- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2000

In Buddhist culture, it is taboo to stash one's chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice.

That is just one of many rituals that Westerners break regularly when dining at a Japanese table, says Daisuke Utagawa, partner and creative director of Sushi-Ko, Washington's oldest sushi restaurant. "The act is frowned upon since vertical sticks represent an offering to one's ancestors, and it implies somebody at the table is dead."

Passing food between people with chopsticks is bad as well because this is done only at funerals. Ask instead for a separate serving pair to do the job.

And don't play with chopsticks by rubbing them back and forth or pretending to clean off any real or imagined sliver of wood, he warns. This implies you have an inferior set of chopsticks. If the utensils are defective, quietly ask for another pair.

"Japanese table etiquette is simple philosophically: It is respect for eating and for the host," says this enterprising 36-year-old culinary expert, who was trained in Tokyo as a sushi chef before coming to Washington in 1983 to work at the restaurant that he bought five years later.

Knowledge of proper behavior and food preparation in Japan involves many subtleties of eye, hand and taste, a system of aesthetics he calls "a culture of simplicity" and an approach to food he defines as "the cuisine of subtraction."

Discovering that no readily accessible source of information exists to help Westerners, Mr. Utagawa decided recently to conduct two workshops on the subject at the restaurant at 2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Books provide sushi recipes, but few, if any, go into detail about proper handling of utensils and the philosophy behind deportment.

For instance, eating with the right hand is best since Japanese writing is designed to be done by the right hand. When not in use, chopsticks are placed in parallel position directly in front of the diner from left to right. If there is no rest provided, the diner can use the small round ceramic dish meant for holding soy.

"And because sushi traditionally was sold like hot dogs from stands outside public baths where consumers would have clean hands, it is also proper to pick up the bite-sized pieces with one's fingers," he adds.

Spoons are put on the table only for use with a custard-style soup. "There is no custom of eating dessert in Japan. Sweets are served at a tea ceremony."

Today in Japan, sushi is considered a lavish meal. "In a Japanese home, it is polite to finish everything you are served, but in a Chinese home, if you finish everything, they think you are hungry and you will be served more."

Last Monday's workshop began with a session at the sushi bar followed by a five-course dinner: soup, sushi, slightly seared tuna, Argentinean beef slices and a concession to Western taste dessert (ice cream with a tiny fried banana roll pastry). A second workshop takes place today at 6:30 p.m.

The only drinks served were white and red Burgundy wine. That's right: a cool red wine to accompany a meal that was mostly raw fish. Mr. Utagawa pioneered the combination for reasons stemming from his interest in refining and enjoying the pleasures of the palate.

He explains the red wine's advantage over the more conventional sake so convincingly that, last Monday anyway, his assertions went unchallenged by the 12 participants, each of whom had paid $45 each plus tax and gratuity. They included a former chef at the Inn at Little Washington, an on-line food writer, a married couple whose first date took place in a sushi restaurant and a woman wanting to learn how to use the commercial sushi kit she had been given for a present.

Sushi-Ko chefs demonstrated the best methods for making sushi, while Mr. Utagawa gave a brief history of the cuisine and tips on its enjoyment.

The subject was timely. News articles of late have reported Japan's fascination with whale meat both raw and cooked in the face of American government efforts to protect endangered whale species that Japanese fishermen hunt for food.

No whale meat was offered Monday's group, and this being a food-wise crowd, no one had to ask the difference between sushi and sashimi.

Sashimi, according to the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, is "raw fish cut into very thin slices." Sushi is defined as "cold boiled rice moistened with rice vinegar, usually shaped into bite-size pieces and topped with raw seafood or formed into a long seaweed-wrapped roll."

Sushi-Ko chefs use cooled not cold rice made with sugar, mirin (a sweet syrupy rice wine used in cooking), sake and sea salt in addition to rice vinegar. Six or more steps are required to make rice with optimal flavor and texture, the class was told, since the rice is the most important part of sushi. "Lukewarm rice goes with cold fish like hot pie with cold ice cream," Mr. Utagawa said.

Sushi originated in China as a way of preserving fish in winter, he said: The rice ferments and creates an amino acid that "cooks" the fish. Wasabi, the strong green root that, grated and mixed with horseradish, is a typical accompaniment, was a way of killing bacteria. Not all fish is eaten raw, he said. Japanese do not eat river fish, for instance, because of the danger of parasites.

What surprised participants most was not red wine on the table but learning the correct use of wasabi, soy and ginger slices served with the sushi. The three never are mixed together, he said, "out of respect for the host [or chef] and for the taste of the fish, which loses fragrance. Ninety percent of the Japanese don't know this, and that kills me."

"With sushi, there already is enough wasabi between the fish and rice but, if not, you can ask for more." A small bit of wasabi can be placed atop sashimi and then one corner of the piece dipped into the soy. Pickled ginger root is mainly a cleanser for the palate.

"If a person puts ginger on a piece of toro, clearly that person doesn't understand toro. It is like asking for ketchup to put on a filet mignon. It will overpower the meat."

"Simple things show a flaw quickly," he reminded his audience.

Similarly, he says, sake is a good enough drink "but does nothing to enhance the fish. In a very traditional place, when rice is a final course, the sake will be taken away and you will get green tea out of respect for the rice and the way it is grown. Rice had holy connotations and was a gift to the gods."

"One good thing about Japanese cuisine is the ability to get different tastes in one meal," he says. "Let the chef entertain and serve you at the same time. It is part of our training. We like to tell stories to take the guest on a journey. You go from fluke, to clams and shellfish before tackling the richer salmon, tuna or toro."

One thing he can't teach, Mr. Utagawa admits, is a fail-safe guide for gauging when fish can be eaten raw. (Sushi-Ko's reputation is solid enough to supply Fresh Field Whole Foods Markets and other commercial outlets in the Washington area with organic premium sushi daily.)

The talent is developed from years of experience and requires a person to know the special characteristics of each fish, where and when it is caught, and how it is sold.

Characteristics vary the kind of fish, the water in which it is found, the season of the year and the preparation required. "A fluke is firm. Snapper is weaker. Salmon is not normally eaten raw in Japan because of parasites. The salmon we serve is from very clean water, usually Nova Scotia or Scotland."

"Buying fish is like the antique business. You have to know it."

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