• Peter Alton

Hong Kong: A Mouthful of Nigiri

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

The Japanese have one of the most unusual and varied cuisines on the planet, but also without doubt one of the most delicious. The cuisine is based on the idea of combining a carbohydrate in the form of rice or noodles with fish, meat vegetables, tofu or a soup base in order to add flavour to the dish.

Japanese diners tend to be quite well informed about their food so the standard and choice of cuisine is quite high. Outside of Japan it is generally regarded that Hong Kong is the best place to find good quality Japanese food at very reasonable prices. A Japanese meal and the whole dining experience can often be daunting and confusing for diners. People intent on their first taste of sushi often shy away because they are unsure what to eat or even how to eat it. A good place to start is in one of the popular self-service or kaiten- zushi restaurants where individual dishes are circulated past on conveyer belts giving diners ample time to choose their selection. All the dishes are size and colour coded according to the price you pay and you simply take the dish that takes your fancy and eat.

At the end of the meal your bill is totalled up according to the number of empty plates you have at the various prices. This is a really good way to start as all the sushi are in individual portions which gives you a chance to try a more varied selection without worrying that you will have a large plate of something which sounded nice on the menu but tastes horrible. Keep an eye on the prices because although these sushi bars are relatively inexpensive it is surprising how quickly you can stack up the plates and work up a large bill.

Once you have found some items that appeal to you it is worth trying one of the many Japanese restaurants that abound in Hong Kong. Like all other restaurants on the island there are good and bad places but generally as with most restaurants in Hong Kong the bad ones will not last too long. My favourite Japanese restaurant in Hong Kong is Higashiyama, which is situated along Tin Lok Lane in Wanchai near the South Pacific Hotel. As befits Hong Kong it is a small but very friendly Japanese restaurant, and a place that both Eden and myself love. There are no frills in this restaurant just bare wooden tables and chairs, even the sushi comes served on a traditional wooden stool or geta, as they are known back in Japan. The food itself is excellent and so it is quite rightly regarded as one of the best Japanese restaurants on the island. Try the special Sushi or Sashimi set menus here, as these can give you an excellent introduction to Japanese food with enough variety to keep even the most fastidious gourmand happy. The itamae as the Japanese call their sushi chefs prepares your meal at the counter so you can actually watch the art in progress. Huge knives cut delicate slithers of seafood and carved vegetables to create dishes, which not only taste good but are visually exciting as well. You will also be given copious amounts of green tea or agari as it is more often called; as this cleanses your palette and lets you appreciate the truly delicate flavours of your meal.

The cuisine of Japan is famous throughout the world and until relatively recently remained a mystery to the West. Nowadays good Japanese food can be found worldwide, but outside of Japan it is Hong Kong that really embraces the magic of this wonderful and delicate cuisine. Japan itself is made up of four large islands and thousands of smaller ones all surrounded by some of the best fishing waters in the world. Japan’s topography is mountainous and volcanic with lush forests fed by the monsoons that frequent the region. Good farmland is extremely scarce which is why the Japanese diet contains a high percentage of seafood. Japanese food is fresh, healthy, and low in fat with presentation just as important as the flavour of the finished dish. Traditionally the food is very simple using light garnishes and seasoning so that the true taste of the food comes through. It is said that in a good Japanese meal you should be able to taste the sea and hear the waves crashing on the shore. It is simple food waiting to be judged on its own merits without the need to embellish the delicate flavours with rich sauces.

Fish and seafood dominate in the history of Japanese cuisine. The introduction of Buddhism meant that for many years the eating of meat was prohibited, even today meat consumption is amongst the lowest in the world. The Japanese are regarded as one of the healthiest nations with their diet contributing to one of the lowest rates of heart disease and the longest life expectancy in the world. However as Western influences permeate the islands it is very interesting to note that today’s Japanese consume more protein and fat than in previous generations resulting in an increase in height of on average 3-4 inches from the times of their grandparents. Some influences it seems have been good for Japan while others are proving not so beneficial. The Chinese brought chopsticks, soy sauce and tea to Japan, while the Portuguese and Dutch introduced fried foods giving rise to the Japanese favourite tempura. Japan has embraced a wide variety of influences in its cuisine but has still managed to stay true to its roots creating a varied and interesting cuisine that still maintains an identity and integrity all of its own.

