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 The New York Times 2001

  Sashimi That Isn't: A Star Is Born
  by Nobu Matsuhisa and Florence Fabricant
  September 12, 2001


I was trained as a chef in Japan, but I have worked in kitchens all over the world and that is probably why I am so open to different ideas and flavors. Take what I call new-style sashimi, for example. It's an adaptation that came to me when I was trying to accommodate American tastes without completely compromising the concept of sashimi.

Many years ago, before Americans were as adventurous as they are now, a customer in my restaurant Matsuhisa in Los Angeles said I could prepare whatever I wanted for her. But when I served sashimi she said she would not eat raw fish. I took the plate — the freshest fish, so carefully sliced and arranged — back to the kitchen and wondered what to do. Put it in the oven? Under the salamander? No. That would ruin it.

Then I noticed a pan with very hot olive oil on the stove. I poured some over the sashimi and served it again. She ate one bite, then another. She cleaned the plate. The fish was not really cooked, just about 10 percent, so it was a bit of a joke, but it was enough to make it acceptable to her. And that pleased me.

I don't discuss my thinking very often, but the truth is, I believe cooking is like a good marriage. I have been married 28 years. You must first think of the other person, how to please the other person. Otherwise you're bound to wind up with a divorce. So many chefs seem to feel they must not compromise. But I don't think you'll get far that way, and you'll miss so many inspirations along the way.

I have invented some dishes like the new-style sashimi to make Japanese food more appealing to people who are wary of it. And I also serve other raw fish dishes, like ceviche, and give them some Japanese flavor. To me, they're very similar. They're inspirations I'm proud of, and they make sense.

With the sashimi, I understood instinctively that the warm oil against the cool fish gave a contrast and a richer feeling in the mouth. But since that first attempt I've added sesame oil to the olive oil, to give it a more Asian aroma, and I now arrange ginger, garlic, chives and sesame seeds on each slice of fish for more complexity.

Instead of a dipping sauce, which is the way sashimi is usually served, this sashimi comes with its own sauce — the oil — and also soy sauce and yuzu, a Japanese citrus, to put a touch of acidity against the oil. Each mouthful of fish is complete.

New-style sashimi began as a compromise and became a triumph. But some compromises cannot be made. For this dish, even with the hot oil, the fish must be very fresh. You must go to the market, look at the whole fish and see that the eyes are bright. Whole sea bass or red snapper are excellent, mild, white-fleshed fish. You have to buy the whole fish, not fillets that have already been cut. Ask that the fish be filleted and skinned. You can cut the sashimi yourself at home, holding a sharp knife at an angle to make thin slices.

If you're not happy with the fish in your market, you can also do new-style sashimi with freshly opened oysters. I love it with oysters. Serve them on the half shell with the oil, the sauce and the garnishes.

It's really so very simple.

My ceviche is even simpler for a home cook, because you can make it without any raw fish. I call ceviche South American sashimi. I discovered it when I worked in Peru years ago, but I changed it, making it fresher and using Japanese seasonings. In a sushi bar it's good to do ceviche because sushi and sashimi take all the best center parts of the fish and you have the rest for ceviche. I know it sounds stingy, but it's not; it's still the freshest fish.

You can make make Japanese-style ceviche with pieces of cooked seafood: shrimp, squid, octopus, even mussels. Fresh scallops do not need cooking, just cutting up in uniform pieces if they're big.

Old-fashioned ceviche is usually marinated a long time, at least five or six hours, until it's white. But I like it better with a fresher flavor. In Peru, they have also started changing the style, mixing the fish with citrus juice and seasonings just before serving, the way I like it.

In Peru they just use lemon juice and some chili. I like some yuzu juice, which is like lemon but more sour than American lemon juice. You can use bottled yuzu, and if you can't find it, a mixture of lemon and lime juice will do. I add other seasonings like ginger, which is not very South American, and soy sauce. I also use ají amarillo, a Peruvian chili, but other kinds of chili are fine. You can even mince some fresh chili, like jalapeño, and use that. The main point is that the ceviche should have a little heat.



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