Korea Part Three: Sushi Sunsoo and the Art of Nigiri

The art of sushi, and undoubtedly and specifically of nigiri, rests in the rice.

Accustomed to all-you-can-stash-or-cram buffets and second-rate sushi joints and chefs, we have come to define a restaurant’s quality in the freshness of the fish itself. No doubt this is a crucial factor in determining the success or failure of a particular sushi experience.

The sadness lies in the undeniable truth that the freshness of the fish and seafood used in the panorama of sushi dishes is, or ought to be, an inherent truth, a given factor not susceptible to any level of half-ass culinary gimmick. Fish is fresh? Good, that’s a start. But do not shortchange your pallet solely on that premise.

It is no coincidence that a choice cut of otoro, saba, sake or hamachi rests upon a carefully crafted mound of sushi rice. But do not be mistaken; the rice is no vehicle, no “plate” to present the fish. It serves as its foundation, its root, an unwavering force whose texture and subtle acidity is accentuated by the blooming highlights of the fish, not the other way around.

If tradition is to be given any degree of reverence, sushi rice is to be made from the finest crop, spread out and fanned to relieve the exuberant moisture, and seasoned ever so delicately with vinegar. One imagines a sushi chef’s care in handling the day’s fresh catch; one seldom illustrates the patient soul required in breathing life into the rice.

The most revered sushi chefs are said to know the number of grains between their fingertips, as they ready their senses before wedding rice to fish.

Sushi is a gentle art; it is respectful in all aspects, of all circumstances and opinions. Grains are not forced into others’ company. How unfortunate it is to witness the disruptive reality of “rice cake nigiri”, in which chef’s heed no attention to the exact caliber of force channeled through the rice. Their fingertips are mundane to harmony, asleep to the breathing nature of nigiri.

Delicacy ought not to be overlooked when handling sushi. One, two touches with the fingers and the palm, one touch for the grated wasabi, one or two more touches for the joining. Cold hands are said to be a must-have gift of sushi chefs, as repeated touches with warmer ones disrespects the innate coolness of the fish and fanned rice. Rhythmic movements, swift and calculated, light yet determined. One, two, another one, two.

Texture is the foreground of all sushi creations. Balance. Contrast. The push and pull, ebb and flow. Sashimi presents two opposites. Each fish sings a different melody.

First, in terms of the initial bite and the amount of “chewiness” the fish has. Resistance persists in varying amounts in the countless species. Second the fat content presents a counter melody. Some are so subtle that its sweetness only blushes in the absence of any serious dosage of Kikoman soy sauce. Some are so rich – like the always worshiped otoro or chutoro – that the tip of a giddy tongue is all it takes to burst the buttery bubble in which the fish contains itself.

The inherent dichotomy present in sashimi enters a new plateau with the entrance of sushi rice. Not subdued, not shadowed, but enhanced, uplifted.

An added dimension means added perception. The way we perceive things is limited – or propelled – by our ability to control our internal dimensions.

Skillfully crafted sushi rice adds a third, fourth dimension to fresh raw fish. The contrast in texture is readily apparent at initiation; a contrasting firmness, a contrasting density, a contrasting silkiness. The aroma blossoms after impact. The earthy grains, cloaked in a perfectly proportioned element of acidity, draws out the inherent sweetness in fish.

“Warmth” is not a simple matter of temperature. It is a characteristic, found mainly in the heirs of the earth, which pushed its way into our atmosphere through pounds of soil and dirt. Such heirs spent their afternoons basking in the low-hanging sun, bowing slowly as its head becomes heavy with the season’s fruit.

As contradictory as this may seem, the fine cut of raw fish accentuates this “warmth” in the sushi rice. Describing it as “earthy” will not do justice, but a lack of human words (or simply a lack of a writer’s expressions) does not hold back what is eminent, profoundly thundering across a diner’s pallet: warmth.

Raving reviews of sushi restaurants in town (in particular, Sushi Yoshi in Vienna, Virginia) perplex me. I become inquisitive of the definition or guideline of great sushi. Some standard, I must say, to judge an edible art form that is so much more than raw fish and rice (with mayo, teriyaki, and multiple dunkings in soy sauce).

An institution that heeds so little attention to the greatest of details will stand nowhere near the podium of great sushi, at least in my mind. All it takes is one order of saba nigiri – that first bite, where all dimensions of sushi rest on my tongue – to judge the fate of that eatery.

Ancestry cannot be undervalued in any cuisine. The forefathers of contemporary sushi, such as funozushi, had one purpose: preservation. Fish of all kinds was stacked in between layers of rice and salt, and kept there for weeks, months. In other words, sushi was conceived as a slow calculated art form. In Edo times, sushi became a deceiving “fast” food, as passers grabbed vinegar-ed rice balls with a slab of fish on top. This I say is deceiving speed, in that the preparation of the harvest, the rice, and the blade work skinning and slicing the fish was still inevitably “slow” food.

In the whirlwind, concrete forest known as Gangnam-gu, Seoul, there exists an anomaly of a restaurant. Sushi Sunsoo.

Upon entrance into this cove, the spinning stops. The jabbering stops. Balance predominates. Dimensional food takes on new meaning. Fresh is not fast, only meticulous. Accuracy is pulled out as a noun to describe a bite of nigiri. Accurate.

It breathes as it should.

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