Americans have a love for sushi that has matured beyond maguro. Whether you are new to sushi or have been eating it all your life, Hiroko Shimbo’s book,The Sushi Experience (Knopf 2006) is a terrific investment. It would make a beautiful holiday gift for any sushi-lover on your list. This book goes beyond the typical cookbook. It offers beautiful illustrations, photographs, explanations of terms, etiquette, techniques, history. Being a female sushi chef is a rarity in the sushi world. Shimbo explains the mythology that has kept so few women from entering the profession. Women’s warmer hands, it was said, make them unsuitable to handle delicate raw fish. If fact, women’s hands are generally cooler, not warmer, than men’s. Women’s hair and makeup products would interfere with the dining experience by overwhelming the diners’ sense of smell. This is another argument some make for why women cannot be sushi chefs. If these claims are beginning to sound specious to you, Shimbo agrees.

What is absolutely true is that this highly respected and well-compensated profession began in Japan, one of the more sexist societies in the world. Its rigorous training takes years to work through and that alone would have left most women unable to apprentice. Shimbo not only persisted but succeeded in mastering sushi training. She shares her sushi-making skills in this book, her second, and opens the door to a world most see only across a sushi bar. The book even comes with a tear-off pocket card and lists of sources for equipment and food products for those interested in cooking Japanese food or preparing sushi at home.

O-makase – Entrusting Yourself to the Chef

O-makase is Japanese for “entrust”. In a sushi bar, this literally means the diner will entrust his or her meal entirely to the chef. Shimbo likens it to treating the chef as “your private chauffeur who can drive you to any destination.”

Boston is fortunate to have ample opportunities to try sushi and a handful of really fine sushi restaurants now exist for advanced sushi fanatics. O-Ya , first mentioned here in February, is one of the newest additions to the upper echelon of sushi restaurants. In addition to a highly skilled chef, Tim Cushman, O-Ya has one of the city’s few sake sommeliers in his wife, Nancy. For a preview of the restaurant read here.

Frank Bruni of the New York Times is calling all readers to try Cochon, which I’ve written about and O Ya in his recent series of the top ten restaurants outside of New York City that serious eaters must try.

An O-makase meal is a perfect way to celebrate. Contrary to a typical “chef’s special” or prix-fixe menu offering, O-makase is not intended to be a bargain. If you should find yourself with something to celebrate, like the holidays, or perhaps a birthday check from generous parents instructing you to “take yourselves out to a nice dinner” arrives in the mail – all the better.

Seating at O-Ya’s sushi bar tells you something about the restaurant that sets it apart from other sushi bars where the chefs are elevated, literally. Here, the Cushmans wanted to invite a more relaxed communication between diner and chef so the sushi bar is even with the chefs’ work area. This has the added advantage of giving a good view to all the preparation, and the care that goes into the craft.

This evening’s O-makase was 15 courses and included sashimi, nigiri, a vegetable, a beef, a chicken and a “something crunchy” dish. Nancy Cushman paired a perfect sake with the meal (two bottles), and a cup or two was shared with our chef. Beginning a meal with a kumamoto oyster served with watermelon pearls and cucumber mignonette and ending with a foie gras nigiri with balsamic chocolate kabayaki, raisin cocoa pulp served with a sip of aged sake (very raisin-y in the nose like a port, but more Sauternes on the palate) tells you what the journey was like.

A fine chauffeur is behind the wheel here.

For a review of the evening and the full O-makase experience go to O-makase, Leather District Style.
A look at another style of Japanese cuisine, Shabu-Shabu, appears here.
O-Ya Restaurant
9 East Street

Boston, MA