Sushi according to Jiro

The importance of rice and acidity, serving pieces one by one in a single tasting menu. The master and the reasons behind his formula

09-11-2017

A close-up of Jiro Ono, 92, sushiman since the age of 8, patron at Sukiyabashi Jiro, in Ginza, three Michelin stars. To his right, his son Yoshihiro, 54. Yoshi has a brother, Takashi, who runs Sushi Jiro in Roppongi, two Michelin stars (photo by Zanatta)
 

 

See part one

Readers should be already familiar with the prologue: on a warm spring-like day, we found a place with Massimo Bottura at Sukyiabashi Jiro, the world’s most famous sushi counter. From 5.16 pm to 5.38 pm, 92-year-old Jiro Ono shapes and places on the table 20 pieces of rice and fish – included in the tasting menu, a compulsory choice for all guests – plus 3 more extra-menu pieces and 2 more second helpings of our choice.

This is the sequence in the 20-piece tasting menu: prelude with sole (hirame); squid (sumi-ika) and snapper (shima-aji). A triptych of tuna, served according to fatness: delicate (akami), semi-fat (chu-toro) and very fat ventresca, from the part of the belly closer to the gills (oo-toro). Then sardine (kohada); abalone (awabi); surel (aji); boiled scampi (kurumaebi); another sardine, this time marinated (iwashi); red clam (akagai); bonito tuna (katsuo); Japanese clam (hamaguri), the same mackerel from step number nine, this time marinated (aji-su); sea urchin (uni); mini scallop (kobashira); salmon roe (ikura); conger, that is to say sea eel (anago) and fried egg (tamago).

A 25-piece knock out, eaten in the space of 22 minutes. Uppercuts and jabs dressed up with furious acidity which, in the first 3 pieces, assaulted a totally defenceless palate. «This happens because, when you dine at Jiro’s», Bottura successfully pointed out 72 hours later, «you always need three mouthfuls: the first is to connect the mental palate, the second is to familiarise with the flavour, the third is to start appreciating». A law the chef from Modena learnt by decanting Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale: «It’s only with the third tasting that the palate starts to notice tertiary flavours». Indeed, a calm chaos settled after the fourth piece, its way paved by the disturbing initial acidity.

Gizzard shad (kohada)

Gizzard shad (kohada)

Boiled prawn (kurumaebi)

Boiled prawn (kurumaebi)

«Acidity», Jiro later explained, «is the crucial tasting component with sushi. Vinegar is extremely important. But there’s another ingredient that is even more significant, rice. Indeed, a mistake in the selection or cooking will affect the overall acidity». «I often hear my colleagues worried about chasing the best fish», continues the Japanese, «They say ‘this toro or these calamari are good or not as good’. Of course, this is right, but these considerations shouldn’t neglect the quality of the rice, which influences 60% of the overall flavour of sushi. Fish never reaches 40».

The sticky shapes that often lash Japanese restaurants in Italy come to mind: in the best scenario, rice is often a neutral vessel designed to transport a slice of fish. In worse cases, it’s a compact and sticky conglomerate that induces many clients to fall back on sashimi (you will never find it at Jiro’s): why, indeed, should one harm himself with porphyry? «A timely service is essential», adds Jiro, «the temperature must be the same as the room».

Bonito (katsuo)

Bonito (katsuo)

Clam shell (hamaguri)

Clam shell (hamaguri)

Then there’s the hands, which make the difference: the left-handed master shows us he has the left palm of a boy: it’s soft and thin. Japanese people call it «the left hand of God», like the hand of Maradona (though he used it for less noble causes). «I cannot explain how I shape sushi because it’s a natural, instinctive gesture. I only press the outside part of the rice, a trick that prevents it from becoming hard». «What impresses me every single time», Bottura points out, «is that your rice is not compressed at all: there’s always some air intersected among the grains. It’s oxygen that amplifies every flavour».

Another big difference that stands out compared to second class sushi is having a tasting menu. «You need to taste and appreciate each piece in turn», continues Jiro, «They are not designed to feed or fill your stomach». Many restaurateurs serve one or two starters and then sushi: «It’s a huge mistake: this way, the palate won’t understand much». It’s the wisdom resulting from 84 years of career, the same wisdom that 17 years ago led him to abandon the à la carte formula in favour of a sole 20-piece tasting menu. The sequence is in order of fatness, leaving the heavyweights for the end. «It’s the most influential revolution ever made in sushi making», says critic and friend Matsuhiro Yamamoto, «Today almost everyone does it in Tokyo». Who knows how long it will be till it becomes popular here too.

Sea urchin (uni). Super creamy, and sweet. It melts in your mouth. We asked for a second helping

Sea urchin (uni). Super creamy, and sweet. It melts in your mouth. We asked for a second helping

Jiro’s hand, he’s left-handed

Jiro’s hand, he’s left-handed

«This sequence», points out Bottura, «develops in time, as if it were a symphony with its movements: minuetto, allegro, crescendo, gran finale». Notes shoot from a set component to the other, which varies according to the day’s catch. The selection has been the same for decades: there’s no space for specimens that follow fleeting trends. «Everyone asks me whether my sushi is traditional or innovative», says Jiro at the end, «I really don’t know what to say. I just focus on working always better and better».

A final note: at Sukyiabashi you can only eat sushi using your hands. Pay attention, though: you must pick it from the longer side, not from its ends: it could disastrously fall on your knees, scattering thunders from Jiro’s irid. And don’t you ever pick the fish from the rice. You might be banned for good.

See also
Jiro and Bottura: Plating Passion
Bottura-Jiro, a meeting of giants


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Zanattamente buono

Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world