Sushi can be viewed as a representative Japanese cuisine. One well-known sushi is Edo-mae. Meet Toshikatsu Aoki, the hard-working second-generation master chef of Sushi Aoki in Ginza, Tokyo, where prestige sushi restaurants gather.
He says, “Edo-mae has several definitions. First, it means sushi made of fish from Edo front — Tokyo Bay. Second, it refers to sushi made with additional labor and refined taste.”
What “additional labor” means in many cases is heating and marinating. Kohada (spotted shad), mackerel, and halfbeak are marinated in rice rice vinegar. Clams and anago (conger eel) are heated. With kohada, for instance, after cutting off the head, opening the body, and removing organs, it’s salted and then marinated in vinegar. Following a little maturation, this fish becomes a well-matched ingredient with sushi rice.
Japanese cuisines are closely connected with the seasons. So is sushi. Delicious seafood changes by season. In spring, kasugo or kodai (small porgies) and sayori (halfbeak) in early summer, aji (horse mackerel) and kisu (sand borer) in mid-summer, young kohada or shinko (spotted shad) prized in Edo-mae sushi in fall, autumn mackerel and kohada. Then in winter, fish grow fatter for spawning and tastier, too, especially hikarimono — fish with shiny skins.
Ingredients as well as arrangement vary with the seasons because of the fat fish preserve in their bodies. Mr. Aoki changes everything including salt and rice vinegar throughout the year. For the best marriage of materials and sushi rice, he must judge fish condition and adjust his “labor.”
Where the products are from is also important.
He says, “Since I dedicate myself to Edo-mae sushi, I prioritize fish from Tokyo Bay. Mackerel, halfbeak, horse mackerel, small porgy… most fish for Edo-mae sushi are in Tokyo Bay.”
Mr. Aoki stayed abroad in the U.S.A. There, he got an idea for entertaining foreign guests by helping them enjoy sushi at his Ginza “stage” that serves international visitors.
“We’re ready to serve elaborately prepared sushi. But I choose a classic selection of traditional Edo-mae sushi for these overseas visitors. I imagine they’ll feel disappointed having a creative selection of sushi like back home if they spend time in Ginza, Japan. Our Edo-mae sushi bar allows guests to see how the chef makes sushi by slicing, arranging ingredients, and combining them with rice.”
There are now many international guests with chopstick handling skills. Yet they understand it’s even more delicious to have fresh sushi right out of the master’s hand.
Mr. Aoki says, “Unlike most Japanese, who eat one sushi piece in one bite, foreign visitors don’t really eat pieces of sushi in one bite. So I serve sushi in smaller pieces or cut pieces in half. I change the way I serve sushi by observing individuals.”
His notion: the best part of Japanese cuisine is treating any tool in a courteous manner.
“The most basic part of preparation and finishing our work is courtesy. That’s required of a master chef. I’d like any guest to enjoy the essence of this at the counter of a sushi bar.”
A small sized tub is used for keeping shari — vinegar rice — for hand-making sushi. Aoki Sushi tubs were crafted by a Kyoto artisan. Since tubs are wooden, they can turn moldy, so chefs repeatedly wash and dry tubs with care.
A mat of long thin bamboo strips woven together by cotton threads, this tool is used to create maki-mono (rolled sushi). A sheet of nori (dried seaweed) is placed on the maki-su, steamed sushi rice is spread over it, and ingredients are rolled. Sushi masters themselves repair broken threads.
Japanese cooking knives (hocho) are indispensable tools for preparing fish. Made of steel, hocho can easily rust in water. Sushi chefs themselves need to choose the right hocho and practice proper techniques for sharpening and cutting. Without this, even good knives cannot create delicious sushi.