Rice is the main staple food that dominates the Japanese cuisine with short grain or japonica rice, as it is sometimes known the preferred choice. The rice absorbs liquid very easily and is characterized by its unique stickiness and texture. Rice has actually been cultivated in Japan for over 2,000 years and has since that time become an integral part of the Japanese diet. It was so important that at one stage it is was even used as currency. The Japanese word for cooked rice is actually gohan, a word which has the distinction of also meaning ‘meal’ showing the importance of rice in the Japanese diet. Rice is generally eaten plain as it is regarded as an accompaniment to the main dishes so try to refrain from pouring sauce over the rice as it will affect the flavour of the main dishes.

Soy sauce or shoyu is as popular in Japan as it is in China with Japanese soy sauce differing by using wheat as a primary ingredient resulting in a sweeter tasting alcoholic sherry-like flavour. There are many varieties available but in general lighter soy sauces are used for the more delicate fish and meats while darker ones are used for flavouring soups or dishes with strong darker meat. It is considered bad manners to waste any soy sauce as it is a precious commodity so be careful to use only what you need and only pour enough soy sauce for your needs.

The Japanese horseradish or Wasabi is often added to soy sauce to add spice and compliment the flavour of Japanese fish or shellfish. Wasabi is an extremely hot plant indigenous to Asia that counters the aromas of strong sushi. It is not in fact, as many believe a variety of horseradish but actually a member of the cabbage family. It became popular with Sushi when it was noticed that it had parasite killing properties that helped stop people getting sick after eating raw untreated fish. Nowadays fish is generally much cleaner and safer to eat but you will still see Wasabi used, normally as a bright green paste in a small dish or on the side of your geta sushi plate. Simply take a very small amount of the paste on the ends of your chopsticks and mix this with a little soy sauce in a small white dish supplied for the purpose. Sometimes your waiter will pour some soy sauce into the dish for you and all you need to do is add the wasabi to your taste. The soy sauce will go cloudy and then you can dip your sushi and enjoy the combination of flavours. Take care because like the Western equivalent of horseradish, the strength varies and some varieties can be extremely hot. It is also worth bearing in mind that when making sushi the itamae will sometimes smear some under the topping so don’t overdo it!

Another unusual accompaniment to sushi that you will frequently see is pickled ginger or gari. This is a distinctive pink, thinly sliced young root of pickled ginger used to cleanse your pallet between dishes of sushi. It is sometimes called sushi ginger and gets its pink colour from the natural colour of the pickles although nowadays food colourings are frequently added to ensure an even colouration. It is quite mild and refreshing and really does cleanse the palette allowing you to mix strong tasting foods without unbalancing your taste buds.

One of my favourite dishes in any Japanese restaurant is miso soup a salty comforting broth that really epitomises Japanese cuisine. Miso is considered a gift from God and the perfect way to start the day although nowadays it is commonly consumed throughout the day. The broth is made from fermented steamed short grain rice, barley or soybeans, in a starter mould culture called a koji. This culture is added to a salty stock (dashi) made from dried baby sardines (niboshi) or from Japanese kelp known as konbu. Miso varies greatly in flavour, texture, colour and aroma according to the length of fermentation time with darker cultures having a much saltier taste. The finished broth is a cloudy salty soup typically with spring onions, seaweed and tofu added before serving. The soup is presented in a bowl with a lid and is traditionally sipped directly from the bowl while being held in both hands.

Sushi is perhaps the most famous Japanese food outside of Japan and one that is increasing in popularity as it gradually finds its way West. Sushi originated in Southeast Asia as a means of preserving fish sometime around the 4th century BC. Salted raw fish was packed in cooked rice causing it to release lactic acid as it fermented helping preserve the fish. After a few months of fermentation the fish would be consumed and the rice thrown away. Today in Tokyo some restaurants still serve this original style of sushi called nare-zushi using freshwater carp.

Around the 8th century AD, sushi found its way into Japan. The Japanese preferred to eat the rice together with the fish, so a new type of sushi called seisei-zushi was born. This marked the beginning of sushi as a cuisine rather than purely as a way of preserving food. Over the years sushi underwent many changes until in the eighteenth century a chef named Yohei began serving sushi in the form we see it today. Two distinct styles emerged the Kansai style from the Kansai region and the Edo style from Edo or Tokyo, as we know it today. The Kansai style sushi uses cooked season rice combined with other ingredients, which are then creatively moulded into ornamental packages. The Edo style, which became the nigiri-zushi as it has become more recently known uses a single piece of seafood on a seasoned rice base.

