Sushi and Sake
Food and drink are an intrinsic part of any culture. To better understand and appreciate any culture it is a good idea to experience its food and drink. The world is truly connected in innumerous ways, and cultures have perhaps never been closer than they are today. Today, you can enjoy the wonderful cuisines from the world over without having your passport stamped. Japan is steeped in traditions and rituals and you may enjoy your sushi and sake more if you understood how it is traditionally served and savored.
Like most cultures of the Orient and Asia, in Japan too, any celebration would be incomplete with food and drink. In fact, traditionally it is believed that ‘matsuru’ or a celebration connects people with their deities. Humans are considered to be extended families of the Gods, and every celebration involves the complete family. Shinto and Buddhism peacefully coexist in Japan, and each religion has been influenced by the other. And so, Buddhism has contributed to the aesthetic rituals and customs that go with enjoying traditional Japanese cuisine. Food is also a wonderful way of connecting with the people you love, as well as making a spiritual connection with God.
Whether it is a large gathering at a restaurant or a temple, or a quiet meal at home, the Japanese treat their food with reverence and as a joyous celebration of life. There are some things that one must keep in mind when visiting a sushi restaurant. You can choose to sit at a table or at the sushi bar. The latter is an experience that many sushi lovers relish. They enjoy interacting with the itamae or sushi chef. One question that you should avoid asking is if the fish is fresh. It is an insult to ask the chef such a question.
Sashimi is to be eaten with chopsticks. If you are picking something off a dinner partner’s plate then use the sides of the chopsticks that face you, and not the ends that touch your mouth. You can eat nigiri sushi, or fingers of rice that may be topped with fish, with your hands. Avoid putting wasabi on to your shoyu dish. In nigiri sushi, the itamae places the wasabi under the fish, in order to create the perfect balance of flavors. If you wish to add some more, do be careful, as the wasabi has a strong flavor and may overshadow the subtle taste of the sushi. To cleanse the palate of flavors you may like to take a bit of gari or ginger. Avoid eating it along with the ginger.
Sushi offers your palate delicate flavors. Don’t rush the culinary process, but take the time to enjoy the subtleties of Japanese cooking. If a piece of sushi is big, then eat it in two bites rather than attempting to eat in a single bite. The textures in sushi are as appealing as the flavors that it offers.
Food influences drink and vice versa. This is clearly reflected in the many flavors that we find in both, what we eat, and drink. The sake sushi is one such food. It is said that this form of sushi originated in Kagoshima, located on the southernmost tip of the island of Kyushu. The story goes that in feudal Japan, in the season of the cherry blossom, a party of revelers had a rather colorful celebration and days later found their chirashi sushi soaked in sake. And the rest, as they say, is history. Even today, sake sushi is made by sprinkling sweet sake over layers of rice, fish and vegetables and allowed to ferment. It is served topped with kogayaki and shrimp. Kogayaki is an omelet created with eggs, oboro fish flakes and grated mountain yam.
Enjoying Sushi and Sake
There are those who believe that sake should not be drunk when you are enjoying sushi. This may be because sushi contains rice and sake is made by fermenting rice. However, contrary to what some may think, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to enjoying your sake with sushi. Some patrons enjoy their sake before, with and after their meal, and some prefer it only with their sashimi.
Sake may be served warm, hot or chilled. This may be dependent on the weather and the preference of the drinker. Usually high quality sake is not heated to avoid the loss of aroma and flavor. Sake is usually served to a patron or into a fellow diner’s cup. It is customary to pay attention to the cups of friends and colleagues who have joined you for a meal. If you wish to have your cup refilled, finish drinking the sake in it, and politely hold it, slightly, towards your dining partners. If you are at the sushi bar, you may like to offer a cup of sake to the itamae.