Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sashimi, Fish Filleting, Sharp Knives

As much as I've been working on Japanese cuisine, it's been difficult to find the time or the audience to do an entire Japanese meal from start to finish. Usually I'll blend concepts and do some kind of mix. Last night I decided to put the individual skills together into a well formed tasting menu. What you're looking at on the left is Japanese Medai, sliced for sashimi, plated on a hand painted plate. The point of the plate...we eat with our eyes too.

I had the Medai auctioned for me at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, through my dealer. It's such a pleasure to gut and fillet such a fine fish. I just read on some blog that one of the worst considered tasks of kitchen work was gutting fish. Yes it sounds bad on the surface, but it is one of the most critical parts of precision seafood work. I'll explain. In order to keep the fish fresh, and to prevent the enzymes in the gut of the fish from deteriorating the rest of the fish, you need to remove the gut and gills as soon as possible and in a proper way.

I'll put up a video shortly of how to do it, but here are the key takeaways. First you don't want to rupture the internal organs. Second, you don't want to cut into the flesh close to the spine without properly rinsing and then drying your knife. The prerequisite for this is a very sharp knife and a knowledge of the cutting pattern. And you have to care about what you're doing. Do most sushi bars do this properly? No. Does their food taste good? No. Do most customers demand properly prepared sushi? No. And thus the cycle continues..."Hey I want a roll, the one named after myself." Bet it tastes like a cheap corndog too.

If you do want to break the cycle, order sashimi. This will highlight knife technique. Look for glassy surfaces (on most fish). This will tell you that the chef understands the cutting stroke and how to sharpen a knife. If you push cut, you'll smash the fish. If you don't know how to use the length of the knife, you'll have a smooth surface but jagged edge. And if you don't have a sharp knife, then you have far greater problems. I'll post a video on how to sharpen a sashimi knife soon as review for peers in the industry. I don't mean to sound extreme here, but it's to emphasize how important your primary cooking knife is. Primary, meaning for home cooking friends...don't buy knives in sets even though the stores want you to.

More on sashimi later. If there's anything I can convince you to do, that would be to take your main chef's knife that you own, and get it professionally sharpened. You can get it done at your local food store, or they'll know where to go. For home cooking, using a sharpening steel is recommended each time you use the knife. There are plenty of videos out there on it. If you told me you wanted to learn how to sharpen it on a stone, I would probably say that unless you had a bunch of time on your hands, or you used high performance Japanese knives, to just get it done at a store but use a steel to hone it each time you use the knife.

Note though, if you use Japanese carbon steel knives, know that you're getting into the high performance, high maintenance realm of cutlery. You can't, shouldn't use a steel on them, and need to use water stones to do your sharpening. If you're in practice, you can do a knife in about 10 minutes. For reference, I use three knives for Japanese work. A yanagi (sashimi slicer), a kiritsuke (combination sashimi, vegetable knife), and a deba (fish butchering knife). Total cost was about $2k. The first two knives were forged by hand, by Keijiro Doi. The deba is by Masamoto. I'm looking to put another sashimi knife into the collection of the stainless steel variety, likely by Nenohi, another popular japanese brand.

Random...I was thinking, am I being too extreme about this, at the risk of alienating the readership? Perhaps, but as I was making salsa with my brother tonight, the need for a sharp knife was apparent when dicing a tomato. I pulled out one of my work knives that was very sharp but not razor sharp and it gave me a little difficulty when taking it through the skin. But when I polished Ambert's chef's knife, the work was very quick. Dicing a tomato is probably something that most home cooks have done. So yeah, get your knives sharpened.

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