In the 1820's a Tokyo chef, Hanaya Yohei introduced fresh raw seafood and sliced fish known as sashimi served on bit size portions of vinegar soaked rice. He served these direct to his customers from a mobile sushi stall that he could move to wherever business was best. This proved extremely popular and paved the way for the sushi bars and restaurants that are becoming more and more commonplace. Sushi has continued to grow and develop with many variations found both in and outside of Japan such as nigiri-zushi, oshi-zushi along with chirashi-zushi and maki-zushi.

Nigiri-zushi or hand shaped sushi is arguably the most popular type of sushi using typically the freshest raw fish or shellfish placed on top of vinegared rice with a thin smear of wasabi. This is one of the most delicate types of sushi eaten in bite-sized pieces, which can be dipped in soy sauce at the table according to your own preference. The most popular types of nigiri-zushi are maguro, a deep red tender slice of tuna fish, hamachi, a pale colour, young and slightly sweet yellowtail, amaebi, a delicious young raw shrimp which is sweet and very tender and aji, a pink tender horse mackerel that has a very interesting combination of sweet and salty flavours. For the more adventurous try uni which is the very unusual sea urchin roe wrapped in dried seaweed. It is yellow or orange in colour with a buttery texture and a floral aroma. It has a creamy taste that people either seem to love or hate. Another unusual type of nigiri-zushi is tamago a sweet egg custard or sushi omelette wrapped in dried seaweed. The layered preparation of this sushi requires great skill from the chef and is a firm dessert favourite with Japanese and Westerners alike.

Oshi-zushi otherwise known as pressed sushi is made by pressing layered marinated or lightly broiled fish and sushi rice in a rectangular bamboo wooden box called an oshibako before. The fish is often glazed with soy sauce and sweetened sake before pressing, then slid out of the mould and sliced into small pieces ready for serving. This sushi is visually very attractive and as it is seasoned and flavoured prior to pressing it is not normally dipped in soy sauce at the table. My favourite is kani sushi, which is pressed crab that has a very sweet and mild taste and is perfect with a salty soy sauce dip.

Scattered sushi or chirashi-zushi is pretty much as it sounds, with a medley of nine kinds of raw fish and vegetables simply scattered on top a bowl or box of cooked rice of rice. There are commonly two types of chirashi-zushi; edomae chirashizushi where the uncooked ingredients are arranged on top of a bowl of rice and gomokuzushi where cooked or uncooked ingredients are mixed into the rice itself. It is a very simple form of sushi that is very popular particularly during the famous Doll Festival, a festival which takes place on March 3rd in Japan to pray for the health and well being of young girls. A common favourite both inside and outside of Japan chirashi-zushi uses a wide variety of ingredients including fish, shellfish, egg and vegetable on a bed of cooked sushi rice.

One of the most striking forms of sushi are the rolled maki-zushi where fish, rice and vegetables are combined in a dried seaweed wrapper called nori. There are several types maki-zushi, which are commonly found in most Japanese restaurants. The most common is Nori-maki where the nori and rice are pressed and rolled around a cylinder of fish and vegetables using a bamboo mat, called a makisu before being sliced into bite-size pieces. Another variant is temaki, consisting of large cone shaped pieces with the dried seaweed on the outside and the filling exposed on the wide end. This is quite a delicate and difficult sushi to eat with chopsticks so more often that not it is eaten with the fingers. Popular types of maki-zushi include hamachi, a spicy thin roll with a yellowtail, avocado and peanut sauce filling, ikura, a thin roll with a filling of salmon roe and cucumber and the delicious futo maki. The futo maki originates in Osaka, Japan and uses a wide variety of ingredients within the roll such as yellow pepper, carrot, tofu, cucumber and shiitake mushrooms. It is generally vegetarian but some chefs do include fish or shrimp in the filling.

Aside from sushi one of my favourite Japanese dishes is ramen. This is a very popular noodle dish, which is like a hearty soup using chicken, or pork based stock and the very thin ramen noodles, which are traditionally made from wheat flour. The soup can be clear or dark but generally there are four different kinds of ramen: shio ramen (salt based), shoyu ramen (soy sauce based), tonkotsu ramen (pork bone based) and miso ramen (miso soy bean paste based). Toppings such as spring onions, bamboo shoots, seaweed, bean sprouts, barbeque pork, squid or even crab may be added to the soup to create the finished ramen. There are many regional variations and it is interesting to see that ramen is popular right across the world. Japan unsurprisingly is the largest consumer of ramen followed by China and then Indonesia. It is now commonly available in instant form at most supermarkets where it is affectionately known as ‘the staple food of the college student’!

