With summer just around the corner, we’ve got fresh fish on the brain. So we sat down with Chef Toru Oga, Kyoto-trained master sushi chef and owner of Oga’s in Natick, Massachusetts. His restaurant opened in 2001, and has been lauded as one of the best sushi restaurants in the region for the past twelve years. The Boston Globe deemed it one of the Most Authentic Restaurants of 2005 and claimed that by eating at the sushi bar and watching Oga and his chefs work, “you could almost be in Tokyo.” Oga gave us an unscripted, expert’s take on what more people might want to know about the tasty Japanese cuisine.
That stuff you’re eating isn’t sushi
Well, it is and it isn’t. Food tastes and definitions change over time, so most people living in the U.S. today would call your basic California roll – rice, wrapped around seaweed, wrapped around fish in a circle – “sushi.” But according to Japanese tradition, sushi is a slice of fish or egg over a bed of rice, period. No added fruit, seaweed, or spicy mayo tobiko sauce. The maki rolls with lots of stuff piled on top and in between (delicious though they may be), are typically from Chinese and Korean traditions. The nigiri rolls on your menu, simple and classic, are what Japanese sushi connoisseurs like Oga define as true “sushi.”
It’s not all about the fish
When you bite into a perfectly crafted piece of nigiri sushi, the chef may have spent between five to ten years studying how to put that piece together, about as long as it takes to become a doctor. A fresh piece of salmon, for example, will be fatty, tender, and have a melt-in-your mouth quality to it, without tasting overly fishy. But the difference between a good piece of sushi and a great piece comes down to the rice.
Chef Oga spent three years studying how to make his signature sushi rice – a recipe he regretfully couldn’t divulge with us (damn). He prefers short grain rice, cooked in a rice cooker, with very specific combinations of sugar, salt, vinegar, and water. The ratio of those ingredients is so exact that most of us could have the same piece of fish over two different rice recipes and have completely different experiences. He did give us one tip for making this at home: use warm water when you put the ingredients into the rice cooker, it will take less time for the entire batch to heat up.
The proof is in the egg
If you really want to know whether a sushi restaurant is “good” or not, Oga believes that the fish isn’t the best indicator, simply because the chef typically does not make or catch the fish in the restaurant; they get it from vendors. The choice of those vendors is important, and we hope that a top-notch place wouldn’t serve anything less than fresh. But you will be able to discern the chef’s skill based on the egg sushi. Some restaurants will make their omelets from ready-made packets, bleh. But a true sushi chef will have spent a large part of his or her career perfecting the egg sushi omelet. It will consist of specially crafted layers of egg, with a combination of sugar, salt, dashi broth, and soy sauce. A high quality piece of egg sushi will have just the right amount of sweet, salty, and savory, with a texture that makes your whole mouth happy.
Now if only we could master the art of chopsticks…