A selection of edomae sushi at Tei-An in Dallas. Top row, kanpyu maki (salted gourd roll) and tamago (sweet omelet). Second row, zuke maguro (tuna) and yari ika (squid). Bottom row, hirame kobujime (flounder), kohada, kuruma ebi (shrimp), and anago (sea eel). (Photo by Kevin Marple)
Chef Jorge Dionicio presents anago (sea eel), one of his 21 courses in his edomae menu at Namo.
Freshly grated wasabi at Namo.
Namo's Tai (sea bream).
Editor’s note: This piece was written before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in Dallas, changing the local restaurant scene as we know it, but you can still pick up sushi from some of the Dallas restaurants that have mastered the edomae technique. Tei-An, Yutaka, and Richardson’s Sushi Sake are offering takeout. Namo in West Village is offering both takeout and delivery.
When we talk about why we love sushi, we tend to focus on the sensations of freshness. The pristine, snowy flesh of tai, the pure unctuousness of a slab of toro, the sweet brininess of kuruma ebi, made with shrimp that had been swimming moments before it was placed atop an oval of rice. Evan a potent oily fish like mackerel seems magically bright with flavor.
But if the chef is one of the accomplished few using edomae sushi techniques, that tai and toro, shrimp and mackerel would not be simple slices of raw fish: Each would have been cured, marinated, or even aged before it was served. Not that it would look any different when it was set in front of you, or that the chef would have explained why that bite of fish is so delicious.
“These techniques are always used at a good sushi bar,” says Teiichi Sakurai, chef and owner of Tei-An in Dallas. “It’s time for people to know about it. The majority of people think fresh, raw fish is the best thing, the best sushi. But behind the scenes, there are a lot of processes we go through.”
There isn’t a strict definition of edomae sushi. Even the Tokyo sushi master Kikuo Simizu begins his book, Edomae Sushi, with an admonition: “After some 50 years as a sushi chef, I’ve come to realize that a clear and simple textbook definition is practically impossible.” Generally, edo means “Tokyo” in Japanese, and mae means “in front of” — so, the first, most literal meaning is fish from Tokyo Bay, such as kohada, sayori, sea eel, and tuna, still the core of a traditional edomae menu.
Edomae sushi also refers to the curing, aging, and other preparation techniques that originated in the early 19th century, before refrigeration. “Everything had to be cured or cooked,” Sakurai says. “Sushi then was never purely raw.”
It was rustic street food, made with whatever was being caught in the bay, placed on pressed rice formed into pieces about double the size sushi is now, and served fully seasoned. Today, raw fish and fish from other parts of the world may also be used, but an edomae menu is still seasonal, and the sushi is still never dipped in soy sauce by the diner. “And you don’t see California rolls or any mayo or crazy rolls” in an edomae restaurant, Sakurai adds.
Kohada, for example, a classic edomae fish and distant relative of the sardine, gets salted and marinated in vinegar — if done well, salt and vinegar are undetectable in the finished, richly flavored sushi. The duration of process depends on the time of year, the size and fattiness of the fish, and the artistry of the chef.
“I go by feeling or experience,” says Sakurai, who may salt-cure filets for three to five minutes, rinse them, then bathe them in rice vinegar for five to 30 seconds. For bluefin tuna, Sakurai may serve it raw, if it arrives in perfect condition — a judgment that is possible after going through “thousands of tuna to feel, look, touch, smell, and decide what it needs,” he says.
Most of the time, it is treated to a laborious aging process that involves wrapping the fish in absorbent paper, then plastic, and covering it in ice. The fish is checked and rewrapped daily until the umami flavors begin emerging and the texture becomes more relaxed.
“You know how when you age prosciutto, the fat integrates with the meat a little more?” he says. “It’s like that.”
Sakurai, who has long been a mentor to Japanese chefs and food lovers in Dallas, says only a handful of the hundreds of restaurants serving sushi here are skilled in edomae techniques, and counts Yutaka Sushi Bistro, Teppo, and Tei Tei Robata Bar in Dallas, and Sushi Sake in Richardson among them. Nobu Dallas and Nori Handroll Bar also use edomae techniques, and recently, Namo, a handroll bar in Uptown, has made a bigger commitment.
Namo’s new chef, Jorge Dionicio, grew up with the Japanese-Peruvian Nikkei tradition in Peru, studied sushi in Japan, and worked at Sushi Azabu in New York and Uchi in Austin. He and Namo’s owner Brandon Cohanim plan to open a separate omakase restaurant in the next year, showcasing edomae sushi. Until then, they are offering 21-course tasting menus on Wednesday nights.
Among the preparations at Namo, Dionicio ages hirame, or flounder, for about a week — like the bluefin, wrapped in absorbed paper or plastic at first then left to air dry. Before serving, he cuts the fish, sprinkles it with citrus juice and zest, and sandwiches it between sheets of kombu seaweed for about 40 minutes
“Kombu adds a lot of umami,” he says. “If you ate hirame just caught, there would be not much flavor and it would also be rubbery. Curing and aging helps to make it softer, too.”
Dionicio even gives live shrimp, botan ebi, a quick kombu treatment, letting the freshly peeled tails rest on sake-moistened kombu for about 20 minutes. Like other edomae sushi chefs, Dionicio simply presents them without explanation. But that too, is part of the tradition.