The Art Of Sashimi

I LOVE sashimi almost as much I crave sushi. I love it for its straightforwardness and ease: one big bite; a few clear and clean flavors; nothing too florid, nothing too brash. I love it for its texture, at once firm and pliant, giving you something to chew if that’s your game, something that can almost be swallowed whole if you like.

I love the combined silkiness and meatiness of some of it, and the connotations of luxury in that. I love its completeness: protein and starch nestled together, with just a little something extra – wasabi, shiso or a soy, vinegar glaze for spark. I love its light impact. It can fill you, but it can also entertain you. I love sushi for the opportunity it offers to explore and enjoy any number of piscatorial delights. And at the centre of every great sushi experience is fish of the highest quality, often generically referred to as ‘Sashimi Quality’.

This term is almost impossible to define but is so often abused as a gratuitous, faux technical term for a fish quality which has been arbitrarily determined by the vendor – be they catcher, fishmonger or chef. ‘Sashimi Grade’ is term that has come to generalise seafood, which can be eaten raw.

Frankly, some seafood is best served raw, but not necessarily ALL seafood. This is reflected in the art of sashimi, where the experienced ‘sushisan’ knows when to sear, souse or cure, just enough to transform the flavour and texture from a single to a three-dimensional experience.

The key lies in the selection, preparation and seasoning, according to the need of the flesh. Sashimi, the preparation, truly is a cuisine where understanding of the texture and base flavour of the protein stands above everything else.

My mates in terrestrial proteins may say the same thing – that a grass or grain-fed animal demands different handling or that a chook and a squab require vastly separate preparation. But in a sector where over 50 per cent of the supply is wild harvest, I reckon that it is seafood that demands the highest level of culinary intellect and palate memory.

It is not only the selection and handling that makes seafood such an interesting protein to work with – it is the repertoire of accompaniments and preparations needed to best showcase flavour that makes seafood so unique. Perhaps the science behind the flavour of seafood is worthy of some consideration? The flavour of saltwater fish is a result of it’s environment. Seawater ranges from three-3.5 per cent salinity.

As the famous food nerd, Harold McGee points out, animals need to keep the total level of dissolved minerals in their cells to around one per cent. Seafish offset the saltiness of their environment by filling their cells with other compounds, namely amino acids and amines, which have their own taste and flavour implications.

Glycine, an amino acid, lends sweetness whereas the glutamic acid present in shellfish, tuna and sardines is ‘savoury and mouth filling’. Many finfish, however, offset the saltwater flowing through their bodies with the relatively flavourless amine TMAO, which is why, in contrast they are characterised by sleep inducing descriptors like ‘mild’ ‘sweet’ and ‘delicate’.

The Sushisan is possibly the best student of the science of flavour in seafood but it is more his skill in the art of matching flavour and texture that makes him a unique character in the world of seafood preparation.

The Sushisan considers the flavour and texture of seafood with a level of commitment that a sommelier might consider each wine and their relevance to the wine-list. If sashimi grade fish is at the centre of the sushi world, then Tsukiji fishmarket in Tokyo is the Nirvana for sushi lovers.

It has been the influence of Tsukiji, the largest fishmarket in the world that has had an indelible impression on both our fishing industry and our seafood eating habits in Australia.

No better example of this influence lies in the story of Australian tuna fishing.

While tuna fishing has been one of the staples of the Australian seafood industry for nearly 200 hundred years, it has only been since the early 1990’s and the discovery that Japanese love premium quality tuna, that the tuna industry has really come of age. Up until then, the domestic catches of tuna had been destined for the canneries.

A few savvy Japanese buyers came here and taught some of our tuna fishermen the art of fishing for and handling of live tuna for use in sashimi preparations. They convinced them that the effort, time and care required to get a tuna from Australia to Japan in pristine condition would be rewarded handsomely.

And so it was that through the development of the Japanese sashimi market for tuna that the domestic Australian market became the beneficiary of some of the best handled, sashimi grade seafood in the world.

Sushi offers many options for seafood - from the exotic, to the humble, the expensive and hard to get, to the plentiful and cheap. It is, after all, the ultimate finger food. If you want total inspiration on the subject, get to Tsukiji fishmarket in Tokyo and let your fingers do the talking – go ahead, you know it makes sense.