What, exactly, is the definition of great sushi? At first glance, sushi seems like one of those foods that anybody can make: it’s just a glob of rice with a slice of raw fish on top, right? Well, not exactly. It can take decades to get to a place where one can be considered a sushi master, and even Masaharu Morimoto has said that he’s still learning.
So what makes sushi so difficult to perfect? To quote Francis Lam:
“Sushi, of course, is the ultimate in simple food: Mostly just rice and a piece of raw fish, it would seem that anyone with a knife and one functioning hand can make it. But take an impossible eye for detail and apply it to fish — Where did it come from? How long should you age it before serving for best flavor? How long should you massage it to make it tender, but still have texture? Where should you cut a piece from, and at what angle, to highlight the flavors of different parts of the muscle? Since temperature affects aroma, how warm should you let the fish get in your hand before serving it? How hard do you press the fish into the rice to form a bite that has integrity, but is not dense? — and you begin to see where a simple food is not so simple.”
While great sushi is as difficult to define as any great food, there are some defining characteristics of what would be considered great sushi, according to respondents on Quora.
The rice needs to be right about at body temperature, and should be sticky enough that it doesn’t fall apart as you bring it to your mouth. It should, however, separate into individual grains once you put it in your mouth. This is accomplished by applying the right pressure to the rice so the outer layer is more densely packed than the inside.
The topping, called neta, should be sized in proper proportion to the rice: not too big, not too small. Wasabi, if used at all, should be in between the neta and rice.
The fish shouldn’t smell like a fish market. The “fishy” smell is usually neutralized by sprinkling vinegar on top of the fish the morning before it’s served (fish treated with vinegar is called su-jime). If the fish is too moist, salt can also be added to reduce the moisture level (called shio-jime). The end result should be bright, firm, shiny, not greasy or wet, and clean tasting.
Obviously, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s quite clear that a great piece of sushi is truly a work of art.