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Did sushi come from Japan? All you need to know about the beloved dish

The insider's guide to authentic sushi today, and the different forms it has taken since the 19th century.

Down a small pebbled corridor, diners push past two pretty curtains and step into a minimalist room featuring unadorned wood. As they take their seats at the counter, a serious-looking chef carefully prepares and presents slices of raw fish pressed onto balls of lightly seasoned rice.

For many diners, this is the way sushi should be served – unadorned, nigiri-style, and in a setting that is elegant yet simple. But ask chef Kenjiro Hashida of popular restaurant Hashida Sushi what authentic sushi is and his eyes light up as he leans in to address a question not many know the answer to.

(RELATED: [VIDEO] All you need to know about Chef Kenjiro Hashida of popular Hashida Sushi restaurant in Singapore.)

“So many people ask for an authentic experience,” he says, pointing out that it is difficult to define “authentic” sushi when the dish has taken several forms and been presented in varying settings throughout history. “In fact, the idea of sushi actually came from Thailand and its use of fermented fish sauce.” This is corroborated by American author Sasha Issenberg in his book The Sushi Economy: “In its original form, sushi was fish preserved with salted rice, a process that seems to have originated in South-east Asia.”

TWO OF A KIND

Post WWII, limited varieties of river fish meant that chefs had to serve diners two pieces of the same fish instead of a wider assortment. This led to the two-piece serving standard still practised in restaurants today.

A study of food history shows that the concept of sushi has long been in flux, along with shifting economies and cultural practices. In the mid-19th century, for instance, sushi was a popular snack sold along the streets of Tokyo – the chunky pieces were picked up by factory workers on their way home. Wasabi was dabbed under fish such as gizzard shad – a quick fix to dilute its toxins. And few today would think that the Japanese used to consider ootoro, or fatty tuna belly – often the priciest item on sushi menus today – scraps best left for cats.

With the advent of electric refrigerators and globalisation, sushi has come a long way. It’s now a popular restaurant item and the star of many a pricey omakase meal. We look at how it is prepared and presented today.

THE ART OF IKE JIME

Although sushi has taken different forms through the centuries, its focus has always been preserving fish in the best way possible. This is apparent in the way Japanese anglers and chefs go the extra mile by dispatching their catch via ike jime, a method which paralyses and kills a fish quickly and maintains the quality of its flesh. The process minimises buildup of lactic acid, which is produced in a fish’s muscles when it struggles before it dies and can result in meat with a sour taste and mushy texture. Here’s how to execute this traditional method.

STEP 1: KILL THE FISH

Deliver a sharp blow to the top of the fish’s head with a spiked tool, about two inches above the eyes. If done right, the fish will stiffen and its mouth will go slack. The move is executed swiftly so the brain does not have a chance to fire stress signals to the rest of the body.

STEP 2: SLIT THE GILLS

Fish blood is where fishy odours originate. Insert a blade between the gills and slice in an upward motion toward the mouth. This cuts a major blood vessel, and will ensure effective draining of the fish. The fish is then left head-down in a bucket of sea water.

STEP 3: SEVER THE SPINAL CORD

Make an incision about two inches from the top of the tail (where it meets the body). Insert a thin (1mm-thick) wire into the neural canal, which runs the length of the spine. Push the wire towards the head until it can go no further – this is a vital step that destroys the fish’s nervous system and prevents rigor mortis, which can lead to mushy meat.

STEP 4: BLEED IT OUT

Remove the wire and leave the fish in a large cooler of seawater filled with ice to chill the fish while letting it bleed out. Zip-tie the tail to the side of the fish, so that it doesn’t flop over and obstruct bleeding from its severed spine.

(RELATED: All you need to know about uni, the latest food craze in Singapore.)

MORE THAN JUST TUNA

Fatty tuna and sea urchin might share top spot in high-end sushi restaurants today, but there is a sea of other varieties with plenty to offer too.

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    01: TORIGAI (JAPANESE COCKLE)

    Its inky purple foot gives this shellfish its name (it looks like a bird’s beak), and is also an indicator of how fresh the clam is. The more vibrant the colour, the fresher and sweeter this thick cut of meat. Best enjoyed from spring to summer.

SUSHI FROM:
Hashida Sushi, #04-16 Mandarin Gallery, 333A Orchard Road
Shoukouwa Restaurant, #02-03A One Fullerton, 1 Fullerton Road

GETTING CREATIVE WITH SUSHI

Chef Yoshiyuki Kashiwabara, who spent seven years as a personal chef to Japanese ambassadors in San Francisco and Singapore, makes it a point to inject creativity into the sushi he creates as part of his kaiseki menu. The head chef of Kaiseki Yoshiyuki tells us why.

What is a common misconception about sushi?

Many people think that only nigiri is considered proper sushi. But actually, anything with vinegared rice is sushi. One example is bara chirashi – chopped seafood and eggs are mixed in a bowl with vinegared rice. It’s an entirely different presentation from moulded sushi, but as long as you use vinegared rice, it is sushi.

So, there isn’t an authentic style of sushi then?

No. In a kaiseki restaurant, sushi is one of many courses, and is usually presented creatively in a way that highlights the season. For example, in autumn, a chef might carve ika (squid) into the shape of a chrysanthemum (which blooms in autumn in Japan).

You serve tuna with soya sauce foam, instead of the usual sauce in a small dish. Why?

The foam has a lighter texture than the sauce, so it doesn’t cover the flavours of the fish too much. That’s better for the hot weather here.

PHOTOGRAPHY Vee Chin
ART DIRECTION Fazlie Hashim