It might seem like the restaurant is just out to make an extra buck, but those veggies could be keeping you from making an old-school sushi faux pas.
Sushi neophytes generally start out with varieties that won’t intimidate the palate or shock the wallet, such as egg or cooked shrimp. Eventually, though, most people who take a liking to Japan’s most famous culinary contribution will work their way up to trying ikura, as salmon roe is called in Japanese.
Ikura aficionados are captivated by its refined flavor and stimulating consistency, both of which are unlike anything else you’ll find offered at a sushi restaurant. However, another way that ikura stands out is by its price, as it’s usually one of the most expensive types of sushi on the menu.
So for some diners, it’s especially frustrating when their order of ikura sushi has thin slices of cucumber inside its seaweed wrapping, as is done at many restaurants both in Japan and abroad. You’re already paying premium price for the ikura, and now the chef wants to get stingy and stretch his supply by mixing in some cheap vegetables?
However, there’s actually a reason for the inclusion of cucumber slices that has nothing to do with cost-cutting or profit-maximizing. If you’re following orthodox sushi etiquette, that cucumber is actually going to make your ikura sushi taste better, some experts say.
How so? Well, the components of a pieces of sushi can be divided into two groups: the vinegared rice and the toppings (which are called the shari and neta, respectively, in Japanese). Sushi is meant to be eaten with soy sauce, but you’re not supposed to dip the rice into your plate of soy sauce, because it’ll disrupt the subtle flavors of the grain.
Instead, you’re supposed to turn the piece of sushi upside down with your chopsticks and quickly apply just a touch of soy to the topping, then bring the piece to your mouth and eat it in a single bite. This works fine with strips of fish such as salmon or yellowtail, since they’re pressed firmly into the rice by the chef.
However, ikura sits loosely on top of the rice, since pressing it in would crush the eggs and ruin their texture. But this means that if you turn a piece of ikura sushi upside down, all of the roe is liable to fall off the rice and spill onto the table.
So instead, with ikura sushi you’re supposed to use your chopsticks to remove the cucumber slices, dip them in the soy sauce, then replace them atop the roe. This way the toppings are properly seasoned, but the rice remains pure, letting you enjoy the morsel in the most delicious way possible.
It’s further proof that while Japan sometimes can be particular about how food is prepared and eaten, sometimes it has very good reasons for sticking to tradition.
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[ Read in Japanese ]