Sushi L’Mehadrin

Published Winter 2015

For time immemorial, our sojourns throughout galus, the Diaspora, have not only defined and influenced the minhagim, laws and customs, emerging from those foreign lands, they have also rejuvenated our Jewish cuisine with a burst of ethnic diversity –  holopshkes (stuffed cabbage),borsht, and falafel, to name a few.  As our migration advanced to the shores of the ‘goldine medina’, a whole new ‘Yiddishe’ repertoire of American delicacies was bestowed upon us.  Who among us didn’t grow up with Sunday  morning whitefish, bagels, and lox?  Not long after, there emerged a proliferation of pizza shops in practically every Jewish neighborhood and community. The most recent food trend that has been introduced to the Jewish palate is Sushi.

Sushi, that unique combination of rice, rice vinegar, raw fish, and vegetables rolled in black seaweed sheets called ‘nori’ has found its place of prominence in virtually every kosher restaurant, smorgasbord and pizza shop.  Furthermore, we are fortunate in our global market place to purchase reliably kosher certified ingredients from as nearby as the southern American states, all the way to the distant Far East.

Keeping true to form, Kashrus Kurrents is pleased to provide its readership with the most up to date kashrus information concerning the sushi making process, as well as the kosher implications involved in the very ingredients used in its production.

From the Front Lines 1:  There May Be Something Fishy About Tuna
Rabbi Dovid Jubiler, Cape Beth Din Kashrus Administrator, South Africa

While sushi and sashimi don’t get along too swimmingly with gefilte fish and schmaltz herring, we see these delicacies at many simchas.  These Japanese foods are becoming increasingly popular in the Kosher market, but few people know just what takes place behind the scenes.

We might think that because fish used in sushi is raw and uncooked, what could go wrong?  Well, on the “scale” of things allow me to enlighten you about sushi fish production.

The Yellowfin Tuna (Latin name – Thunnus Albacares), a popular sushi delicacy, is mainly caught in South East Asia and is sold predominantly from Chinese fishing boats.  They employ long-line fishing in contrast to a net method.  When tuna is not designated for canning, this method is used in order to minimize bruising.   Packed in chipped ice flakes, tuna is sold on auction to the highest bidder.  Severe shortages of this over-fished species and huge demand from the Japanese market drive the price up considerably.

These factors of supply and demand contribute to the perpetration of industry fraud.  There have been recorded cases of other fish being substituted and sold as tuna.  There have been instances where the accepted method of ‘pas kaskeses’, leaving a skin patch on the deboned and skinned fillet, has been adulterated.

These skilled perpetrators have cleverly developed a method of sticking scaled skin patches onto the cuts.  The enzymes in the meat/skin, and the subsequent freezing of the cuts, cause the skin patch to appear to have been grown on the fish.  In order to beat these scallywags at their own game, we check the tuna when it arrives at the factory – whole, unskinned, and fresh.  We check that there is no other fish accessible in the plant at the time of kosher processing, and we confirm that what is packaged is certified kosher tuna.

As an imported product, the US FDA is extremely strict, testing that there are no nasty germs, histamines or parasites in this raw product.  Did you know that after the tuna has been skinned and cut it is particularly prone to infection?  Therefore, to help the product pass customs inspection with a clean bill of health, the manufacturer will soak the fish in an antibacterial preservative solution which contains chemicals and disinfectants.  The mixture (a powder mixed with water) also may act as a firming agent and flavour enhancer. The tuna is immersed in these solutions for a prescribed amount of time to ensure that the meat of the fish is penetrated sufficiently to do its job.  We make no assumptions!  We carefully check that these solutions are reliably kosher certified, in spite of the fact that the certified product is more costly.

Another cost-saving method of germ prevention is Ethanol.  Ethanol can be made from a variety of source materials that will be converted into alcohol.  In South Africa, the manufacturer will use the cheapest starter material available.  The raw product used to make alcohol is seasonal, and the cheapest one is the one that is most plentiful at the time.  South Africa enjoys a fruitful grape season; that which falls off the vine and not turned into wine is used to make Ethyl Alcohol. Alternatively, alcohol from South Africa can also be made from sugar.

Often, there is a foregone conclusion that raw fish is automatically Kosher for Passover.  Similarly, it is assumed that sugar-based ethanol is Kosher for Passover.  This may not be the case.  To process sugar cane into sugar, enzymes are used to break down the sugar cane cells so that there is greater yield for the alcohol manufacturer.  This amylase enzyme may be kitniyos, or evenchometz!

When certifying a Kosher for Passover (KFP) sugar production, we ensure that the enzymes used are Kosher for Passover and that the enzyme starter materials are strictly Kosher for Passover.  In the case of Passover certified tuna, we see that the sugar-derived alcohol has Kosher for Passover enzymes in it when it is produced and that the ethanol is certified as KFP.  Once all Passover conditions are met, we can then also certify the tuna as Kosher  for Passover.

Another issue that we often confront when processing kosher fish is cross contamination with treiffish.  Furthermore, do you know that the nice smoked red color on your tuna sashimi (with a skin-patch) may be due to a red dye bath of carmine (a brilliant color stable red derived from crushed beetles)?  We make sure that all colorants are reliably kosher certified.

