The Art of Sushi
Appearing in Japan in the 2nd century, sushi has had a long traditional history that stretches back to when fermented rice was used to store fish, and the rice wasn’t even eaten with it. Because of it’s rich history and beautiful cultural complexity, you can imagine why sushi is crafted with great care and mastery. It is truly a classic and developmental art that has been preserved for generations, and we are lucky enough to have genuine compassionate chefs who continue the tradition for us to enjoy.
Patience, dexterity, knife mastery, and arithmetic are just a few components masters in the art of crafting sushi have to be skilled in. What may seem like a simple affair, actually takes years of practice, sometimes even decades to become a true master chef. These masters are called Itamaes, and their name is a honor that has to be earned. “Nusumu no gei” directly means “stealing the art”, or in the western world, apprenticing; which is the first step a prospective sushi chef has to endure. For up to three years and starting as early as a teenager, the proposed young chef will apprentice a itamae doing tasks such as cleaning knives, gutting and scaling fish, cleaning the kitchen, and doing any other array of things their itamea asks of them. Truly a “started from the bottom” type of situation, and in fact there is a phrase for this in Japanese, “shita-koshirae”. Unfortunately, many hopeful young chefs will never get past this phase, but some will eventually get to practice cooking and shaping rice, some might even prepare items. After years of learning and observing, the apprentice will be able to begin to use a sushi knife, prepare dishes, and serve customers. And finally, after a staggering seven to ten years of apprenticeship, the chef will become an itamae. Now this traditional way isn’t the only way to become an itamae, there are also schools and sushi academies that allow for pupils to learn as well.
You may be asking, why so much work for some raw fish and rice? That’s where the art comes into play. Before you can even put together the ingredients, you have to cut the fish, which is described as being as challenging as performing surgery. The cuts made in the fish have to be at the perfect angle, done with perfect incision, and filleted at the perfect depth. The razor-sharp knife has to be sharpened to the exact sharpness required to make such cuts, some chefs spend years learning how to do just this step. Cutting the fillet lengthways requires you to pull the tail of the fish and slide the knife along diagonally, making each piece have the tail end be a little bigger. The rice has to have precise amounts of rice vinegar, and salt and sugar folded. Itamaes have to know how the quality of the sushi rice changes with the seasons, in winter it’s more flaky and in the summer it’s more dry. An experienced itamae will know how to tailor each piece of sushi from the current conditions the fish and rice are under. The correct amount of rice has to be added to the fish, or it won’t be the perfect mouthful; not enough and the fish overpowers it; too much pressure and it will be too tough to eat; not enough rice and it will fall apart completely.
Being a sushi chef is rewarding and challenging all at the same time. Thank your itamae for their years of hard work to craft you the perfect piece of sushi next time you’re out, your understanding of their craft will allow you to appreciate it that much more.