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Dreaming of Sushi: Avoiding Nightmares

Sushi chefs during the 2008 SushiMasters Los Angeles Regional Competition. Many sushi chefs believe bare hands are essential to their art.
Sushi chefs during the 2008 SushiMasters Los Angeles Regional Competition. Many sushi chefs believe bare hands are essential to their art.
Stefano Paltera/AP

Every visit to your favorite sushi restaurant should make you want to keep returning for more sushi. The incredible taste and satisfaction should linger in your mind to the point that you find yourself dreaming of sushi. The last thing you want is for your dreams to turn into nightmares.

The kind of nightmares being referenced here have nothing to do with the time it took to get seated or served, mistakes with your order, décor, ambience or other related things. As important as they are, these things pale in comparison to contracting a food borne illness from eating sushi. Incidents such as the case with Stacey Vest in 2008[i] not only turned into a nightmare, but almost proved fatal. Last year, the CDC reported 425 people were infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella poisoning last year[ii]. Indecently, the rise of such incidents is happening globally. Chile, for example reports a 100 percent increase in food poisoning caused by sushi in 2013.

With the globalization of sushi come many food safety concerns. These concerns should fall directly on restaurant owners and their sushi chefs because they are the key to ensuring your experience is both pleasurable and safe. Unfortunately, too many sushi chefs lack the kind of training traditional Japanese sushi chefs in Japan undergo. Prior to being considered a sushi chef in Japan, one spends approximately 7 years as an apprentice, of which the entire time involves honing in on proper practices that evolve around cleanliness. This is why it is uncommon to hear of food-borne incidents mentioned above in Japan. Educational programs and training, such as those being conducted by the All-Japan Sushi Federation, are trying to teach foreign chefs; however, the insatiable demand for sushi grows much faster than quality chefs are produced.

So what can you do as a consumer to avoid a sushi nightmare? The answer lies in becoming more knowledgeable and paying closer attention to who is preparing your sushi. Here are some key things to know and look for the next time you’re at a sushi restaurant:

Clean Hands

By now it should be common knowledge that disease is spread most by hands. This is why we see signs instructing people to wash their hands in public restrooms. Sushi chefs should be constantly washing their hands especially before and after each order. The sound of constant running water and hands being washed should be expected at every sushi bar.

If sanitary gloves are used, they should be disposed of as many times as a sushi chef using his bare hands washes his hands. The recent law in California requiring sushi chefs to use sanitary gloves is not the answer to preventing food-borne illnesses. A glove by itself is no different from bare hands in that they need to be replaced each time potentially contaminating objects are touched. Otherwise, they become a mere illusion of cleanliness. If gloves are properly used, a chef should easily go through dozens of pairs in an hour of steady sushi orders.

Things that warrant raising a yellow flag:

  • Lack of hand washing after touching contaminated objects (pencils, order paper, etc).
  • Absence of the sound of running water.
  • Dirty finger nails.
  • Touching of face, nose, hair and other exposed body parts with bare hands.
  • Entering the sushi bar area without washing hands immediately. Who knows what the chef was touching while away from the sushi bar.

Clean Towels

Every chef has a wet towel for wiping their hands, knives and cutting board surface. It too should be washed constantly in cold water, especially after each order. Some exceptionally great chefs keep a stack of clean towels right in front of them for customers to see.

Things that warrant raising a yellow flag:

  • No apparent towel being used at all.
  • Towel appears dry.
  • Towel appears dirty or colored anything but its original color (usually white).
  • Sushi towels being used to wipe anything other than knives, hands, bamboo mats and cutting board.

Sushi Display Cases

Most restaurants have a sushi display case to openly store their raw fish and ingredients. Since bacteria thrive in temperatures above 40°F and below 140°F, it is vital that these cases maintain a temperature of 40°F or below; the key word being “maintain.” The longer any of its sliding doors remain open, the higher the temperature becomes inside, thus increasing the susceptibility of its ingredients (especially raw fish) to bacterial growth. As with the Stacey Vest incident mentioned earlier, inspectors found sushi stored in temperatures ranging from 40°F to as high as 62°F.

Things that warrant raising a yellow flag:

  • Any signs of black mold or mildew inside display case.
  • Display case doors not closed immediately after opening.
  • Display case doors repeatedly left open.
  • Poorly sealed doors.
  • Visible condensation “inside” the display case.
  • Dripping water inside the case coming from the top.

Cutting Boards

Cutting boards need to be clean to begin with. Every night they should be thoroughly cleaned with a bleach solution or disinfected. During work hours, they should be constantly wiped after each order is prepared. White boards should not appear yellow or orange-like in color. The buildup of fish oils, sauces and various ingredients provide an environment for bacteria to thrive.

Things that warrant raising a yellow flag:

  • Yellow-orange-like stained boards.
  • Boards not wiped off after each order.
  • Raw meats such as chicken or beef being cut on the same board as the sushi. Professional kitchens use different colored boards for different meats, but to avoid the risk of cross-contamination, these boards should not be used on top of sushi boards.

Water Dipping Bowls

Chefs use small bowls of water to dip their knives for lubrication before cutting. They also use them to dip their fingers so rice doesn’t stick to their hands. The water in these bowls should be frequently replaced. Great chefs will even go to the extent of adding ice in the water to retard the potential growth of bacteria.

Things that warrant raising a yellow flag:

  • The same bowl used for extended periods of time.
  • Color of the water is murky & dirty. If you see yellow or orange-like water, beware.
  • Organized Chaos

The poorest excuse for unsanitary conditions at a sushi bar is blaming the high volume of orders the chefs are bombarded with. Poor chefs will compromise proper practices and then blame the crowd if someone gets sick. They resort to throwing things around, using bamboo mats on raw fish without washing it afterwards, and doing many yellow flag practices mentioned above. Their work areas become messy and so does the quality of their preparations. On the other hand, a great chef will not compromise his concern for safe practices just because people are impatient. He can triple his pace without leaving display case doors open for hours at a time. He will still wash his hands and towel just as frequently. Greatness is identified by uncompromising and efficient practices. In other words - organized chaos.



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