You'll never be hard-pressed to find great sushi restaurants in Toronto, no matter which neighbourhood you're in. From your run-of-the-mill mom-and-pop sushi shop and all-you-can-eat spots like Kaka to magnificent multi-course kaiseki tasting menus and omakase joints like Masaki Saito, where everything is left up to the chef — our city is home to all the sushi you could dream of.
The latest addition to Toronto's sushi scene, Minami (sister spot to Miku, TORA and Aburi Hana), specializes in aburi sushi, served in an elegant atmosphere on King West. We sat down with their executive chef Kazuya Matsuoka (Matsu) to learn about the do's and don'ts of eating sushi. Yep, we've been eating it wrong the whole time.
What is sushi?
"Sushi is a Japanese cuisine, which is simply Japanese rice and vinegar mixed, paired with fish, vegetables or meat.
Back 400 or 500 years ago in Japan, they didn't have refrigeration systems. The fishermen thought, how can they keep the rice and fish longer? So, they started curing the fish with salt or vinegar to make their shelf-life longer. Same thing with the rice — we eat rice almost every day in Japan. They thought they could use the same model with the rice, and decided to start mixing it with vinegar. So that rice mixed with vinegar, paired with fish cured with salt or vinegar made one dish, and that was the start of sushi.
Nowadays, in North America or in Japan, people keep creating new sushi. To me, as long as it's pairing any seafood, meat or vegetable with shari (fish rice, which is a mixture of rice and vinegar), it's sushi."
What are some of the different sushi types?
"Maki means roll in Japanese. We have hosomaki, chumaki, futomaki. Hosomaki is a very tiny roll, you see the seaweed outside. With chumaki you put a little bit more ingredients inside that makes a middle-sized roll. Then futomaki you put more ingredients that make a bigger roll."
Hand rolls, or temaki, also have rice and other ingredients inside, but they come wrapped in a large, cone-shaped piece of seaweed, rather than a cylindrical roll.
"Sashimi is basically fresh seafood, cut into slices. Then you dip it in the soy sauce, add wasabi and eat it."
"Nigiri features a small piece of sushi rice with seafood on top."
A subset of nigiri, aburi is a piece of meat or seafood laid over rice, but what sets it apart is that it's lightly cooked, often just flame-seared on top.
"Anything that we torch or we grill with heated charcoal on top of it, we call aburi in Japan," says Matsu. "That's our signature item on our menu at Minami Toronto, and our other restaurants. We started aburi sushi in North America 10 years ago and we created the aburi sushi culture in Canada.
Often, I hear from our guests, 'Oh, I never ate raw fish before and then I tried this aburi sushi and it's become my favourite now.' Because once you torch the fish, it's still medium-rare, but it avoids that strong fish taste. It also pulls out the umami from the fish, and that smoky texture and flavour will be perfectly matched in your mouth."
How do you eat sushi?
"A lot of effort and time goes into making one piece of sushi. That's why we really recommend you eat it in one bite, because sushi chefs really care about the texture and the balance. We want our guests to enjoy the flavour. That's why I recommend that when you eat nigiri, you pick it up with your hand and then kind of flip it over, and then you dip a little bit, about one third of the fish, into the soy sauce, and then you just throw it in your mouth upside down. That's how you're supposed to eat nigiri, because then you enjoy the seafood coming down on your tongue and you can catch the flavour, then the fluffy rice comes after. That's how you can judge good sushi; when you flip it, the seafood doesn't fall off, it's still stuck to the rice."
Should you use chopsticks or eat sushi with your hands?
"Either way, but to eat it the way I describe [above] is better with your fingers. Because we are Japanese, we can flip the nigiri upside down with chopsticks. But for someone unfamiliar with chopsticks, it's going to be… Not good," Matsu laughs.
What about the soy sauce and wasabi?
"As a sushi chef, I don't like to see the guests using a lot of soy sauce — then you only taste the soy sauce flavour. I hope people eating sushi just dip a little bit into the soy sauce. It's personal how people want to enjoy it, but I want to educate people to respect the chef and how much effort goes into one piece of sushi. Sometimes people like more wasabi, but I recommend not putting it in the soy sauce."
"Always put the extra wasabi on top of the nigiri or roll, then dip it into the soy sauce and eat it in one bite so you can feel the balance. Soy sauce, wasabi, rice, seaweed, seafood — everything comes separately and then makes the great balance in your mouth."