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The first time I ever heard about nikiri wasn’t at a sushi bar, where you’d expect to learn about the Japanese sauce that’s lightly brushed onto bite-size pieces of fresh nigiri . No, I first learned about the sauce in Arlington native Trevor Corson’s book, The Zen of Fish. Right there on page 22, Corson writes: “A good sushi chef adds all the flavors the sushi needs before he hands it to the customer. He mixes his own sauce and uses it behind the sushi bar. This sauce is called nikiri.”
This bit of insider information propelled me on a power-mad trip through local sushi houses. For weeks, every time I supped on fresh fish on rice, whether at Kaz Sushi Bistro in the District or Nagoya Sushi in Rockville or Makoto in the Palisades, I asked the chef, the owner, the waitress, or whoever was within earshot whether they used nikiri sauce. The answer was always the same—no. I guess I should clarify: The answer was always “no” when, in fact, the person understood my question in the first place. One or two employees looked at me as if I were asking for directions to Burger King.
Based on my initial findings, I began to develop a theory: that American-based sushi chefs had all but abandoned the delicately flavored nikiri out of frustration with the knuckle-draggers in this country who drown their fish and rice in that tableside sludge of wasabi and straight soy sauce. I ran the theory by the self-proclaimed “Sushi Concierge” Corson, who generally agreed and even directed me to a couple of local chefs who, he thought, hadn’t completely sworn off nikiri.
That’s when I discovered that things in the seemingly simple world of sushi are much more complicated once you start poking at it. Chefs and owners admit that they’re regularly disheartened, sometimes even horrified, by the way the average American eats nigiri , that classic combination of fish and seasoned sushi rice. “Most of the American people are using too much soy sauce,” says Yoshi Itoh, chef and co-owner of Makoto, “and they are killing the flavor” of the fish. Kaz Okochi, owner/chef of Kaz Sushi Bistro, has even seen diners play this masochistic table game in which they try to make themselves cry from ingesting too much nasal-passages-clearing wasabi. Leave it to Americans to turn sushi-eating into a hot-sauce contest.
But here’s where it gets tricky: The lack of nikiri sauce in the United States likely has less to do with ugly-American dining habits than with the relatively rare use of nikiri in Japan itself. So believes Okochi, who says, “If you go to Japan, it’s not easy to find a restaurant still doing” nikiri. Okochi isn’t even sure nikiri was ever part of the mainstream back home—instead, he believes, it’s remained exclusive to high-end sushi houses. Other sources dispute Okochi’s assessment, including Corson, whose book will be released next month in paperback under a new title, The Story of Sushi. Corson forwarded me this sentence from a book, Sushi, written by a trio of Japanese scholars: “At many sushi restaurants, in addition to the pure soy sauce, nikiri-soy sauce is used.”
In the end, I decided I don’t really care how many sushi houses use nikiri in Japan. All that matters is that the best sushi joints in the D.C. area tend to regard the sauce as a special treat, reserved only for those customers (read: non-soy dippers, usually Japanese) who can appreciate the subtle flavors. Take Koji Terano, chef at Sushi-Ko in Glover Park. He serves nikiri only upon request.
Corson, as part of his new Sushi Concierge service, has put in a request for me at Sushi-Ko. He has arranged for Terano to demonstrate the art and interplay of nikiri with traditional nigiri sushi. By the time I arrive at the restaurant, Terano has created not just his standard nikiri—one part mirin, two parts sake, and seven parts soy—but three specialty nikiri sauces as well. The common denominator for all four is the cooking method; each is boiled briefly to reduce the alcohol—nikiri means to “bring it to the boil,” Terano says.
Back in Japan, nikiri recipes typically include dashi, a stock made from boiled kelp and bonito flakes, which imparts a natural, savory umami to everything it touches. It might seem odd that Terano neglects this vital ingredient in his nikiri—until you realize that his standard soy sauce, the one that accompanies every order of sushi, already includes both dashi and mirin. Terano’s house condiment, in other words, is the chef’s own subtle rebuke to hardcore American soy-sauce dunkers: He’s slipping you the seaweed even if you don’t want it.
For the first course, Terano presents us with flounder three ways: One piece is seasoned with only fleur de sel; another is brushed with Terano’s housemade nikiri with white soy sauce, sake, and mirin; and the final one is coated with a traditional nikiri. There’s not a bowl of regular soy sauce within arm’s length of either Corson or me. Each piece of sushi must stand on its own, without the benefits of full immersion into a salty soy bath.
This, as it turns out, is not a problem. The flounder sprinkled only with salt produces the effect you’d expect: The fleur de sel brings out all the natural flavors contained in the compact, surprisingly complex bite. But the flounder brushed with the white-soy-and-sake nikiri is a revelation; the sauce adds a touch of sweetness to the delicate fish and, paradoxically, helps deepen the impact of the pungent wasabi, much like, I suppose, how a dash or two of salt emphasizes the sweetness of ice cream. The power of opposites.
More surprises follow, including a piece of bigeye tuna glazed with Terano’s special nikiri made from white soy sauce and pinot noir, the wine that Sushi-Ko has, over the years, argued pairs well with raw fish. The nigiri bite smells like no sushi I’ve ever sampled—a heady aroma of wine, fish, and wasabi hovers over my piece of bigeye on rice.™ After I gobble the bite, my tongue savors not the sodium bombardment of soy but the light cherry aftertaste of pinot and that pleasing, ghostly memory of really fatty tuna.
But Terano, the sly sushi master, saves the best for last. It’s uni, otherwise known as sea urchin, which is actually just the spiny creature’s gonads. People either love or hate uni. I tend to fall into the latter camp, repelled by uni’s carnival-like color, squishy texture, and fecund flavors. But under the spell of Terano’s chardonnay-laced nikiri, the sea creature assumes a whole different personality; the wine’s acidity and sweetness help deemphasize uni’s character defects while allowing its true charm, its gentle taste of the ocean, to wash cleanly across your palate. From now on, this is the only way I will eat sea urchin.
Perhaps you would like to have a nikiri experience of your own? Pick up the phone, call ahead, and put yourself in Terano’s hands at the sushi bar. You can’t have this experience at a table at Sushi-Ko or anywhere else. You need to belly up to the bar and establish a connection with the chef—perhaps at the risk of alienating your heathen friends, who will continue to desecrate their sushi with unholy amounts of soy sauce.
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