Fancy yourself a connoisseur of sushi?
Allow Chef Toshio Suzuki and Yuta Suzuki from Sushi Zen to take you to the next level. At Sushi Zen, traditional and exacting preparation of sushi is a point of pride, and the Suzuki’s have some off-the-radar delicacies to share—popular in Japan but only ordered in the U.S. by those really in the know.
Their recommendations: nodoguro (blackthroat sea perch), shirayaki unagi (freshwater eel prepared live, and eaten without the usual sauce), and hotaru ika (firefly squid).
You might find sashimi-grade tuna at fish markets, but you’re unlikely to find the prized nogoduro, which is just as fatty.
It’s especially difficult to find the shirayaki unagi. Its short window of freshness requires that it be prepared on-site and live. Few chefs have the years of skills needed to execute its preparation.
As for hotaru ika, the time to try it is now. It’s a fragile little squid whose season in Japan is just starting.
Most people don’t put fatty and white together when talking about fish—and for good reason; white-fleshed fish is often on the dry side.
But nogoduro, or blackthroat sea perch, is an exception. It’s a white-meat fish that is super buttery and tender, falling somewhere between medium fatty tuna and very fatty tuna, said Yuta Suzuki.
Named for its black throat (if you look inside its mouth), it’s very popular in Japan. It’s also expensive, given its rarity as well as its size—at 20-some inches, you’re not getting a whole lot of fish per fish (compared to tuna, for example).
Most people know unagi (eel) for the delicious caramel-colored sweet sauce that glazes it.
“People assume eel comes with that sweet sauce, but just like anything with sauce, it deletes or negates the true flavor of the fish,” said Yuta Suzuki.
If you want to try the un-adorned, intense taste of eel, try it in the shirayaki style (meaning plain)—steamed and grilled, served with a tad of grated rock salt and fresh ground wasabi.
Though the texture is on the drier side, it also has some tenderness, due to gelatin rather than fat.
Eel is incredibly popular in Japan; people believe the vitality and strength of the fish is passed to those who consume it. That’s possibly due to the fact that even after it’s killed, it continues to move for up to 15 minutes, or even longer in some cases.
According to Yuta Suzuki, the popularity of eel goes back to before the Edo period (1603–1867). People believed that “if you’re taking in something that is that powerful to live, a lot of people assume that they would have a longer and healthier life”
Unagi is freshwater eel—born in deep saltwater but migrated to rivers—while anago strictly lives in saltwater. Unlike anago, however, the window of freshness for unagi is very short, which is why Sushi Zen prepares it in-house from live eel.
There is also unagi in the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s drier than the more prized Japanese unagi; in addition, the flavor differs due to their diet and environment. American eel, chef Toshio Suzuki said, has to be eaten with sauce to compensate for the dryness.
Eel has to be consumed cooked, he added. It harbors a toxic protein that is neutralized by cooking. Handling a live eel with a minor scratch on your finger, can that finger will swell up to the size of two.
Preparing live eel is a process that only the most experienced and traditional restaurants will be versed in. When he’s looking to hire, chef Suzuki looks for candidates who have had experience preparing live unagi. About one in 15 or 20 candidates who are interviewed possess the experience.
The process takes years to learn to execute, and stomach-turning to witness.
(If you don’t have a strong stomach, I advise skipping to the next part about firefly squid.)
First, bathing the eel in ice water helps it calm down—almost like putting it in hibernation mode. “Like sleep—no action,” said chef Suzuki. Then the chef takes it out of the water, holds the neck and drives a nail in between two major muscles in the neck area, pinning it to the board underneath; and an incision is made to the belly, and it is cut across its length.
“The body still believes it can swim, the head still believes it has a body. It’s very grotesque to describe; it’s even more worse if you see it,” said Yuta.
Being taken out of the cold water and the sudden handling rouses the eel from its slumber.
Chef Suzuki says that stroking the eel will calm it down.
The challenge with cutting up an eel is due to two factors. One is that the body continues to have reflexes.
The other is that unlike a fish, where you can predict where it will flap (either up or down), the snake-like anatomy of an eel means that it could flail in any and all directions—which it does.
An experienced chef cuts down along the body in a few seconds, without much wiggling from the eel; but an inexperienced one will set off jerks and twitches whenever the nerve is touched—the learning is definitely hands-on.
After it’s steamed, the eel is deboned. It’s a painstaking affair, done with a pair of tweezer, one small bone at a time.
In the early spring, firefly squids in Toyama Bay give off a blue glow so fluorescent you would only expect to see it at a nightclub.
And that’s not too far from the truth. It is mating season for the squids, who are in peak form. The currents in Toyama Bay lift them out of a deep underwater canyon and bring them up to the surface in huge numbers.
These tiny squid, measuring about a couple of inches in length, are so fragile that fishermen bring back their catch to the docks to cook it there. It’s rare to get raw firefly squid. Sushi Zen imports them frozen and steams them on demand.
Chef Suzuki served them with a wonderful sauce of miso and mustard—they are delicate, and delicious.
One tiny squid makes for one bite. “You have everything in one shot, including the legs and everything. It’s very saturated,” said Yuta Suzuki.
Even though they are so small, chef Suzuki manages to remove the tiny eyes and beak with a pair of tweezers.
They are far different from another kind of squid he tells me about, at the opposite end of the spectrum, that measures five yards long, not including the tentacles, that also inhabits Japan’s waters. It sounds like straight out of legends.
“Inside the tentacles it actually has teeth, so you grab it, and it literally stabs you, it’s one of those squids that kill whales and sharks,” said Yuta Suzuki.
For now, it’s safer to stick with the tiny firefly squid, which is in season until May.
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