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10 Things You Should Know About Sushi Joints
 By James Patrick Kelly in Daily ListsThursday, Jan. 29 2009 @ 5:05AM  
Sushi and sashimi have become suburban chic in recent years. A few years ago, dropping terms such as " nigiri" and " hamachi" would have gotten you some seriously baffled looks. But now it seems that every pimply teenager has a lexicon of sushi terminology. People suddenly, and unfortunately, started saying things like "Is that a maki roll in your pocket or are you happy sashimi?" Glitzy sushi joints soon replaced sandwich shops in the neighborhood strip mall. Even though sushi places have become commonplace in America, there are still nuances the average Joe (Yes, plumbers and wannabe war correspondents like sushi too) may not know about the business of Japanese raw fish.    
1) Sushi Does Not Mean Raw Fish   There's a common misconception that the word sushi means raw fish in Japanese, when it actually relates to the rice vinegar-infused sticky rice (sushi rice) that's used to make maki rolls, nigiri and other rice-accompanied sushi items. Yet " Hey, honey, let's go have some rice with vinegar" doesn't have the same appeal as the prospect of eating thin slices of raw fish over tiny pads of seasoned rice. Technically, the vinegary rice is called shari, which becomes sushi when paired with fish or vegetables.  
2) You're Probably Not Eating Fresh Fish   People assume that the fish is fresh when they go to a sushi place, but in reality, much of the fish comes into the restaurant in a frozen state. Some sushi chefs believe that blast-frozen fish tastes fresher than the " fresh" stuff because it doesn't sit around for hours aboard the ship, waiting to be processed. Plus, this method kills those nasty parasites. Of course, sushi chefs aren't eager to tell you that your dinner was previously frozen. Before you get riled about this practice, consider this reality: eating thinly sliced dead parasites is much better than eating thinly sliced wiggly worms.  
3) Real Wasabi is Hard to Come By   The wasabi that most American sushi joints serve is not, by Japanese standards, the real thing. Those pasty little dabs that come ornately presented with pickled ginger are usually made from horseradish powder mixed with green food coloring and dry mustard. Real wasabi, bright green Japanese horseradish root that gets mashed into paste, is incredibly spicy, and expensive, to boot. Also, wasabi shouldn't be lathered on the fish like icing on a cake; it, along with pickled ginger, is supposed to be eaten sparingly after taking a bite of fish.          
4) Not All Ginger is Created Equal   Pickled ginger is another contentious issue amongst sushi purists. The majority of American sushi joints use pre-packaged pickled ginger, but some attentive sushi chefs shave their own ginger and pickle it themselves. Most of the processed pickled ginger (pink or golden yellow) that restaurants use is packed with aspartame and potassium sorbate, and some processors even use MSG. Aspartame, the main ingredient in Equal, NutraSweet and Spoonful, is an artificial sweetener. Potassium sorbate gets used as a preservative. The pink ginger is dyed with red food coloring.  
5) Beware of High Mercury Levels   High mercury levels are common in large fish species such as yellowfin tuna and blue marlin. But you generally aren't going to see this information printed on menus. Some sushi restaurants voluntarily state that eating raw fish in massive quantities is not advisable for children and pregnant women. Broadway actor Jeremy Piven, who reportedly consumed a steady diet of sashimi and sushi, recently quit his role in "Speed- the-Plow," in the middle of its run, because toxic mercury levels were found in his bloodstream. Playwright David Mamet later mused that Piven left the production to start a career as a thermometer.  
6) Spicy Mayo is "An American Thang" In Japan, you won't typically find spicy mayonnaise on sushi rolls; that's definitely an American thang. We love our mayonnaise, almost as much as the French love the creamy stuff. Those zigzags of spicy sauce on your sushi rolls are usually piquant mayo or simply the ubiquitous Sriracha chili-garlic sauce. You know, that Vietnamese hot sauce that has nearly replaced ketchup as America's favorite condiment. Some sushi insiders say that the not-so fresh tuna often ends up in various rolls, and spicy mayo helps to mask the stench.  
7) Miso Soup Doesn't Traditionally Come Before Your Meal   Most sushi places preface your meal with a cup of steaming miso soup, pocked with tofu cubes, scallion and wakame seaweed. This is another American adaptation because in the Land of the Rising Sun, miso broth, which usually is served for breakfast, comes with steamed rice as part of the main meal. Americans prefer their soup first so that's probably why it's done in this manner. And, yes, it's okay to pick up the bowl and drink it like tea--no spoon required.  
8) There's Lots to Know About Roe   You're probably wondering what's up with those tiny eggs on your sushi rolls? The two most common kinds of roe served at sushi places are tobiko (from South Pacific flying fish) and masago (from North Atlantic smelt). These little fluorescent eggs look and taste relatively similar but sushi snobs can usually spot the inferior masago before the plate even hits the table. Roe aficionados say that fatty salmon eggs (ikura), which sometimes get used, don't properly pop on the tongue like tobiko and masago.   
9) Overfishing is a Major Concern   You hear a lot these days about overfishing. Ocean protection groups worldwide believe that some tuna species are in danger of extinction because of greediness, fueled by the demand from sushi and sashimi places. Bluefin tuna is wildly popular at upscale establishments, and it fetches an extremely high price. Researchers also maintain that Yellowfin tuna, also known as ahi, are being seriously overfished in the Pacific Ocean, yet not quite to the same extent as Atlantic bluefin. While it might be hip to say, "I was one of the last people to eat bluefin," the number of albacore tuna is much higher, so maybe that's a better eco-conscious option. However, most sushi snobs are reluctant to eat this inferior stuff.  
10) Sushi and Sashimi Aren't the Same Thing   It's important to remember that sushi and sashimi are two different things. I'm sure you have an all-things-Nipponese friend that reminds you of this fact from time to time. There's no rice allowed in the world of sashimi, just thinly sliced pieces of the highest quality fish. And, speaking of sushi snobs, don't always be fooled by your waiter's fancy knowledge of sushi and sashimi. Chances are a year ago he thought that toro (fatty tuna belly) was a lawn mower, most likely because he was a landscaper in the burbs--a real just-add-sake sushi expert.