The Seattle Times brings up a multifaceted Japanese dining discussion, thanks to this letter from a reader:
During the 1990s, I made several trips to Japan and remember that an order of nigiri sushi consisted of two small bite-size pieces. An entire single small piece fit comfortably into the mouth.
Now, nigiri sushi typically comes as a single large piece per order that is too large to fit in the mouth in a single bite. This leads to awkward eating, where the large piece must be bitten in half, and the second half recovered outside the lips with chopsticks. Often the second half falls apart, with rice and fish separating. This is messy and unappetizing.
Except for California rolls, other rolls have also become too large. It is easier to bite sashimi in two than sushi, but it would be nice to have bite-size sashimi as well.
May we please have two small bite-size pieces of nigiri sushi per order?
Think about the last time you ate nigiri sushi — did you eat it in one bite, or two? If one bite, did you have to make an effort to keep your mouth closed while chewing? If two bites, did the rice pad disintegrate halfway through, strewing errant grains over your plate and through your soy sauce dish? Was it not sexy? That’s because nigiri is meant to be eaten in one perfect mouthful. If your rice ball stays fully formed through two bites, it’s a terrible rice ball. One of the most important characteristics of quality sushi rice is that it doesn’t actually stick together. The hand-formed balls are held together by slight pressure and the tiniest amount of residual starch until they get to your mouth, where they separate back into individual grains.
Both maki and nigiri have gotten progressively larger to satisfy that special appetite you save for restaurants and diners’ desire for a good value. Given that sushi can be one of the pricier options for dining out, restaurants compensate with overstuffed rolls and generous cuts of what is frequently subpar fish. That goes double for gunkan maki — it’s even harder to eat one of those in two bites. Breach the seaweed “container” above the rice, and that ship’s going to sink. If you go to a very upscale or omakase-only restaurant, however, you’ll never be served a piece of nigiri that’s too big to be eaten in one bite. All-you-can-eat places serve up these less authentic sizes of sushi. Sadly, the rice-to-fish proportion is usually comically off, the fish itself is not great and the rice is weighed down with vinegar so you feel full more quickly.
The solution? A return to the way sushi is eaten in Japan, “value” be damned. The Seattle Times quotes chef Shota Nakajima of Naka in Jet City’s Capitol Hill neighborhood as saying, “If you have to eat sushi in two bites, that is too large. A big part of Japanese cuisine is about how easy things are to eat.”