Masayuki Komatsu's Chub Mackerel Nigiri Has a Hidden History Lesson

By Kendyl Kearly | Will Blunt


Kendyl Kearly
Will Blunt

Although it technically only has two components, the art of nigiri is far from a simple one. Masayuki Komatsu, executive sushi chef of Hiyakawa, has honed the skill for 19 years, namely at the esteemed Morimoto and Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill. Here, we break down the two elements of Komatsu’s chub mackerel nigiri (full recipe here).

The Rice 

The most striking thing about the nigiri at Hiyakawa is the rice’s brown hue. It’s not actually brown rice but California short-grain that has been seasoned with akazu (red rice vinegar) for a fuller flavor. Komatsu says that the technique is fairly traditional to the edomae style but is something that was dropped from mainstream sushi. 

The red vinegar typically comes from the leftovers of sake-making. Sushi historian Dr. Eric C. Rath, author of Oishii: The History of Sushi, says that the process for making sushi vinegar developed hundreds of years ago with the discovery that it could be produced cheaply by sealing sake, water, and vinegar in a tub for about 30 days. But, he says, “[Red vinegar is] not as widely used as other types, and it's not an indispensable ingredient for any kind of sushi that I know of.”

Komatsu says that after World War II, many Japanese people associated the brown rice with the moldy rice that was imported during food shortages. Rath confirms that white rice became a dietary mainstay in the early 1960s, though shoguns and emperors used to prefer it so much that they got beriberi, a vitamin deficiency disease.

The Fish

Most of Komatsu’s fish is served simply raw, but the chub mackerel, imported from Chiba, Japan near Tokyo, is cured to add a saltiness to its silky fat and remove the strong fishiness. Komatsu cures it with kosher salt for up to three hours, gives it an ice bath, then marinates it in vinegar and kombu. The result is a strong flesh with integrity and just the right hit of oiliness. Komatsu tops the fish with a tiny bit of grated ginger and scallion and serves it with soy sauce.

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