When it comes to a piece of raw fish on a pad of rice, how big is just right?
An opinionated physician sent me an email the other day. It contained an “Open Letter to Seattle Sushi Chefs” — a food op-ed, of sorts. “If you do not publish the letter, I will send it elsewhere,” he warned. Easy there, doctor! He required that his name be withheld as well (shy, for an opinionated guy).
After I replied, he loosened up slightly, explaining, “It would be fun if this becomes popular or even ‘viral,’ but I do not wish to be involved with many emails.”
Here it is, contagious or not.
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During the 1990s, I made several trips to Japan and remember that an order of nigiri sushi consisted of two small bite-size pieces. An entire single small piece fit comfortably into the mouth.
Now, nigiri sushi typically comes as a single large piece per order that is too large to fit in the mouth in a single bite. This leads to awkward eating, where the large piece must be bitten in half, and the second half recovered outside the lips with chopsticks. Often the second half falls apart, with rice and fish separating. This is messy and unappetizing.
Except for California rolls, other rolls have also become too large. It is easier to bite sashimi in two than sushi, but it would be nice to have bite-size sashimi as well.
May we please have two small bite-size pieces of nigiri sushi per order?
[Name withheld], M.D.
The doctor’s problem is a luxurious one — my lovely piece of raw fish is too big! — but he has a point. If you eat much sushi in Seattle, you’ve encountered the conundrum: Stuff an entire oversized piece of nigiri in your mouth and have your enjoyment greatly reduced by the possibility of choking, or attempt to nip it in half without having it disintegrate. (If, like me, you sometimes resort to using your hands to make the latter route less of a mess, you probably feel déclassé, even though in Japan, it’s perfectly acceptable to eat nigiri that way.)
Chef Shota Nakajima of Naka on Capitol Hill concurs that “If you have to eat a sushi in two bites, that is too large … A big part of Japanese cuisine is about how easy things are to eat.” As for oversize sushi rolls: “California rolls, dragon rolls, etc., is American food. It does not exist in Japan, so for that part I will have to say no comment.” (I ventured that this kind of “no comment” might be interpreted to mean “I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole.” Nakajima said, “I would gladly eat dragon rolls after four or five shots of whiskey” — making America’s sushi favorites his late-night pizza-by-the-slice.)
Nakajima holds that the problem comes from the customers’ side of the sushi bar, where a bigger-is-better mentality pervades. “A lot of Japanese chefs that I know in Seattle … do larger portions so consumers would feel they are getting the best deal,” he explains.
High-end Naka serves kaiseki dinners, not sushi; if you’re looking for a Seattle chef who’s truly “trying to convey the beauty of sushi,” Nakajima recommends chef Kotaro Kumita’s work at Wataru in Ravenna. “But honestly,” he admits, “if someone asks me where I eat sushi, I’ll say I’ll wait ’til I go to Japan.”
Chef Taichi Kitamura of Sushi Kappo Tamura on Eastlake observes that “Every sushi restaurant serves nigiri [in a] different style in Japan, just like restaurants serve different-size burgers in America.” He says our doctor just happened to end up at places serving it on the smaller side in Japan. He, too, thinks that oversized nigiri here is a misguided effort to provide “more value.” As far as he’s concerned, nigiri should be bite-sized — and, importantly, have the right rice-to-fish ratio (which he adjusts depending on the fish).
At his place, they served nigiri in sets of two as recently as this past March, but — especially since the (great) film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” — more and more people only wanted one piece at a time.
Kitamura’s courtly response to the doctor’s open letter: “I recommend this gentleman to search for a favorite sushi restaurant /sushi chef who understands his liking if he wants to enjoy nigiri locally.” He then asked if I wanted his non-politically correct, “Donald Trump” version — I said yes, of course. “Are you going to use my name?” he asked. Yes. “Maybe next time for the Donald.” Sigh.
For a no-holds-barred take on anything food-related (or anything at all, for that matter), rely on Hajime Sato of West Seattle sushi bar Mashiko. He says when nigiri originated 100 years ago or so, it was fast food and was “pretty big, two-three bites size” — akin to a piece of Hawaiian Spam musubi. “That was a trend for a long time,” he explains. After World War II, though, “It got smaller and smaller and smaller. That’s the time that people started saying, ‘Hey, nigiri is art.’ ” It had to be eaten in one bite, “or you’re destroying the art.”
“Sushi became fancier,” Sato says. “Which I don’t like that much.”
He notes that in Japan, some sushi chefs make their nigiri a little smaller for women — but, then, “Obviously, she is getting less fish,” which probably isn’t going to fly here.
The way people eat sushi has changed over time — so if you want it traditional, then from which era? “Tradition,” Sato says, “becomes some old, grumpy Japanese guy saying ‘That’s tradition!’ Sometimes that’s not true.”
At Mashiko, he tries to make his nigiri one-bite size. If your nigiri’s too big for your taste, “I think that conversation can be done at the sushi bar,” he suggests. “Ask.”
Won’t some sushi chefs be offended?
“Sushi chefs are assholes most of the time — including me — so of course they’re going to get offended … [But] why is he here in front of you? He can custom-make something for you. You can communicate with him.”
“If I can accommodate [the customer], I think that’s wonderful,” Sato says. Super-serious sushi chefs, Sato says, “might say I’m compromising the art.” You can guess where he’d tell them to go.