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One man's journey into sushi

Jason Whaley
The tuna ceviche with butter-seared sea scallops and snapper chips is one of writer Jason Whaley's favorite sashimi dishes that was prepared by Nanami chef Jason Liao.

It wasn't a case of fear; it was more the probability of disgust. Raw is not how we serve fish in my hometown. It's a process that involves catfish, bass or crappie deep-fried to perfection. French fries and hush puppies are standard accoutrements, and the beverage best paired with this iconic Southern dinner is a thin American beer, preferably Coors Light or Budweiser.

So it was a little unnerving when a couple of friends suggested that we eat sushi for lunch a few months ago. I figured there would be something on the menu that wouldn't initiate a gag reflex. I politely agreed to try a couple of rolls. They were solid, not fishy tasting and better than I had imagined. I have always been someone who welcomes new experiences, but for some reason sushi has been a culinary door not to be opened under any circumstance.

Maybe this one attempt revealed that raw fish wasn't some horrible dish reserved for the bold or wealthy. Maybe that's all it took for me to turn into the parking lot of Nanami one Tuesday afternoon with no real intention. I wasn't even that hungry, but I was bored with the usual eateries.

I walked up to the sushi counter and told the man that I was a sushi beginner in need of guidance. A subtle smile formed on his lips. "Don't worry, you're about to get an education," he said. I introduced myself and he did the same, then class was in session.

There's no way I could have chosen a better teacher than Jason Liao, head chef at Nanami Sushi Bar & Grill at 9001 Brodie Lane. He started with the basics, nothing too fancy. He served nigiri sushi, which is a type of Japanese dish made with sushi rice and fresh fish. The sushi rice is hand-formed into a small clump, and the fish is sliced and pressed on top of it. He would make one piece, explain the type of fish and seasoning used, wait for me to finish and then begin another piece. I was fascinated by his knowledge and presentation, and with each new taste my previous concerns with raw fish evaporated.

The biggest misconception I had was that there would be a washed up on the beach for days and partially decomposed sardine taste. There wasn't. Each piece had a unique texture with a multitude of subtle flavors. Some were light with a citrus kick while others were spicy and smooth. We finished the meal with freshwater eel. I couldn't believe what I was sliding into my mouth, but had already put complete faith in Liao's judgment. It was a good call.

Armed with the comfort of having a positive sushi experience with someone I trusted, going to Nanami became a series of lunch adventures. Each time I walked in, Liao would take me a step further in this education. I didn't order, he just made whatever he wanted and my palate expanded. I also learned a new way to eat. For years my main goal at meals was to inhale food as quickly as possible and wait for the bloated feeling. Taste was an afterthought. But now I wanted to slow down and try to detect all of the flavors. I wanted to understand how this unwarranted bias had developed and deprived me of sushi all these years. With each successive stop in the restaurant, I began to realize this wasn't about a primal necessity, but the experience of enjoying food.

"Sushi is meant to be savored, it's meant to be a delicacy," Liao said. "I tell people, only order a little at a time. Enjoy each piece. If everything comes at once, they will be tempted to rush it and miss the true flavors."

I also learned some basic rules that serve to enhance the sushi experience. For starters, don't mix wasabi, soy sauce and ginger with the sushi. These are all strong tastes that will mask the flavor of the fish. A little goes a long way. I learned that the hard way by spearing a big clump of wasabi on my chopsticks just to try it. It felt like a Dumpster fire had broken out in my mouth and spread down to my toes. The ginger is meant to cleanse the palate between each piece so only take a bite between rounds.

I got used to the flavors and the delivery of nigiri sushi. I began to figure out which fish I preferred and why. Then during one visit, everything changed. Liao decided to accelerate the learning curve. It was time for sashimi.

This was the root of all my fears. Just raw fish. No rice accompaniment. No hiding behind seaweed or sauce. It was time to take the next step, and it was surprisingly easy.

One thing I began to appreciate was his presentation; it wasn't just about preparation and flavor. The sashimi is where he made masterpieces. I didn't want to eat them at first because they were visually stunning. Yellowtail tartar and salmon roe with avocado puree, and tuna ceviche with butter-seared sea scallops and snapper chips were two of my favorites.

Each dish was more intricate than the last. It was hard to imagine that I once considered french fries with ranch dressing as exotic. But this is part of life's progression, learning new things and opening yourself up to new experiences that can change you for the better.

I now understand the appeal of sushi. It helps to have someone whose guidance you trust, someone who can help you digest the food and knowledge of this Asian cuisine and not just serve fish on a plate.

"Food is like theater, it's an art form," Liao said. "I want people to come in here and experience new things and be excited about their food. When people leave, I want Nanami to be an unforgettable place, a place to return and savor the experience."

Nanami Sushi Bar & Grill

Where:9001 Brodie Lane, Suite B-1

Phone:(512) 292-4228

Website: www.nanamisushi.com

Hours:Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. -10 p.m.

Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

Lunch special, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Happy hour, Monday-Thursday, 4:30 p.m.-6 p.m.