Sushi once carried an air of the exotic, and those who included it in their diet were considered daring diners. Those days are long past. It might never overtake barbecue or fried chicken in Augusta, but the Japanese delicacy known as edible art is becoming a familiar taste to more palates.
Although Augustans nosh on deep-pink and orange strips of tuna and seaweed-wrapped rolls of rice and vegetables by the hundreds every day, misconceptions persist. Like any seafood, the best sushi is said to be the freshest sushi. But the raw strips of fish known as sashimi aren't always fresh from the ocean. In fact, most sashimi feels the cold bite of the freezer before a sushi chef lovingly carves it up for consumption, according to Augusta-area chefs.
Don Pak, the owner of Matsu Sige in Martinez, said every piece of fish, shrimp, clam or squid his restaurant serves is frozen at one time, to ensure it is free of parasites. Food and Drug Administration regulations suggest that most raw fish used as sashimi or tartare be frozen. Tuna is OK because it lives at deeper depths and is considered a cleaner fish.
Mr. Pak, who has been a restaurateur in Augusta since 1986 when he opened Mikodo in the National Hills shopping center, said the flash freezing used at his New York-based supplier enhances the fish because it works faster and is colder - as low as 50 degrees below zero - than normal freezing.
"To me, it's better; it doesn't have that wild odor," he said. "It makes it taste more milder."
Some kinds of seafood are affected more by the freezing than others. Mr. Pak said he notices the difference in salmon the most, but in any case, he said it's more complicated. He won't disclose his vendor, for instance, because that would reveal the source of his seafood. Even tuna varies widely, with bluefin generally favored over yellowfin.
"The key is how you handle it; if your preparation area isn't clean, your fish can get contaminated," he said.
Sushi rice, which is made with vinegar, also greatly affects taste. Mr. Pak said he noticed an uptick in interest about four or five years ago.
"It's an art, and it involves a lot of trust with your chef; you build an important bond," he said.
At the Publix on Washington Road in Augusta, meat manager Bob Smith said the sushi they have served since 2002 is pulled daily from a freezer. Customers rarely ask about freezing, but sometimes they buy whole fish fillets.
"I've had two customers that have bought tuna from me, and also raw salmon, because they said they had their own method for making sushi," he said. "I have sushi grade fish in my case; my grouper is sushi grade; we don't (label it like that), but some people will ask," he said.
Mr. Smith said demand for sushi actually dips when college lets out in the summer, and changing dietary preferences affect demand, too.
"There are so many people on this South Beach diet, and you can't have rice, so I don't know if that has had an effect," he said. "But there's a certain clientele that likes it raw, and they're in here every day."
Tokyo native Henry Kalau makes sushi daily for The Fresh Market in Augusta. He, too, relies on frozen fish, which he defrosts every morning before using it.
"If I need it immediately, I'll use cool tap water," he said.
Depending on the size of the fish, dark, dewy slices of sashimi can be thawed in two hours. He said he can tell the difference between frozen and fresh sashimi, but in Japan, access to fresh fish is more widespread, so freezing isn't as big an issue. When it comes to American customers, a bigger concern is what they do with their tray of sushi after they buy it.
"They buy from here and they go home in the hot summer heat," he said. "If you don't eat it the same day, that's not good."
Not everyone in Augusta is wedded to frozen fish, though. Paul Paik, the sushi chef at Todai in Martinez, said he gets frozen crab, squid, octopus and eel once a month from Atlanta, but his flounder, shrimp and mackerel all arrive fresh from South Carolina. Tuna can either be fresh or frozen, depending on availability.
"The thing to always think about first is the freshness," he said.
Mr. Paik started making sushi in the United States almost 20 years ago in New York, and he said most people couldn't tell frozen from fresh.
"A lot of people say they can, but I don't think so," he said.
Christina Park, a friend of Mr. Paik, insists that she can.
"I would say 98 percent of people wouldn't tell the difference, but I was raised by the sea, and I ate this when I was growing up, so I can tell," she said. "The freezing that they use is pretty technical, though."
Jamie Roland, a waitress at Todai, said answering questions from first-time diners is paramount, too.
"The sushi can be really good, but if the sushi chef isn't open and friendly, it's not as much fun," she said.
Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.