Another classic in Japanese cuisine is tempura which is the famous deep-fried seafood and vegetables coated in a crispy batter which you may have come across. The batter is the key to good tempura using ice-cold water, flour and eggs. The mixture is stirred briefly with chopsticks leaving lumps in the batter which gives tempura its unique structure when cooked. Various ingredients are dipped in the batter and fried for 2-3 minutes at high temperature resulting in a golden batter while still retaining the full flavour of the original ingredients. Fresh fish, shellfish, aubergine, carrot, sweet potato, green pepper, mushrooms and yams are all frequently coated in this delicious batter. After frying tempura is seasoned with sea salt or a mix of powdered green tea and salt or sometimes the strange combination of salt and yuzo, a small grapefruit-like citrus fruit may be used. Tempura is served with a dip of tentsuyu sauce, which is a mix of dashi soup stock, combined with sweet mirin rice wine, and soy sauce. The finished dish may often be garnished with grated daikon, the Asian white radish.

You may come across dishes with names such as sukiyaki, teriyaki and mizutaki which normally refer to meat fish or vegetable dishes which are sometimes but not always cooked at the table. Japanese sukiyaki dishes are normally cooked by simmering sliced meat fish or vegetables in a large pot containing water, soy sauce and sugar with rice wine. Diners share the same pot and dip the cooked pieces in raw beaten egg or soy sauce before eating. Teriyaki dishes meanwhile are brushed with teriyaki sauce before being grilled on a hotplate and are once again served with beaten egg or soy sauce. Lastly mizutaki is very similar to sukiyaki with the pieces dipped in a boiling stock along with vegetables and other seasonings creating a stew very similar to a Chinese Hotpot.

A simple Japanese meal will traditionally consist of a bowl of rice, pickles known as tsukemono, a bowl of soup and fish, meat or vegetable dishes often referred to as okazu. Meals will often be presented on trays with the rice bowl placed on the left hand side of the diner and the soup bowl on the right. The chopsticks are usually positioned at the front supported by a rest with the narrow ends pointing towards the left. Behind these are three okazu representing the Ichiju Sansai formula or ‘one soup plus three sides’ with each side dish typically employing a different cooking method. The dishes are usually a raw fish or sashimi dish, a grilled dish and a boiled or simmered dish. Sometimes steamed or deep fried dishes may replace the grilled or simmered dishes. Japanese green tea and pickles are the normal accompaniment.

Japanese cuisine is very varied and it is really worth the effort to try a few of the dishes on offer. Japanese food prepared professionally will open your eyes and your taste buds to what good food should be. Be adventurous and experiment and you really will be rewarded. A good Japanese restaurant is often not necessarily a good sushi restaurant but invariably a good sushi restaurant will be a good Japanese restaurant. On the surface Japanese food looks remarkably simple but the skills of a good itamae are the key to a good restaurant. Itamae means literally ‘in front of the board’ which is where the chef stands preparing sushi in full view of the customers. There is nowhere to hide here, so no System D in operation to take short cuts, people come to see the master at work as much as to taste the food he creates such is the experience of sushi. To become a professional sushi chef, or itamae, requires a minimum of 10 years of training working under an established sushi chef so it is a hard slog. Of course there are a few that cut corners but in general they don’t survive long particularly in Hong Kong where food is of paramount importance.

So what about dining etiquette? This is another reason why people avoid Japanese restaurants as they are unsure how to act and behave at the table. People are scared that they will wipe their nose or point their chopsticks the wrong way inciting the immediate anger of the itamae who will chase them out of the restaurant uttering curses whilst brandishing a large Samurai sword or meat cleaver in their direction. In practise the Japanese like the Chinese are quite forgiving of Westerners and appreciate anyone who attempts to embrace the cultures and traditions of their society.

With this in mind there are a few points that may be of benefit to anyone contemplating their first visit to a Japanese restaurant whether it is in Hong Kong or Tokyo. The first thing you may notice about a Japanese restaurant is that the seating is not normally too luxurious. Small wooden chairs or stools are the norm guaranteeing you a numb rear end before the end of the meal. In some more traditional restaurants the tables are very low with the diners expected to sit on cushions on the floor. In this situation the correct position to adopt is the kneeling position or seiza style. If this becomes uncomfortable then men are allowed to sit cross-legged and women side on with both knees to the side to protect their modesty. Try to keep your back straight in good posture and avid crouching wherever possible as slouching at the table is regarded as poor manners. In Hong Kong most Japanese restaurants cater more for the Western diner with more familiar style tables and chairs so at least you don’t need to be a yoga expert to enjoy a meal. Traditionally prior to the nineteenth century diners would eat from flat floor trays or from individual boxes set before them. In the beginning of the twentieth century low dining tables were the norm but by the end of the century Western style dining tables and chairs were becoming increasingly more popular.

