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Itamae:  The Traditional Japanese Sushi Chef (redirected from Itamae: The Traditional Japanese Sushi Chef)

Page history last edited by Blake Duckworth 14 years, 2 months ago


In today’s fast paced world Sushi can be a quick business lunch or a romantic dinner for two, with as varying an effect on the wallet.  Popular as always in Japan, Sushi has gained a foothold in the U.S. along with much of the modern world.  With roots tracing back to Japan’s Nara period, the art of Sushi has evolved into a diverse and multi-faceted industry, without losing touch with its traditional form.  Largely responsible for Sushi’s modern success, as well as the almost mystical preservation of ancient Sushi etiquette and technique, are the traditional heads of the Japanese kitchen, the Itamae.  



‘Itamae’ can be translated to mean “in front of the board”, and in the most literal sense refers to the chef who stands in front of the cutting board.  This chef is head of the sushi kitchen, ultimately in charge of all sushi preparation and presentation.  In traditional Japanese kitchens, the Itamae is also responsible for entertaining guests, as well as, calculating the bill at the end of the meal.  It is easy to see why the title of an Itamae comes with great reverence and perhaps greater responsibility.

     The first written record of sushi that we have today is from the Nara period (710-795bc).  It is believed that sushi originated from an attempt to preserve raw fish.  Wrapping salmon or tuna in rice would utilize the fermentation of the rice to prolong the life of raw fish.



Itamae Training

In contemporary culture the Itamae has been portrayed through the media as a stern commander of his underlings, with an air of charm toward the guests.  This is not entirely removed from the truth.  ‘Wakiita’ translates to “near the cutting board”, and refers to the apprentice of an Itamae.  Traditionally, the wakiita’s tasks are simple and preparatory in nature.  Depending on the Itamae, some wakiitas will be allowed to use the Japanese kitchen knife, or ‘hocho’.  If they are lucky, they may be trained by their master to cut and prepare the fish and the nigiri.  For the most part, however, the test of the wakiita is that of dedication.  One could train under a sushi chef for a decade before being able to open a sushi bar as an Itamae.


Here are some links to great sushi chef schools in the U.S. if anyone is interested in becoming an Itamae:









Traditional Cuttlery and Garb

     Once you have the title of Itamae you are truly skilled in the art of Sushi preparation.  As an art it is highly methodic and almost ritualistic in its customs.  As an Itamae, you always wear the traditional sushi chef garb, keeping your fingers always wet with vinegar, and a sharpened hocho on your side.

     The hocho is a wondrous thing in and of itself.  As the sushi chef’s main tool, there are certain standards that must be held to for professional grade sushi knife.  The three main types of hocho used are the tako hiki (octopus puller), the yanagi ba (willow blade) and the fugu hiki (pufferfish-puller).  Styles in blade vary as well as function.  For instance, oroshi hocho, used to fillet large tuna can be made up to two meters in length.

     Designed to fillet various types of fish and other seafood, they are sharpened on one side of one edge in the Kataba style.  A good hocho is made of high caliber carbon steel, originally the same carbon steel as was used to make the samurai’s katana.  



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The Sushi

There have been other wiki pages on sushi so I'll just give a brief rundown...


The sushi chef is master of a variety of techniques in preparation and presentation of sushi.  The two main varieties are Maki and Nigiri



Maki-zushi (the s is replaced with z when at the second half of a compound word) is what we perhaps most commonly associate with sushi in western culture.  It is made by starting with the pressed seaweed paper called ‘nori’, adding ingredients to the center in a sort of strip, then rolling into a log and cutting into individual sushi pieces.  If you were to order a California roll at an American sushi restaurant it would be in the Maki-zushi style.  Making sushi in this fashion is not hard to do and many untrained sushi lovers make Maki-zushi in their own homes.



Nigiri-zushi, on the other hand, is a more delicate technique.  While it may seem simple upon presentation, mastering the art of preparing Nigiri-zushi takes time and is a large part of why Itamae train for many years.  Nigiri-zushi is prepared with an oblong clump of sushi rice, sometimes pressed with secondary ingredients such as wasabi, and then topped with a topping.  There are a plethora of sushi toppings but most traditionally it is raw fish.  Magaro (Tuna), Sake (Salmon), Unagi (Eel), and Tako (Octopus) are just a few of the many delicious varieties of Nigiri-zushi.  Others, like Fugu (puffer-fish) if prepared improperly, can cause lethal poisoning and therefore can only be prepared by specially trained and licensed Fugu Itamae.


Here are some links to other wiki's discussing sushi and Japanese cuisine:



Sushi and Itamae


Sushi Competitions

Every year there are sushi competitions all over the world, where the top sushi chefs compete for the title of best sushi chef in the world.  One of the larger competitions is the SushiMasters competition which has been going on for several years.  The 2009 winner Tomoharu Nakamura from the restaurant Sanraku in San Francisco is pictured below with the dish that won him the top prize.








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