Think miso soup is an appetiser and wasabi needs to be mixed with soy sauce? Chef Nakajima sets the record straight.

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Sushi appeared like the much-needed breath of fresh air in the culinary world right about the time people started taking their health more seriously and we can’t applaud it enough. It is low in fat, low in artificial sugars and salt and basically low in everything that’s bad for you. Looks like we’ve found the Holy Grail of foods – something that is actually good for our health and tastes good at the same time.

“Fish is our main source of food because we are an island nation,” says Chef Hideaki Nakajima, the former executive chef at Minori Japanese Restaurant and sushi expert. “We are surrounded by the sea so fish is very easy to get.”  

Whether you’re a sushi enthusiast or about to try a meal of raw fish for the first time, here are some things about Japan’s national dish you might not have known.


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Wasabi does not go into the soy sauce
It is common practice in Malaysia to stir and blend a dollop of wasabi into the soy sauce before dipping sushi in the mix. “That is very wrong,” says Chef Nakajima. The proper way is to place a small amount of wasabi on your sushi then dip it into the soy sauce. “Also, you don’t dip the rice into the soy sauce. It is always fish first.” Roll your sushi over and pick it up with the fish facing down and dip the fish into the soy sauce, not the rice. It makes sense because the rice would absorb and hold on to too much soy sauce, killing the taste of whatever seafood sitting at the top. 


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Photo: Oribe Sushi

Eat your white fish first
Whenever you have a sashimi platter with a variety of fish, always start with the white fish first. The order should be from the lightest coloured fish (like cod) before working your way towards the redder coloured ones (like tuna). “Red fish usually have stronger flavours that could overpower the milder flavours of the white fish,” explains Chef Nakajima.


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Ginger is good for you
Many overlook and sometimes completely ignore the side of pickled ginger that comes with their meal. It might just be the one thing saving you from a bout of Salmonella poisoning. “The ginger helps kill bacteria or parasites that could be in the fish, especially if it’s one prepared by an unskilled chef,” says Chef Nakajima. That aside, chewing on a bit of ginger after your meal helps freshen your breath so you don’t go around smelling of raw salmon too.


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Never rub your chopsticks together
At any Japanese restaurant, it is really bad manners to rub your chopsticks together after breaking them apart. Not only is it crass to look at, rubbing them together is meant to break off any loose bits of wooden splinter, suggestive of a shabby work of producing the chopsticks. You’re essentially saying to the chef that the utensils they use are cheap.  


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Don’t waste wasabi – it’s expensive stuff
Wasabi is made of Japanese horseradish that grows naturally along stream beds in mountain river valleys in Japan. To obtain that hot and pungent paste that gives eating sushi such a kick, horseradish is grated with a special metal tool called “oroshigane” that costs easily RM100 per small 2-inch by 2-inch piece. We don’t give much thought about how much wasabi we dish onto our food, a lot of which goes to waste but wasabi is actually some really expensive condiment. Just how expensive? “500g costs RM50!” says Chef Nakajima.


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Photo: Kampachi Restaurants

The Japanese didn’t originally eat salmon
“We don’t like salmon because fresh salmon from Norway comes with a lot of parasites,” says Chef Nakajima. “We eat only tuna.” Salmon only started to become such a staple in Japanese cuisine to cater to the Western market where salmon was more easily available and because it was a much cheaper option than tuna. Fresh tuna can easily fetch 10 times the price of salmon in the market. According to Chef Nakajima, while the younger generation of Japan are slowly warming up to the idea of salmon on their plates, the older generation still refuse to touch it. It is a foreign fish that is not from Japanese waters. “I like tuna much better myself. If they both cost the same, I would opt for tuna any day."


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Photo: Kampachi Restaurants

What’s the difference between tuna and fatty tuna?
As the name suggests, they are of the same fish, only different parts. Fatty tuna comes from the part near the fish belly where more fat has collected hence giving it a richer taste. The question of superiority however, is subjected to the individual. “I don’t like fatty tuna,” shares Chef Nakajima. “In Japan we throw fatty tuna away because it’s too oily and it spoils easily. It can smell bad in a matter of hours.” Malaysians however seem to love the fatty tuna belly, causing prices for it to skyrocket above that of other prime cuts. “Same goes to salmon belly. I don’t like it but Malaysians like it a lot.”


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Photo: Kogetsu Japanese Restaurant

Fresh fish is springy and does not smell
Many people steer away from raw fish because they are uncomfortable with the fishy smell it emits. The irony is that if the fish was fresh and prepared and kept in the right way, there should be no smell whatsoever. “Fresh fish is springy, it’s not soft,” says Chef Nakajima. “Fresh fish has no smell at all.” For a more visual guide, the consensus is that once the fish turns colour, it is time to chuck it out. The slightest discolouration means the fish is near rotting and is in no way suitable for eating anymore, not even cooked.


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Miso soup is best saved for last
Contrary to popular belief, miso soup isn’t an appetiser. Quite the opposite, it is supposed to be sipped after every dish and at the end of the whole meal to wash away all fishy smells from your mouth. “Malaysians like to drink it before their appetiser, but I would suggest they drink it after,” says Chef Nakajima. It is also encouraged that you drink it straight from the bowl and slurp loudly while doing so to indicate that your meal was satisfactory. 


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Have fun and use your hands
While the Japanese culture is one that is criss-crossed with countless rules on how to eat, it is perfectly acceptable to put down your chopsticks and just use your hands should you have trouble picking up small bits of food. Sushi is traditionally a party food meant to be shared among huge groups of people in Japan so people picked sushi off the plate with their hands and placed them straight into their mouths all the time. 


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