The Raw Truth

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— As the melting pot of America begins to look outside the box for different food cuisine, the popularity of Japanese sushi only helps to raise the bar.

For years Americans have sought out creative avenues in which to try new things a laundromat with a bar, a restaurant where patrons cook their own steaks or sushi parties where everyone brings a favorite fish.

Sushi is becoming more common in American cuisine, like Italian or Mexican, and people are feeling the urge to get their hands dirty in sticky rice and fish, said Yama chan, owner of Yama-Chan Restaurant.

Bill Hamil, owner of Steamboat Meat & Seafood Co., said the sashimi-grade salmon and tuna are his most popular fish species and his shelves of Japanese products to accompany the fish.

"There's a lot of people doing their own thing," Hamil said of home sushi-making parties.

But if taste buds crave a different taste than salmon or tuna, Hamil said he'll special order various fish if patrons give him enough time.

Meat & Seafood's frozen sushi-ready section also includes eel, tuna and shrimp. Once the fish is frozen, Hamil said the parasites die and there's no need to worry about becoming ill.

Not only are Americans looking for unusual food fare but also they are particularly health-food conscious nowadays.

"It's almost like pizza it's here to stay. It's a basic staple. The following is getting bigger and it's healthy," Yama chan said.

Natural fish oils, some carbohydrates and vegetables make for a balanced meal, Yama chan said.

Sushi, typically fish or seafood with sticky rice, varies from sashimi, which is simply the raw fish or seafood with no rice. "Su" means vinegar in Japanese; hence, sushi is really just vinegar rice.

Sushi is not all raw fish and seafood and chefs around the world are finding sushi as an art form in the culinary world.

"There's vegetarian sushi for God's sake and even beef inside sushi (rolls)," Yama chan said.

Hamil said he receives fish and seafood shipments about three to four times a week and the fish is fresh zero to 14 days old.

"But basically, once it's seven days old it starts to get bad," said Hamil, adding his shipments come in three to four days after the boats dock up.

Hamil said his fish come from the Atlantic, Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico.

Sushi as an American trend began in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Japanese economy had skyrocketed, Yama chan said. The Japanese found the United States to be a profitable resource for sushi when natives began traveling to America to expand business.

"Everywhere you find Japanese businessmen you find sushi restaurants," Yama chan said.

But Yama chan was in Boulder in the mid-1980s when he saw the sushi boom take off. He couldn't do much with a sociology degree from the University of Hawaii, so sushi became his best trade, he said.

The ancient food was served with preserved, salty fish, which Yama chan said he would not even eat. But in old Tokyo they served Edo sushi with fresh fish in gambling halls in Japan so the people's fingers would not get sticky, he said.

The only variations from Tokyo sushi in America are the addition of avocado and some cooked meats such as soft shell crab.

When creating your own sushi rolls, or meki, Yama chan recommended using only one or two types of fish for economical reasons and sticking with rolls instead of the pieces of fish on top of rice.

"The biggest drawback in doing your own sushi is the variety of fish you can get," said Yama chan, adding people have the most problems with rice. "Americans have big hands and they grab too much rice. Too much rice creates problems when trying to roll."

To make sushi, get a piece of roasted seaweed with the shiny side down, dull side up. Place a golf-ball size amount of rice in wet hands and spread onto the seaweed. Sprinkle sesame seeds and smelt roe on rice before placing a piece of plastic wrap over the top.

With plastic wrap on, flip the piece over to fill the inside with fish, seafood, meat, and/or vegetables. Lay the square of sushi on a rolling mat and roll. Squeeze down a little and square off. Any sharp kitchen knife will cut through the plastic wrap to make about six different rolls.

"Always keep a wet towel and bowl of water next to you," Yama chan said as he smacked his hands to release the clumps of sticky rice.

In Yama-Chan Restaurant, Yama chan said his most popular fish items include tuna, salmon, yellowtail and eel. Sauce for the eel takes about six to seven hours to cook.

Yama chan gets the fish for his restaurant from Seattle Seafood in Denver or Steamboat Meat & Seafood Co. Most of the salmon and yellowtail is now farm-raised, even in Japan.

For those eating sushi, color and texture also is a key factor along with smell.

"Don't eat it if it's fishy. You also don't want a tuna that's brown," Yama chan said.

Hamil said some health risks are a factor only if people have immune deficiencies or liver problems.

Fishermen take core samples of fish to look at color, texture and firmness before deciding which fish is sashimi-grade or not. Hamil said they test the oil and fat content also.

"If they see that it's sashimi-grade, they'll bleed the fish right away and bring it in," Hamil said.

For instance, No. 1 tuna is the grade of fish that is served the best raw. No. 2 plus means the fish can be served seared or medium rare, and cooking grade strictly is for cooking thoroughly. Hamil said he does not carry the latter grade of tuna.

"You definitely want to have the very best," Hamil said.

Fishing boats can cruise offshore for a month at a time. If the abundance of fish is caught in the first few days, it sits on ice in the coolers. Yama chan said even salmon in Japan is delivered frozen sometimes.

Yama chan began learning the art of sushi in Japan and Hawaii about 22 years ago. In Japan, Yama chan said many people are taken out of school at an early age to apprentice in the trade. Now, culinary institutes throughout the world have included sushi classes in the curriculum.

"You could be a dishwasher for like two years before you even touch the rice. It's like a medieval society or the mafia," Yama chan said.

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