Seafood sashimi is all about cut and quality. Sashimi’s simplicity belies the finesse and precision behind the technique, which includes every step from choosing the best fish to slicing and plating it. It takes an itamae, or sashimi and sushi chef, 20 to 30 years to master his craft — start mastering yours today.
Sashimi/Sushi Grade Seafood Explained
The term “raw fish” has enough negative connotations to make a lot of home cooks think twice before making it at home. These same cooks might not hesitate to indulge in makizushi or norimaki from their favorite sushi bar, or even order steak tartare or medium-rare steak on occasion. Yet when it comes to choosing a quality, safe-for-consumption fish from the market, doubts form. Seafood suppliers recognized this years ago and created sushi- and sashimi-grade labeling to allay any lingering fears about safety.
Sashimi- and sushi-grade labeling is a marketing tool, in the U.S. at least. The FDA doesn’t regulate freshness or designate grades like they do beef. It does, however, require fish known to carry parasites intended for raw consumption to undergo flash-freezing and frozen storage at -4 F for a minimum of 168 hours prior to sale. About half of all restaurant sashimi you buy in the U.S. undergoes freezing at some point in the supply chain and, unless you live near the coast and purchased it within a day or two of harvest, the market seafood you buy underwent freezing as well.
Although “sushi-grade” and “sashimi-grade” mean little, supermarkets and restaurants don’t make money by making customers ill, so they reserve their freshest product for the distinction. To get the best, freshest fish for sashimi, frequent a reputable fishmonger and let him know you’re making sashimi — he’ll make sure you leave with the best.
The first rule of sashimi safety: Keep it cold and clean. Cross-contamination and ignoring temperature guidelines pose a far greater threat than buying fish that doesn’t say “sashimi-grade” on the package. Always keep sashimi below 40 degrees F until serving, and sanitize your sashimi knife and cutting board after each use.
Cross-contamination usually goes undetected until someone gets sick. Sanitize your sashimi knife and cutting board with bleach water (or in the dishwasher) after each use.
Sashimi knives are indispensable. Japanese sashimi knives, yanagi ba, have a beveled right side and a flat left side whereas Western-style sashimi knives, sujihiki, have a double-beveled edge. The single-beveled edge of a yanagi ba has unmatched precision and slices through delicate seafood with little effort. If you’re left-handed, you’ll need to specify a left-handed yanagi ba with the bevel on the left side. Western-style sashimi knives come with the left- and right-side bevels ground at different angles, usually 70:30, 60:40 and 90:10.
Sashimi knives range from around $15 to $7,500 or more. You can get a high-quality knife for well under $100. However, before you purchase one, consider how often you’ll use it. If you make sashimi only a couple times a month, buy an inexpensive knife, somewhere between $25 and $50 . High-end knives hold an edge longer, but cheap knives sharpen easier.
- Let the knife do the work. If you maintain a razor-sharp edge, the weight of the knife alone produces all the force needed for a clean slice.
- Slice with a pulling motion (draw-stroke) instead of a sawing motion. With a sharp knife, you only need to make one pass.
- Use the hira-zukuri cut (2″-long, 3/8″-thick rectangular slices) for salmon, tuna and kingfish.
- Use the uzu-zukuri cut (2″-long, 1/8″-thick rectangular slices) for shellfish and white fish, such as bream, mackerel and flounder
- Practice for proficiency. Practice sashimi cuts on inexpensive cuts of seafood. If you don’t want to use your practice cuts for sashimi, reserve them for mousse, ceviche or croquettes.
Classes and Workshops
If you want to dive head first into the sushi and sashimi game, enroll in a class or visit a workshop. If you’re in the NYC area, check out Osakana Japanese Fish Market and Education Center in Brooklyn. Osakana teaches you all about preparing sushi using the Japanese method. It also introduces you to the Japanese philosophy of mottainai, an approach to cooking (and life!) that encourages minimal waste and economy of resources.