a fish, a man, and a super sharp knife.

i like to tell my friends that, when it comes to cooking, there are three kinds of people in this world.

first, there are the people who have a million different knives, none of which are sharp or useful.  second, there are the people who use their knife until it is no longer sharp, and then throw it away and buy a new one.

last, there are people who have one knife that they keep so ridiculously sharp it is at risk of cutting through the food, the cutting board, and the counter beneath.

while this categorization is a little bit cut and dry (no pun intended), there is some truth to it.  i admit, i used to be the second type of person.  but i can confidently say that now, i am the third type through and through.  in my opinion, one knife is all you need as long as you care for it and know how to use it properly.

and when it comes to using a knife properly, japan takes the cake.  not only are their knives incredible, the people who wield them command incredible respect and admiration.  i have been to a few sushi restaurants that consist of nothing more than a counter and chairs, but left with the feeling that i had been to a five-star restaurant.  the flavor of sashimi, maybe more than any other food in the world, is determined entirely by freshness and the knife used to prepare it.

so i thought, why not make sashimi at home?  and then i thought, “i’m not a 85-year-old japanese man who can slice perfect sashimi in his sleepo, that’s why.”  and then i thought, “even those guys had to start somewhere.”

and then i went and bought some fish.  my knife did not disappoint.

katsuo sashimi served w/ sesame cucumber salad, hiyayakko, and shirasu

you’ll need:

  • a block of super fresh sashimi-grade fish (i chose katsuo)
  • a whetstone
  • shiso
  • a cucumber
  • daikon sprouts
  • sakura shrimp
  • sesame oil
  • ponzu (or soy sauce)
  • shirasu
  • green onion
  • fresh ginger

skip jack tuna sashimi

i wanted steak yesterday, but i couldn’t have steak.  so i set out to find the closest thing to steak in nature that i could eat raw without worrying about dying.

what i settled upon was katsuo, or skip jack mackerel.  this fish is normally turned into the dried fish flake the japanese refer to as katsuo-bushi.  katsuo-bushi is a very common base for dashi, the most important stock in japanese cuisine.  it also makes an excellent garnish for things like osaka-style okonomiyaki and ohitashi.  in other words, it is an important fish packed with smoky flavor and incredible texture.

so why not eat it raw?

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  1. it is all about the sharpness of the knife.  i won’t go into the precise dynamics of how whetstones work or the best motion with which to use them.  but rest assured, there is nothing quite like a knife well sharpened, and there is nothing in the world quite like a whetstone to get the job done.  my general system is to sharpen my knife until i accidentally slice off a piece of my finger, and then stop sharpening.  (that was a joke, please don’t slice off a piece of your finger.)
  2. investigate the condiments meant for your fish.  katsuo, because of its smoky flavor and meaty texture, goes best with ground ginger.  had i not looked into it, i could have potentially minimized the deliciousness of my fish by eating it with wasabi.  remember, knowledge is power.  if you aren’t certain, ask your local fishmonger, fisherman, or sushi chef.  and if you can’t find any of those people, shoot me an email and i’ll see what information i can scrounge up.
  3. investigate the grain of your fish.  like most meats, fish has a grain.  cutting against the grain or at an odd angle to the grain can completely ruin your cut and turn your fish into a messy clump of pre-masticated flesh.  doesn’t that sound appetizing?  once you have discovered the grain of your fish, slightly wet your knife, and go for it.
  4. the most important thing to remember when cutting sashimi (and most other raw meats) is to move your knife through the meat with a single smooth motion.  try to mimimize the amount of pressure you apply or you will smash your slice.  do not use a sawing motion.  sawing motion tears the fibers of the meat and creates pieces with jagged edges.  and nobody wants to look at that.
  5. plating, plating, plating.  while the key to sashimi is the cut and the freshness, the appeal comes from its appearance.  all foods should look great, but raw foods depend on it.  a messy salad might taste good, but you need to be convinced to eat it.  the same goes with sashimi.  if you know nothing about the fish on your plate, have no idea what kind of flavor it might have, and have never eaten sushi before, the beauty alone will often times be enough to convince you.
  6. gawk.  if you accomplished step 4 and step 5 with elegance, you should stand back and be knocked off your feet.  it should look good.  and if you think it looks good, most of the time other people will, too.

sesame cucumber salad

simple, delicious, and fast.  it has the word “cucumber” in the title.  were you really that surprised?

