by Ryuichi Yoshii
published by Periplus Editions
1999, 112 pages
If You Knew Sushi...
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
I was Japanese in another life. Maybe more than one life. I'll tell you how I know this. When I'm not feeling well or I'm sad or in some other type of funk that demands comfort food, my needs never waver. What I require at those times is a well-prepared chirashi or a big steamy bowl of miso ramen or -- if I'm hungry as well as sad -- maybe a nice teriyaki don. In short, the foods that I most readily plunk into the comfort department all hail from the land of cherry blossoms and well-prepared fish. They make me feel better and -- beyond that -- I can't begin to explain. I don't even bother trying to figure it out anymore: I just know where to go when the mood hits me.
A celebratory dinner? Take me to my favorite kaitan bar! A quiet dinner for two on a rainy night? I have a favorite spot for noodles on a damp night. A business dinner? Leave the shoes outside the tatami room and bring on the damp towels.
I'm fortunate to live in a city where locating good, fresh and properly prepared Japanese food is about as difficult as finding a burger place in most American cities. And one of the best parts of that is the fact that where there's a population large enough to support a big pile of Japanese restaurants, there's also going to be at least a little pile of stores with supplies for making my own Japanese food, including the various accouterments required for the making of sushi.
But before you even head out shopping, the first requirement of sushi-making is a book. A really good book is best, but even an adequate one will get you started and I've bought more than my share of adequate ones over the years. It takes over 10 years of training to become a sushi chef so -- without the benefit of formal training in the art of creating sushi -- I figured I'd better get my hands on all the books I can. If, however, you were restricted to one book, Sushi by Ryuichi Yoshii would be a good starting point.
Not only is Sushi a carefully executed primer on both the preparation and the philosophy of sushi, it's also -- quite simply -- the most beautiful book on the subject that I've seen. The photos are wonderful and the book's layout is clean and inviting, but that's only part of it. The fact is, Yoshii is an artist and the raw materials that sushi consists of are his medium. What else but this could explain the "Apple" and "Slice of Watermelon" sushi illustrated in the book? Imagine minced salmon around sushi rice garnished so it looks precisely like a tiny apple. Or minced tuna on sushi rice, edged with cucumber skin and topped with black sesame seeds; the finished piece looking uncannily like a triangle of watermelon. Or futomaki so beautifully colored and intricately wrapped the pieces look like stained glass? Or tuna and avocado rolls with the aesthetic beauty of small chunks of pop art? And while I'm not about to even think about making anything so complicated that it's supposed to end up looking like stained glass, the photos of Yoshii's "designer sushi" are inspirational and appetite-inspiring. Sushi, after all, is intended to excite the eyes as well as the palate, and this book knows that before all else.
The Japanese believe that food should satisfy all the senses. Food is always prepared with great care and beautifully presented: sometimes very simply, and sometimes in an intricate array. The freshest ingredients are combined in ways that delight the eyes as well as the taste buds. Seasonings are generally quite subtle, in order to enhance the natural flavors.
In this lovely primer, Yoshii goes on to explain first about some of the sensibilities around sushi, then about some of the differences, availabilities and pronunciations. Some of the niceties of eating at a sushi bar are covered, as are the origins of sushi. It's an informative section.
The next section covers the utensils you'll need and -- like the rest of the book -- crystal clear photographs illuminate the descriptions. A section on ingredients is wonderful for those new to the intricacies of Japanese food. It's good to have things like bonito flakes and Aji-ponzu explained to you if you've never encountered them before.
If you're serious about trying your hand at sushi, the section on selecting fish and seafood will be important. Point form lists of things to think about and look for are the very best I've seen. And the explanations accompanied by photographs of how to fillet a fish in the san-mai oroshi style are complete and detailed. A detailed chapter on making sushi rice provides the foundation for many of the recipes to follow, and when they follow they are ample and run the sushi gamut from maki (small rolls) to futomaki (big rolls), hand rolls, Nigiri-sushi, decorative sushi and so on.
Those making sushi for vegetarians will especially like the chapter on vegetable sushi. Although vegetarian sushi is far from uncommon, I haven't seen a selection this good or this wonderful-looking. Tofu sushi, avocado sushi, snow pea sushi, asparagus sushi, shiitake mushroom sushi, eggplant sushi... the list goes on. Most of it beautifully illustrated and all of it well explained. | March 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Mad Money.