Sushi, like nearly everything else that lands in America, has been Westernized. Taken a step further, it’s even been Oklahoma-tized. Those of us who have lived here a few years can remember a restaurant that served sushi rolls made with bacon. Bacon! If that’s a real thing, how is there not already deep-fried sushi on a stick at the State Fair?
Sushi, which is really a word derived from the rice, not the preparation or the raw fish, tends to be polarizing even among fans of sushi. We all have at least one friend or relative who insists on proclaiming their undying hatred for sushi – usually accompanied by a facial expression communicating disgust or revulsion – every time the group is taking suggestions on where to eat. No one even has to mention sushi; the question “Where shall we eat?” is sufficient to elicit the negative response. We shall leave those people to their chicken nuggets and French fries for now.
But even among people who love this food category, there are also battles to be fought. Fried or not fried? Raw or cooked? Original or low sodium soy sauce? Why is there human skin on my plate? Ginger? That’s ginger? I’d rather have human skin on my plate. Gross.
You get the idea.
To help sort through sushi terminology and etiquette, we talked to two chefs who have extensive experience in the field. Vuong Nguyen learned about sushi at Sushi Neko and opened Guernsey Park. He’s worked around (and eaten) sushi his entire professional life. Jonathan Krell, executive chef at Patrono, worked at Morimoto of Philadelphia early in his career, and his private sushi dinners are one of Oklahoma’s greatest secret meals.
For beginners, Krell has very basic, sensible advice. “Start wherever you like. If it sounds good to you, chances are it will be good. If you know you don’t like something, don’t order it.” If you hate shrimp, wrapping it in rice won’t change the taste. Solid wisdom there.
Because our editor is adamant that brown rice sushi is (or ought to be) a thing, we decided to start there.
Yes, it exists – but no, it shouldn’t, according to both chefs.
“It’s the wrong texture,” Nguyen explains. “The rice is supposed to melt in your mouth. Brown rice will not do that.”
“It sounds like a Western, ‘health’ thing,” Krell says. “I’ve never rolled brown rice sushi. Ever.”
It’s a short-grain, white variety, and that’s important because the high concentration of amylopectin (a starch) in sushi rice means the grains break down easily after boiling. Long-grain varieties remain firm. This is, by the way, according to an NPR story titled “Why is Brown Rice Sushi so Awful?” We love NPR.
What makes sushi rice so special is its balance of vinegar, sugar and salt. Nguyen explains the standard blend is four parts vinegar to three parts sugar to one part salt. “There can be variations, but that’s pretty standard and you don’t want to stray too far.”
All About Eggs
There are all kinds of roe available, but you will usually encounter three varieties: Tobiko, Masago and Ikura.
Tobiko is flying fish roe. These are the red-orange eggs that pop in your mouth. A favorite due to their texture, the taste is slightly salty.
Masago comes from smelt. They don’t pop, and they aren’t usually as tasty as tobiko.
Ikura is hard to miss. They’re the big salmon roe, and they are recommended for the sushi veteran or adventurous eater. Krell again: “These are usually served with rice, and you don’t want to take a big bite of ikura. It’s the same as taking a huge bit of caviar. It’s not the point, and it’s not pleasant.”
The Etiquette (Rules)
There are rules, some based on tradition and respect, and some based on … not science. These are especially important if you sit at the bar and wish to interact with the sushi chef.
You don’t need multiple rolls at once. Nguyen warns that nori breaks down quickly, and if you have five rolls on the table, the nori will be tough by the time you finish the dish.
When eating sashimi, it is acceptable to put wasabi in your soy sauce. Otherwise, don’t do it.
Eating with your fingers is expected with maki and nigiri. Just wash your hands after.
Female sushi chefs are rare, and that’s because, according to Krell, in Japan there was a longstanding belief that women’s hands were too warm and would heat the sushi. Sushi Neko employs only female sushi chefs, and good for them.
If you ask the chef to surprise you – the word is “omakase” – expect to pay and tip appropriately, and be ready to be adventurous. You asked for it; you get it.
Both Krell and Nguyen admit that mayonnaise-based sauces are delicious, but they are also not traditional sushi. If you want sushi, avoid the spicy aioli. Traditional sushi is the chef’s proprietary sauce, eel sauce and, begrudgingly, soy sauce. For the “cleanest” sushi in Oklahoma City, both chefs recommend Tokyo Japanese Restaurant in Nichols Hills. It’s as close to traditional as we get.
► Our Recommendations
There are a ton of great sushi places in central Oklahoma. This list is not exhaustive, but only meant as a way to get started.
Great for beginners, and the stubborn fish-haters in your group have access to Lobby Bar’s very American menu next door. Sorry, though: There are no chicken nuggets on either menu.
Tokyo Japanese Restaurant
Why everyone does not go there every day is a mystery. It’s not always available, but if they have yellowtail collar (kama), get it. Nguyen asks for it every time he goes.
The nigiri isn’t just delicious; it’s art. As Krell points out: “Sushi started out as fast food. It was food carts and quick meals. Then an art form evolved.” You can see that art form at Tsubaki.
It’s not elegant, and it’s not terribly traditional, but it’s locally owned and solid. Krell calls it the “best fast food sushi in Oklahoma City.”
Some elegantly simple traditional rolls and some less so – such as the bombshell’s glazed strawberry slices. The tapas at night are outstanding, and the poke bowl at lunch is one of the best in town.
Most of the menu is dedicated to the restaurants’ imaginative twists on Asian cuisine (i.e., you’ll need a fork), but the sushi menu, small though it might be, pays powerful rewards in taste. (Psst – also, you might want to ask about all-you-can-eat sushi Thursdays.)
Rolls for days – you’ll have no trouble at all finding something delicious in this swanky spot. We’re particularly fond of the Eating Nemo, heartless though it sounds.
It’s convenient for downtown diners, it boasts some nice weekday specials for lunch and happy hour and most importantly, it’s delicious. Try the seafood-laden mountain of its namesake specialty roll.
► Sushi Spotting Guide
See below for an illustrated glossary of all the sushi you can eat.