When we supervise fish production in a common facility, we segregate production and kasher the factory and equipment to ensure that the plant is dedicated to kosher fish production.  We confirm that nothing is produced on Shabbos.  When Bishul Yisroel is necessary, we light the smokers and make sure that there is no cross contamination with treif fish in the smokers.

Clearly, there are many operators who will happily cut corners by spinning you a line.  Don’t fall hook, line and sinker for the scam.  Buy only kosher certified products!

From the Front Lines 2:  Creating Rice Vinegar
Rabbi Amos Benjamin, STAR-K Kashrus Administrator

One of sushi’s basic ingredients is rice vinegar.  Rice vinegar serves two purposes – it imparts flavor, and it serves as a preservative so that the sushi will not spoil.  Unlike grain vinegar or apple cider vinegar that uses grain alcohol in the process, rice vinegar uses alcohol from rice wine popularly known as sake.  In order to convert the rice into alcohol, a mold known as koji  is used in the fermentation process.  Are there any kashrus concerns in the manufacturing of the koji mold, a basic component in the production of rice vinegar?

Amos Benjamin, STAR-K Director of Far East operations, offers this first-hand report of a kojiproduction in Japan.

The first stage of the koji process is to mix raw rice and cold water.  The rice is then transferred to a pressure cooker, where it is ‘par cooked’.  The rice is barely edible.  It still hasa low moisture content and is nowhere near being fully cooked, so there would be no issues ofbishul akum.  After cooking, the rice is ready to be converted into the koji mold.

The rice is seeded with koji extract, which comes from a previously grown koji mold.  The culture uses only rice, Aspergillus Oryzae (a fungus which is inoculated into the rice), and water.  The koji extract propagates the ‘par cooked’ rice to create more koji.  The rice is seeded with the koji extract, transferred to wooden trays and left to culture for five to seven days at a temperature of 45oC.  Now the koji mold has spread and is ready for the next step.

The molded rice is dried for two days with warm air.  The completed product is known astanakoji.  In order to produce the other finished product, koji-kin, the molded rice is passed through a sifter to separate the mold spore from the rice.  The spore powder is blended with potato starch and is packed and ready to be used to convert the rice into rice wine, also known as sake, which provides the basis for rice vinegar.

In a rice vinegar fermentation process, the rice’s natural starch is converted into a sugar, similar to the malting process of barley; this occurs when the rice is mixed with water.  The koji is then added to the ‘malted’ rice syrup along with other enzymes.  The rice fermentation process converts the sugars into rice alcohol, known as sake.

The sake alcohol is then separated from the solid rice.  The liquid sake is then ready for a second fermentation process, whereby bacteria converts the alcohol into acetic acid, concentrated vinegar – in this case, rice vinegar.  The concentrated vinegar is diluted with water to 4.3% acidity and is ready to be mixed with sushi rice and sold to the sushi bars.

From the Front Lines 3:  The Making Of Nori

NO•RI / nōrȇ/ an edible seaweed eaten either fresh or dried in sheets.

Nori is not a vegetable; it is a form of algae, a simple organism that grows in the water.  Actually, nori starts its life on land, where the nori seeds are sprouted, and is then taken out to sea to grow on nets.  As the nori grows in the sea nets, it is possible for unwanted sea creatures (e.g., sea horses) to get caught in the nori or in the nets.  Once grown to maturity, the nori is then harvested. This harvested nori is then brought into a manufacturing facility where it first undergoes a visual inspection to remove any hidden marine life or unwanted seaweed.

Next, the nori is washed and filtered to remove sand and other debris.  After the nori is softened, it goes through a second filter.  After washing and filtering, the nori is ready to be cut, sized, and toasted.

The seaweed is cut, shaped, and pressed down into shaping boxes.  It is pressed to remove excess water and is formed into sheets, whereupon the nori is dried for two hours at 50oC.  Upon completion of this first drying process, the nori is then separated from its shaping boxes and is transported for a computer visual inspection for abnormalities in color and texture.  If an unwelcomed seahorse were to pass through the filtration systems and baking process, it would be spotted by the optisorter on the line and the nori sheet would be discarded.  The sheets are then boxed for a second drying in an electric oven at 80oC to make them more crispy.

Now that we have cited and certified all of the basic sushi components, and the sushi maker has created his Far Eastern masterpieces, there is one last hurdle to surmount:   What brocha does one recite over sushi?

From The STAR-K Institute of Halacha
Rabbi Mordechai Frankel, Director, Insights from the Institute

Regarding the appropriate brocha on sushi, the general rule for a dish with numerous ingredients is to recite a brocha on the primary ingredient (the ikkar and not on the secondary ingredients (the taffel).  The varieties of maki have different names depending upon the filling, which is generally not considered by the consumer to be secondary to the rice.  Irrespective of the filling, the food is known as ‘sushi’ due to the rice; it appears that the rice is not secondary to the filling, either.Furthermore, the filling and the rice are not cooked together, and remain distinct.  Therefore, both the filling and rice are primary ingredients, and both necessitate a brocha. For this reason, Rav Heinemann paskens that one should recite Mezonos on the rice, as well as the appropriate brocha over the filling.  The nori is secondary to the rice and other ingredients, and does not require a separate brocha.