Once you are seated in the restaurant you will normally be given a hot towel or oshibori, some Japanese tea and a copy of the menu to look through. Wipe your hands on the towel before touching any food and keep it handy throughout the meal in case you need to clean your fingers. Some restaurants will provide menus with helpful pictures next to the dishes or they may even have pictures on the wall to help you identify the dishes you like. If you are finding it hard to choose a good way to start is by ordering the set menu or the sushi or sashimi selection if this is available, as this will give you the opportunity to taste of a variety items. This way you may discover some delight that you ordinarily would never have ordered.

Once your meal arrives pour a little soy sauce into the ceramic dish provided at your place setting. Using your chopsticks take a little of the green wasabi and stir this into the dish of soy sauce. Be careful not to add too much wasabi as it varies in strength and can be extremely hot. Next grab a whole piece of sushi or a slice of sashimi and dip this into the soy sauce. For sushi make sure you dip it with the topping side down to prevent the rice from soaking up too much soy sauce. The idea then is to eat this seasoned treat in one or at the most two bites. The Japanese generally don’t add wasabi to their soy sauce but dab the wasabi directly onto the sushi but both ways are equally acceptable. Some types of sushi are particularly difficult to pick up but persevere and you will get there.

Remember never to dip anything that already has a sauce or glaze, or any item that has an elaborate topping. Dipping can be messy but don’t worry, the tablecloth may need changing at the end of your meal but it is quite acceptable to leave a mess as it shows you have enjoyed your food. The traditional way to eat sushi is not with chopsticks but actually with your fingers, however this is becoming less common although you do occasionally see people enthusiastically eating this way. The idea is to pick up your sushi is with your index finger resting on top of the fish at the upper end whilst cradling the rice base between your thumb and other fingers. The technique is then to dip the sushi into the soy sauce and into your mouth fish side down, without touching either the sauce or your mouth with your fingers. The oshibori is used to clean your fingers, never lick them or wipe them on the tablecloth however discreetly you may do it as this unsurprisingly is considered bad manners.

Dining etiquette is taken very seriously with the Japanese having very similar ideas about acceptable dining behaviour as their Chinese counterparts. One area where they differ is that in Japan it is considered good manners to eat all the food on your plate down to the last grain of rice. In China this is taken as a sign that your host has not given you enough food. If you remember to eat all the food on your plate in a Japanese restaurant and to leave a little in a Chinese restaurant you won’t go far wrong. Also when you have finished your meal it is considered polite to replace all the lids on your dishes and even to return your chopsticks into the paper sleeve they came from.

When using chopsticks all the rules for dining that I outlined previously for dining in a Cantonese restaurant apply such as not pointing or leaving your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl. It is also considered offensive to pass food from one person’s chopsticks directly to another’s. This is because at funerals the charred bones of the deceased are passed from person to person in the same manner. If you do pass food to someone or take food from the centre of the table the correct way to do this is by using the opposite end of your chopsticks.

Before starting your meal it is customary to say itadakimasu which means ‘I gratefully receive’ followed by gochisosama deshita after you have finished as this means’ I thank you for the meal’. When drinking in a Japanese restaurant it is the custom for diners to serve one another and it is considered rude to leave a friend or colleague with an empty glass. Remember not to start drinking until everyone at the table has been served with some type of beverage. The traditional toast in Japanese is ‘kampai’ but it really is worth remembering not to use the outdated Western toast of ‘chin chin’. This is not because it is considered old fashioned but because this expression actually refers to male genitals in Japanese! You may get a few funny looks and a stunned silence if you use this one and it probably wouldn’t be the best start to any meal.

Nowadays in Hong Kong you can really find any meal that suits your palate. With the advent of Chinese and Japanese fusion cuisines the culinary art is adapting to peoples palates and tastes. Japanese food as much as Chinese food is a huge influence on the cuisine of Hong Kong. Japanese food can be exciting and a treat for all the senses as the most important ingredient is the food itself. You will not find elaborately roasted sea bass with fennel and pastis or roasted meats with a thin jus only simple dishes that rely purely on the freshness of the original ingredients to excite the palate. The Cantonese are firm believers in enjoying uncomplicated food that doesn’t hide behind a rich sauce so it is not a surprise that Japanese food has always had a great appeal. It is not surprising really that Japanese cuisine holds a special place in the heart of the island. It is often said that the Japanese are masters of their art and a good Japanese meal puts you that much closer to heaven.

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