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  1. wash and halve your cucumbers lengthwise.  cut each half in half again along its width.  julienne each piece.  if you aren’t confident that you can make thin strips, you can always trim the cucumber down to a cube.  from there, you should be able to make pretty convincing and uniform ribbons of cucumber.  i know, round vegetables can be a little tough to keep in one place.  remember, watch those fingers.  your knife is super sharp.
  2. add your julienned cucumbers to a bowl.  rinse the daikon sprouts with cold water while they are still attached to their root structure.  cut off the roots and discard them.  add the sprouts to a colander and toss for a little while to get the excess water off. put in the bowl with the cucumber.
  3. wash three or four stalks of green onion.  cut off the bases, fold in four, and slice as thinly as you possibly can.  add to the bowl.
  4. this salad has one of the simplest dressings of all time, but as lord polonius from hamlet said, “brevity is the soul of wit.”  some of the greatest dishes in the history of cuisine are excellent precisely because of how simple and elegant they are.  add ponzu (or light soy sauce), black pepper, and a generous drizzle of sesame oil to the bowl, and toss to coat.
  5. pop a portion of the salad into a small appetizer bowl and garnish with a three-fingered pinch of sakura shrimp.  the color, crunch, and excellent fishy flavor add that little extra something that can really impress dinner guests.
  6. have a taste.  stand in wonder at the fact that you made a salad that tastes that good in what probably took you a little under five minutes.

hiyayakko (chilled tofu)

don’t call it bean curd.  it is bean curd, nobody will deny that.  but it sounds so much more romantic and fancy if you call it tofu.  bean curd sounds like something hippies patch engines with.

tofu could be one of the more under-appreciated foods common to japanese cuisine.  it has both high water content and mild flavor, making it tough to use as an ingredient in complex dishes.  the key to preparing tofu is to minimize the water content and keep accompanying flavors on the subtle side.

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  1. first, you have to pick what tofu you want.  what, there are kinds of tofu?  yeah, it can be a little confusing, but do your best.  i generally prefer the softest variety, but it can be a little hard to work with (because it tends to break in the grocery bag and while garnishing if not handled carefully).  yakidofu is also an excellent alternative.  although the texture isn’t quite as creamy as the extra soft stuff, the brown grill marks on the outside of the block can add some really nice flare to your presentation (and they certainly don’t hurt the taste either).
  2. once you’ve purchased your tofu, just take it out of the package, slap it in the bowl, and put stuff on it, right?  nope.  make sure that you puncture a hole and drain the liquid before you even remove the tofu from its package.  wrap the whole block in a few sheets of paper towel, set it on a plate, and then place a cutting board and something slightly heavy (like a bowl or a heavy coffee mug) on top.  wait for ten to twenty minutes.  because of the time this step involves, it might be a good idea to start doing this before the meal prep begins.
  3. unwrap the tofu and discard the paper towels.  be careful not to break the block.  part of the sexiness of tofu’s presentation is its perfect uniform edges.  cut the block (carefully) into a size that will fit in the bottom of a small dish.  when in doubt, smaller is better.  nothing looks worse than a giant tofu monolith crammed into a tiny appetizer bowl.
  4. garnish.  i always drizzle my tofu with some soy sauce first, and then place whatever accoutrements you like on top.  i garnished mine with a few tips from some stalks of green onion, a leftover tiny slice of sashimi, and some fresh ground ginger.
  5. put the plate on the table, start to go back to the kitchen, and do a double-take.  did you really make that?  yes, yes you did.  triple-takes are also acceptable.

shirasu (whitebait)

somewhere in the course of history, some form of primitive man decided that he (or she) was too lazy to go out and fight with a large, strong animal in order to get dinner.  so instead, they went for the young, weak, and helpless member of the pack.  and it was at precisely that moment that mankind discovered how delicious babies are.  eggs are chicken babies.  veal is baby cow.  the best lamb comes from a sheep that is less than two years old.  and i’m sure you already know what suckling pig is.

and then, we come to fish.  baby shrimp, caviar,  tobikko (flying fish roe), mentaiko (marinated pollock roe), and many other magical babies are swimming in the sea, just waiting to be consumed.  and while some people might not be big on anchovies, their tiny little offspring are milky white, infinitely milder, and just as soft.

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  1. i prefer to call this fish shirasu, mainly because the term “whitebait” could be the single least appetizing term ever appended to a food.  basically, these little guys are the immature versions of anchovies.  they come in two main varieties.  the first is a completely raw form called namashirasu, but as they can tend to have a little bit of a bitter aftertaste, i’m not super huge on them.  the second kind, which is absolutely fantastic on its own and as a garnish for salads, is yudeshirasu.  these little white guys have already been partially boiled.  while it might seem like i’m breaking the rules of raw food week, yudeshirasu undergo a very limited amount of processing, can be found almost anywhere in japan, and are in fact probably more common (and cheaper) than namashirasu.
  2. put the shirasu in the bottom of a small bowl.  garnish with leftover thinly sliced green onion and some ground ginger.
  3. drizzle with just a touch of soy sauce.
  4. dig in.  these little guys are simple, great palette cleansers between courses, and absolutely beautiful.  if you aren’t put off by a thousand little eyes staring at you while you eat, i highly advise looking into buying a little pack somewhere and giving them a try.  remember, freshness is key, so ask your local fish shop employees about the details before splurging.

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