (see picture at left), and a tuna-and-cucumber roll (which was huge, carved into 6 thick slices). I actually enjoyed the palate-cleansing flavor of the shaved pickled ginger (shoga amasu zuke), which I loathed the first time. The green wasabi mustard was an excellent nasal decongestant and added a welcome zest to the mild flavor of the red snapper.
The only thing that was difficult to eat with the odd, flat-ended Japanese chopsticks was the roll, since each slice was too big to stuff in my mouth whole, and my teeth were not sharp enough to bite through the seaweed wrap. I got by with shoveling bits of rice, cucumber, and tuna from the edge of the serving dish into my mouth. This breach of American table etiquette is almost a bigger inhibition to get over than the raw fish issue.
It was an enormous meal, and as I washed it down with a large bottle of Asahi I had time to reflect that sushi is the type of food that is best consumed under the influence of alcohol. Next time, I want to take a cab there so I can sample the sake and not worry about how I'm going to get home.