The Story of Sushi, and Nagomi Restaurant

I got a huge craving for sushi while reading the book The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Sage of Raw Fish and Rice. I’ve always enjoyed eating sushi, and I’d been looking for a good book on the topic. Luckily, I found it in this account from Trevor Corson. It chronicles the true story of an aspiring sushi chef who enrolls in one of the first sushi academies in the U.S. Like the fish that are turned into sushi, there are a lot of catches involved. First, the head of the academy, though Japanese, is not a classically-trained sushi chef. The head instructor is an Australian. And the “lead” character that Corson follows is *gasp* a woman!

Those first few revelations were a sure enough sign that this book would be out of the ordinary. I expected something ultra-traditional, with stories of decades-long apprenticeships under master sushi chefs, but this book was about the internationalization of sushi, so to speak. It’s no longer a strictly Japanese food, with Americanized versions such as inside-out rolls and growing numbers of non-Japanese chefs. I learned, however, that this was not necessarily a bad thing. The growing interest in sushi abroad led to better technology for nori cultivation, for instance. The mostly chauvinistic culture of eating at a sushi bar has been broken open, if not in Japan, then at least in other countries. I was surprised to learn that one of my favorite hobbies – visiting a sushi bar and eating alone – was something actively avoided by Japanese women because of traditional sexist norms.

Of course, the book balances this democratization of sushi with what is truly important – its rich history, the proper way of appreciating everything from knife skills, presentation, etiquette, even bravado. And of course, the sushi itself. What I appreciated most about this book was that in the end, despite the dual focus on traditional roots and internationalization, what is held truly important is technique.

Hence, armed with newfound sushi knowledge, I trooped to my go-to Japanese restaurant (being the closest Japanese-run restaurant to where I live), Nagomi in El Pueblo, Ortigas. I’ll admit, I was still too shy to sit at the bar, and too broke to ask for omakase – where “ordering” is left up to the chef. I just went with my usual bowl of chirashizushi, or “scattered sushi” over rice. I like the bowl at Nagomi because the contents aren’t fixed. The chef includes the day’s fresh ingredients, so aside from the staple chirashi set ingredients, one can sample a more “exotic” fish or two. This bowl in particular, had a bountiful mix of the ubiquitous maguro, shake, tamago, kani, ebi, ika, even uni, ikura and shimesaba (pickled mackeral). In addition, it had garoupa (lapu-lapu) and hokkigai (surf clam), both of which I tried for the first time. The set comes with a bowl of miso soup, which I learned is generally sipped in Japan after eating sushi, and not as an appetizer. I also had a small jar of the house sake, even though I learned that this was not a traditional pairing with sushi.

I tried to enjoy my meal with all the new information in mind. I didn’t rub my chopsticks together to take out splinters. I poured just enough soy sauce into my dish, without mixing any wasabi into it. Instead, the wasabi was dabbed onto one edge of the fish, with the other edge dipped into the soy sauce. I tried not to get any rice into the sauce dish, rested my chopsticks on the hashioki instead of sticking them into the bowl, and made sure to finish every grain of rice and drop of soy sauce. I learned from the book that the Japanese believed that there are seven gods residing in every grain of rice, so I thought it best not to offend these little deities, carbs be damned. While all these rules seem a bit strict, they actually helped me enjoy the entire experience more. I have a deeper respect for the chef who prepares my meal and the animals and grains that nourish me body and spirit with their lives. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I always found good sushi to be a religious experience. I guess reading The Story of Sushi just affirmed that.

Another dish Nagomi executes well is their tenzaru soba set. Buckwheat noodles served cold and dunked into a dipping sauce and slurped, along with a few pieces of ebi and eggplant tempura. Light on the tongue and perfect for a hot day, but very filling. I’ve tried this at the cheap Japanese chains and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Now that I’ve mentioned it, the same goes for cheap sushi, of course.

I’m planning to go on an omakase meal soon (which is different from saying that I’m going to have a meal at Omakase). I already have the perfect restaurant/s in mind, and I’ll be sure to bring some Japanese craft beer with me. I’m sure the experience will be fantastic as always. Quality ingredients, simple but technically-sound preparation, subdued yet elegant presentation: these are the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine. I can’t wait.

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