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Izakaya 101 and a Brief Sushi Rice Primer

Roasted, soy-marinated quail at Nombe. Photo: Stuart Paul Mullenberg

Rounding out last week's izakaya probe, we bring you a run-down of the unfamiliar terms most likely to pop up on an izakaya menu. Our local Japanese chef know-it-alls Hiro Sone of Ame and Mari Takahashi of Nombe chimed in to walk us through words like agemono and onigiri. We've compiled their definitions below along with a few revelations on the secrets of perfect sushi rice. What makes the best grains? And why does sushi rice tastes so much better than the regular stuff from the supermarket? This and your izakaya 101 after the hop. 

The Definitions

Otumami: tsumamu is the action of picking things up with chopsticks; these are light snacks you start the night with 

Agemono: from ageru, meaning "deep-fry" and mono, meaning "things," the term encompasses anything deep-fried: from tempura to croquettes to French fries

Karaage: Japanese-style fried meat, often chicken wings in the Bay Area

Tsukune: Japanese-stye chicken meatball

Tsukemono: anything pickled

Sumiyaki: from sumi, meaning "charcoal" and yaki, meaning "grilled," this is anything charcoal-grilled

Kushiyaki: kushi means "stick" and yaki again is "grilled;" so kushiyaki are items grilled on a skewer

Onigiri: a rice ball. Hiro Sone says you can find them all over Japantown. "Usually they stuff them with pickled plum, baked salted salmon, Japanese radish pickles or salted cod roe. Wooo makes me hungry."

Yakionigiri: baked or grilled onigiri

 

And now, Mari of Nombe answers our questions about sushi rice.

Do izakayas in Japan serve sushi?  Many of them don't have a sushi bar. Most restaurants specialize in one style of food, such as sushi, tempura or tonkatsu, and they don't serve anything other than variations of that one type of food.  Izakayas are an exception as you can have a variety of food.  So some izakayas have sushi, but people don't expect it to be as good as what you'll find at a sushi bar, unless it's advertised as a house specialty.

What's the mark of perfect nigiri rice at a sushi bar or izakaya? Perfect rice has a hint of vinegar flavor, a touch of sweetness and it breaks down lightly when you put it into your mouth.  You can't swim it in soy sauce without breaking it down.

How is that achieved? You have to start with high-quality rice. It's washed and soaked in water. Then it's cooked in the proportinate amount of high quality water. It's stirred with a light hand so it's fluffy and not mushed into a paste. You have to be able to see each shiny rice kernal. Then a good vinegar is mixed in. The technique of making rice balls and forming it for nigiri is also an art. The mound shouldn't be too hard but it shouldn't break apart either.