Masaki Saito's Aged Sushi Will Change Your Palate Forever

Located directly across from the main branch of the New York Public Library, Sushi Ginza Onodera is where you'll find one of the city's most accomplished sushi masters: Masaki Saito. When this Hokkaido, Japan native places a piece of fish on your plate, you're in for a rare treat.

Edomaezushi, or Edomae-style sushi is Saito's specialty, and an uncommon one to bring to the United States. Born from the necessity to quickly and effectively preserve fresh fish before refrigeration technology, this centuries-old technique of wrapping fish in salty, slightly acidic kelp results in a meltingly tender final product. Its enhanced umami flavors are otherwise impossible to achieve.

Saito's rice is not white but dark beige, thanks to a dose of sweet, fragrant akasu — red sake vinegar that was a staple ingredient during the Edo period of Japan. His fish is not fresh, but up to 10 days old (or older) and meticulously tended. And his affinity for joking while preparing your dinner is unparalleled, so when you're ready to positively destroy your palate for all other sushi, pull up a seat at the bar and enjoy Saito's personal brand of sushi-centric humor and one of the most memorable omakase meals of your life.

I occupied one of these coveted seats across from Chef Saito to discover what makes Edomae-style aged sushi so uniquely delicious.

Usually you hear people say, "This sushi is so fresh." How do you explain to first-time guests that aged sushi is actually better than fresh?

There are different levels. The sushi scene in New York is not really high-level. I'm very surprised by the level of sushi being served in the city sometimes. In Japan, people who know the taste of Edomae would prefer it over fuji-style [fresh fish] or any other style that's been popularized. People who know Edomae-style and can differentiate between Edomae and fresh fish really know sushi, and would prefer Edomae over fresh. I think right now only people in Japan really understand it.

How long have Japanese chefs been aging fish for sushi?

400 years. In Japan it's not uncommon, but it's not accessible here or in Europe, which is why most people don't know the difference between Edomae and fresh fish. So they just go with fresh fish.

Do you make funazushi here?

You know about funazushi? Wow. Are you a sushi chef?

[laughs] Not yet. I tried it once. It was very powerful.

I don't make funazushi, the smell is too strong!

Would you compare aging sushi to aging beef? The first time you eat a dry-aged steak, it's like you've never tasted beef before.

Yes, it imparts different flavors that the fish doesn't normally pick up when it's fresh. If you're aging it for a few days or longer, it picks up new umami flavors.

What are some fish you can't age?

Nothing. Same as humans — all fish ages.

What about uni?

You could cure it with salt, but that's not something you want to do. We steam our uni. It's a little different from aging, but we do apply our own methods to it before serving.

What is your favorite fish to age and why?

Golden-eye snapper, I just love it. It's also something that's popular in Japan with older generations because there's not so many bones in it, and it's easier to eat.

What's the most popular preparation of aged fish at Ginza?

Kelp-cured, mostly white fish. Fluke and snappers of all kinds.

What makes that kelp perfect for curing sushi?

The width. There are types of kelp that are thick, there are ones that are thin. The fish has to be wrapped in a thicker kelp to cover it.

What do you think is the main reason aged sushi is not popular in America?

It's a completely different style of sushi. Even the way it's written in Japanese characters is completely different. Regular sushi is written as "fresh fish." The Edomae sushi character is completely different; it translates to "making the fish delicious." That's what my methods are.

Does it take a different set of knife skills to work with aged sushi than fresh?

Yes, you have to change your skills. Fresh fish is easier to slice because it's firm. Aged's texture is much softer.

How much of your day is spent aging the fish to serve?

A lot of time. Depending on the fish, we would open [the vacuum packages] and re-seal every day. Even our miso soup is aged a minimum of one week.

I thought the miso was the age.

This one is double-aged! We get our miso from Japan, and we combine about 30 different types to make our soup. Then we age it for one week to ten days.

When you're learning to prepare fish in a specific style, what are some mistakes that new chefs make?

You always have to taste anything you're going to serve to your customers. Whether I'm serving sushi or beer, I always taste to make sure that I'm serving the best quality of anything. It's just about the best quality. When I started off, there were times that you could possibly make the fish stale or make somebody sick. That's one mistake new sushi craftsmen often face. I check every day to see which day of aging has the best taste. I check everything to make sure it's up to par.

Are there differences between pairing sake with aged fish and fresh fish?

It might change slightly, but it's not a big difference in terms of sake pairings. I don't have anything that I specifically recommend — I like beer. But I'd recommend sake that's made from the same region as the sushi rice. Same prefecture, same area, same farmer if you can. That would be the best pairing.