Growing up on a farm in a very rural and very poor part of Iowa, sushi just wasn't on my radar. I'm sure I knew what it was but there just wasn't any desire to try some nor had I the desire would there have been a place to find some. There still isn't. I came from a meat and potatoes family and everything was well cooked except for our steaks which were medium rare.
Then while doing an internship late in my college career, that all changed. Another intern's roommate wanted to experiencing camping and asked me if I would take her and some of her friends camping for a night. I think it was the backpack and half a dozen tents that tipped her off. She was from Hong Kong and so were her friends and I don't think any of them had ever camped before. Long story short, the night we camped was very cold and I think they all spent at least half the night shivering in the nearby cars while I slept warmly in my sleeping bag. But sometime during the late evening hours over a campfire, we got on the subject of foods and my lack of knowledge or even experience around sushi was revealed and the girl said she would remedy that. I had no desire to eat sushi but it was one of those deals where I said it sounded great even though it didn't because I knew she was just being polite. I was wrong.
A couple weeks later, I found myself, the girl (I think her name was Melissa but I am no longer certain) and her roommate at a sushi bar in a much larger urban jungle than the one I frequent these days. They started me off easy with sushi rolls which were really good and I happily enjoyed them. Then they picked a plate from the rotating display and set it in front of me telling me it was unagi and very delicious. By then, my courage had picked up a bit and I tasted the unagi and found that it was even better than the sushi rolls. Only then did they tell me unagi was eel. I had a few more things that were also very tasty and then had raw octopus. Though that was over fifteen years ago, I still remember it clearly as being a bit like chewing a rubberband and probably of similar taste. Despite ending on a bad note, the overall experience had been positive until I got the bill and found out those small plates actually cost me almost fifty dollars.
Over a dozen years would go by before I found myself at another sushi place, this time with my wife and daughter in tow in our small urban jungle. At that time, I fell in love with sushi all over again and try to eat it a few times a year. It is still fairly expensive but with time, I have found a few places that serve excellent sushi at a fair price and you don't have to pay a premium for an atmosphere. The last sushi I had a few weeks ago, seen in the picture above was probably the best of all of them in both taste and price and I enjoyed it tremendously even if I didn't get my unagi fix.
I have a theory that most people would love sushi just as much as I do if they could just get around the mental road block that most Americans seem to have about it. The taste isn't what I expected nor is it very describable to those who haven't it before. I think the closest experience I can relate it too is eating a ripe piece of melon. Raw fish is very clean and refreshing tasting.
But let me take a step back and explain that though sushi is used to refer generally to a specific genre of food, notable raw fish, that isn't the case. Sushi refers to any fish served with rice. All the fish on the left side of the grainy cell phone picture at the top of this blog was sushi or raw fish served over a mound of rice hidden underneath with the exception of the shrimp at the bottom which was lightly cooked. Sushi can be raw or cooked. Sashimi is what I think most people equate to sushi and it is simply fish, raw or cooked served without any accompaniment. In the picture above, all the fish in the center of the plate, including the raw salmon hidden under the garnishing was sashimi. On the right side of the plate was a sushi roll which is can have raw or cooked fish and other condiments wrapped in rice and then seaweed and cut into bite sized chunks.
With that knowledge, I generally prefer sushi to sashimi though it is a bit like comparing which is liked better, $1000 or $999. They are both good but I think sushi tops out sashimi especially with a little wasabi paste added. It is also a bit easier to eat with chopsticks than thin pieces of raw fish. The most common raw fish served as sushi or sashimi here in the midwest seems to be tuna, yellowtail and salmon and I like them all. But nearest and dearest to my heart is eel or unagi which is generally smoked and brushed with some sweet sauce that reminds me a lot of BBQ chicken. For some reason, whenever I tell people that eel tastes like chicken, they never believe me.
I think that if people could just free their minds enough to try sushi, the majority would love it. I've been working on my parents to try to get them to eat sushi and though I have gotten them to eat Vietnamese food and love it, I still haven't won them over. They are still meat and potato people and though there isn't anything wrong with that, they are missing out. Now for some gratuitous sushi pictures from a different sushi eating session this time all rolls.
Three Sushi Rolls and Wasabi Paste
The Iowa Sushi Roll which is of course fried and very delicious!
A bite of salmon roll in my chopsticks
This was called the Rainbow Roll and was wrapped in cucumber slices instead of rice.
Another roll, this time Spicy Tuna, about to meet its demise for the second and final time.