The Common And The Fascinating
I responded to a private email a few days ago from someone who was somewhat new to the sushi game but was interested in items beyond the standard “California roll.” They were wondering how to expand their horizons and it got me to thinking that I might like to highlight some of the more interesting items that I like, or have liked in various sushi-ya over the years. Whether or not you may enjoy these items is a matter of personal taste, but I’m suggesting them because, while many of you out there routinely eat all of these items, there are probably some of you out there who may not have had the opportunity to try them.
Of course what may be interesting to one person may be boring or standard to another (not that sushi can ever be boring). However I thought it might make a nice “what to try” list for those of you are interested in expanding your horizons but may not have thought about what else there may be available. I aim to comment on items that westerners may not normally think about as sushi, or simply may not have had the opportunity to encounter as such. If you are already a sushi connoisseur, read no further. If you are new to the game, or merely interested in hearing about some items you may have never tried before, read on.
Unusual Sushi You May Want To Try
Fatty Tuna (Toro [toh-roh])
Available in various grades as the cuts go up the quality (and price) scale, this is the fatty cut of the Tuna belly. One may find toro, chu-toto, and o-toro available, so named as the fat content of the cut increases. Toro has a buttery consistency, and the delicate tuna flavor is enhanced by the fattiness of the piece, perhaps the richest overall types of neta available. It may be expensive, but it is worth at least a try.
Scallop (Hotate-Gai [hoh-tah-teh-gah-ee])
Raw scallop is always a treat. It is very tender and surprisingly sweet with a creamy texture. Only one other item (Uni) represents such a pure and simple taste the sea. While I prefer scallop as nigiri-zushi or sashimi, the subtle flavor holds up surprisingly well in a “spicy scallop roll” that they offer at my favorite sushi-ya. I would heartily recommend trying scallop, as the mouth feel of the item is as important to the overall experience as the taste, something often I feel is overlooked in many dishes.
Monkfish Liver (Ankimo [ahn-kee-moh])
The fois gras of the seafood world, ankimo is literally the liver of the Monkfish that has been cleaned, poached or steamed with sake, and then chilled. It is usually sliced into discs and served either by itself (sashimi) or with ponzu sauce. As with fois gras, the liver is very rich and surprisingly complex, without the gameyness (is that a word?) of a terrestrial animal liver. It is a seasonal item, usually found only in the winter and early spring, however can be found in places that may store it frozen, which can reduce its quality. If I could eat this with a baguette every day I would.
Deep fried shrimp heads (Ebi no atama [eh-bee noh ah-tah-mah])
Yes, you heard me right, deep-fried shrimp heads. What do you think they do with all the heads of the shrimp they serve? These are very flavorful and the shells are actually good for you (mmm, chitin). Due to the heat of the fryer, they also become quite edible. Think shrimp plus. I eat them like popcorn as I wait for my meal to arrive. I understand that the eyes (which get hard), may be a turn off for some however if you can get past them (or the antennae) they are a fun, flavorful, and nutritious munchie if your sushi-ya offers them. I’ve never seen them on a menu since they are not a common item, but just ask if they are available. Some places may also ask you if you would like the heads fried after you finish you meal of shrimp.
Abalone (Awabi [ah-wah-bee])
Not a commonly found item, abalone is often underappreciated due to its rubbery texture. Like many mollusks, its flavor is subtle, and is best appreciated on its own as sashimi. The itamae will (hopefully) score it as a means of tenderizing the flesh and it actually has a nice crunchiness similar to fluke fin (if you’ve ever tried that) and is a nice deviation from the normal soft neta. This one is an adventure for the texture alone.
Squid (Ika [ee-kah])
As sushi or sashimi the squid’s body is eaten raw and the tentacles are usually served parboiled then grilled or toasted. Ika has a yielding crunchiness with a slightly creamy texture that I feel is almost as though it starts to dissolve in the mouth upon entry. I prefer ika as sashimi with just a drop of shoyu, and this item is about as simple as they get. The lack of complex flavors actually serves to enhance the enjoyment of ika, in my opinion, as one can truly appreciate the unique qualities that the texture and the simple taste offer.
Sea Urchin (Uni [oo-nee])
Uni is truly a unique food. Redolent of the sea, rich and fecund, I haven’t found anything else that is such a love it or hate it kind of food. The way it falls apart in one’s mouth both attracts some and turns others off. Its robust and earthy flavor contrasts its “hint of the ocean” quality without getting in the way. This is absolutely best when still alive and scooped right out of the urchin’s body, but that is almost impossible to find.
Flying Fish Roe (Tobiko (toh-bee-koh) with Quail Egg (Uzura no tamago [oo-zoo-rah no tah-mah-goh])
This is often my “dessert.” Tobiko eaten sushi style with a raw quail egg cracked over the top is a great way to end a meal. I often order two and try to force whoever I am dining with to try the other (but I can’t get my wife to try it *sigh*). I usually end up eating both. The roe is crunchy and salty while the quail egg adds fat and sweetness that rounds the item. You might be picking tobiko out of your teeth for a while afterwards, but this unusual combination is a grand pairing of foods that everyone should experience (except pregnant women, those with immune disorders, and anyone else who shouldn’t or doesn’t want to).
Fermented Soybeans (Natto [naht-toh])
Gluey and slimy, natto is not something that many westerners would ever come across outside of a sushi-ya. Definitely an acquired taste, natto can be described as nutty, cheesy, and there are even some ‘mild’ versions available now for those of you who may not like the intensity of the dish. It is often eaten over rice, sometimes with condiments (name it and someone will put it in), but at North American sushi-ya it is often served simply in a bowl with rice. This is an item with which to test your friends.
Real Wasabi (wah-sah-bee)
I’m not going to call this “Japanese Horseradish” because it’s not. It’s not even related to horseradish (and actually more closely related to cabbage than anything else), and the lump one usually gets in a restaurant is, in fact, American horseradish with food coloring. *Real* wasabi has a hotness that does not linger, and compliments and enhances the flavor of sushi rather well. It offers a subtle vegetal quality missing in the “other stuff” as well. It has also been shown to have antibacterial properties, perhaps owing to its use for centuries alongside such dishes as raw fish. The real stuff is expensive (as opposed to the green colored horseradish that is free), but a different beast and is worth a try if available.
This probably doesn’t need to be said, but it’s always good to try. Always ask about the specials when you go out, one never knows what may be available that is new and interesting. Just be sure they aren’t trying to get rid of older items as some of the lower-end restaurants may try to do this. But any respected restaurant wouldn’t want to sully their image trying to pawn off old food as a “special.”
Experiment And Try New Foods
Those are some of the items that I really enjoy and might not have every time I go out for sushi, but they are a part of my rotation depending on their seasonality and my mood. And some, such as the shrimp heads, are sometimes offered for free as they typically have so many due to the amount of shrimp eaten. And there are plenty of other interesting items often available and I encourage any readers to chime in with anything that I may not have mentioned but is still worth mentioning.