How to prepare sashimi

Adam Liaw
Adam Liaw's salmon oyakodon.
Adam Liaw's salmon oyakodon. Photo: Adam Liaw

Although sashimi perfection may be years away, this simple beginner's guide will have you slicing away in no time.

What is sashimi?

Tuna, salmon and kingfish are popular sashimi choices in Japanese restaurants in Australia.
Tuna, salmon and kingfish are popular sashimi choices in Japanese restaurants in Australia. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

At its most basic, sashimi is something raw, sliced and served. It can be anything - beef, scallops, even chicken - and by far the most popular sashimi is seafood. 

Choosing fish

Almost any fish can be eaten as sashimi. In Australia, tuna, salmon and kingfish are commonly used for sashimi in Japanese restaurants.  But some of the best seafood varieties for sashimi in this country are: scallop, squid, tuna, trevally, kingfish, bream, bonito, garfish, whiting, flounder, flathead, snapper and even leatherjacket.

When it comes to raw fish, there's more to good sashimi than just being fresh. The flavour and texture of fish changes over time, and just like good beef, some fish improves with a bit of time to age. As a general rule smaller fish and seafood like prawns and squid are best eaten as soon as they're dispatched, and larger fish like flounder and snapper might need to be rested on ice for a few hours or overnight for their muscles to relax and their flavour to improve. Some even think very large fish like tuna are at their best aged for week or two. But be warned - ageing fish to be eaten raw is strictly for the experts and my advice when choosing fish for sashimi is to follow the advice of a good fishmonger. 

Preparing fish

Once the fish has been selected, it is filleted and skinned (if choosing a whole fish). Then there isn't much more to the preparation of sashimi than just cutting it up. Japanese chefs can name dozens of different slicing techniques for sashimi, but you only need to know a few. 

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The hira-zukuri (rectangular slice) cut is the most common. Starting from the right side of the fillet (for right handers) draw the knife from its base to its tip in a single vertical stroke. This is for a clean slice of fish between half a centimetre to more than 1cm wide. The slices are stacked like books on a bookshelf. This cut is commonly used for tuna, salmon and kingfish. 

The angled usu-zukuri (thin slice) cut begins from the left of the fillet, drawing the knife at a nearly horizontal angle across the grain, creating a very thin, diagonal slice that is perfect for firm, white fish with thin fillets like bream, flounder and whiting. 

Other cuts such as the kaku-zukuri (square slice) creates small cubes of thick, soft fish like tuna and the ito-zukuri (thread slice) produces thin slivers of narrow fish and seafood like garfish and squid.

For all the fancy names and techniques, what's most important is that each slice of each type of fish is the same. Slicing creates texture and if the slices are different widths, the texture of each slice will be different.

Dressings and garnishes

After it is cut, sashimi is nearly always arranged as a kind of landscape with three edible garnishes on the plate - ken, tsuma and karami - a base, a highlight and a spicy condiment. 

Ken is the base or background and sits at the rear of the dish. Popular ken include a mound of shredded and curled daikon radish or Japanese leek, or wakame seaweed. The bulk of the ken holds up the fish and its colour helps the fish stand out visually, but it can also be eaten as a kind of palate cleanser when moving from one variety of fish to the next.

Tsuma literally means "wife", but in the context of sashimi it refers to a highlight or foreground element partnered with the fish. Tsuma are smaller, often vibrantly coloured piles of tiny herbs, cresses or flowers such as shiso (leaves, buds or flowers) or benitade (a peppery purple herb). Tsuma are placed below the fish in the foreground, and can be used to flavour the fish as well.

Karami is any kind of pungent spice accompanying sashimi. Wasabi, the intense green horseradish we all know, is by far the most popular. But the type of karami served will vary by fish and by region. Mountain wasabi (a large brown-white root similar to Western horseradish) is popular in the north of Japan, grated ginger is served with oily fish like sardine and bonito and the preferred karami for vinegared mackerel is hot mustard.

Sashimi etiquette

As with most parts of Japanese culture, there are rules for eating sashimi. Some are fairly straightforward but others might come as a bit of surprise.

When adding soy sauce to your individual sauce dish, add only what you need rather than filling the dish completely, which can be considered wasteful. Just a half teaspoon or so in the bottom of the dish is usually plenty to season just a few pieces of sashimi.

Many say it's taboo to mix wasabi and soy sauce together for dipping sashimi into, but I know many Japanese who do just that. Personally, I think it's best to keep the wasabi (or other karami) separate and dab just a little on the fish before dipping it lightly in the soy sauce. That way you can vary the amount of wasabi for each type of fish and in any case, in a mixed plate of sashimi the karami served with each piece may be different.

Wearing aftershave or perfume to a sushi restaurant (or any restaurant for that matter) is thought quite rude in Japan, as strong smells interfere with the delicate taste of the fish. Considering that our perception of flavour is mainly aroma, this is a good rule to follow to maximise your appreciation of the meal. 

It's easy to get confused by the rules of Japanese food even when it comes to something as simple as a few slices of raw fish, but just remember to treat them as rough guidelines rather than absolute requirements. Above all else, enjoy the food and your first forays into the world of sashimi are unlikely to be your last.