Being a sushi fanatic, I've often had to drag sushiphobics kicking and screaming into Japanese restaurants to prove to them for once and for all that no, sushi is not alive; no, sushi will not kill them; and yes, it actually tastes good. Terrified by the thought of "raw fish"? Here's the easy way in:

* Very little sushi actually tastes like raw fish. If you don't like fishy flavors, avoid herring and yellowtail. Also, I've NEVER seen it served live or with eyeballs or anything like that; you have to go to a really WEIRD sushi place to find stuff like that. And I live in California, so I KNOW weird.

* Speaking of my home state, start with California rolls. There's nothing raw OR fish in there! Just rice, "nori"(the seaweed holds it together and doesn't taste like anything at all), avocado, crab (probably artificial), and maybe some cucumber. I personally think the cucumber ruins the texture -- I recommend that you poke it out with a chopstick and get rid of it, but don't let the waitresses catch you. They get this pissy look if you mess with your food.

* How to eat it, you say? Just stuff the whole roll in your mouth, or bite it in half if you think you're cool enough to not get your teeth caught in the nori band and drop rice all over yourself. Don't listen to people who tell you to use your chopsticks to eat rolls. I've actually eaten sushi in Japan. They thought I was beyond weird when I tried to pick up a roll with chops.

* If the place serves rainbow rolls, go for it! That's a California roll with bits of other fish stuck on -- a good "sampler," and not too threatening.

* Another easy one looks like a cooked shrimp butterflied over a dab of rice...because that's exactly what it is. Nothing raw or scary there.

* Still alive? Move up a notch! Try tuna. Raw, it tastes nothing at all like the stuff in the can -- more like very rare, very lean steak. The texture's a little strange, but not gross. You'll get used to it. And if you like spicy stuff, look for spicy tuna rolls -- mmm!

* Another easy flavor is...wait for it...eel. Yup, eel. I heard you go "eew," cut it out! Eel tastes pretty good, has a fairly "safe" texture, and best of all (for you) it's cooked! Yes, it's NOT raw! It's usually teriyaki'ed, too. You can handle teriyaki. Go for it. Your friends will think you're SO fearless. Or SO gross. Either way, it's worth the trouble.

Feeling confident now? Here's some thoughts:

* Salmon is easy to identify (bright orange slabs with thin pale stripes) and generally tastes really good. Unless it's too salty, like lox. Then...yuck! It's not fresh. Try again another time.

* Octopus (tako) is, despite its creepy appearance, pretty good too. It's cooked, NOT raw, and has a rubbery texture with not much flavor, making it another good candidate for the "Hey, watch me eat THIS scary thing!" game. It's especially good if you can dip it into rice vinegar, but waitresses often look at you funny if you ask for it. Go fig.

* Cuttlefish is a tougher one -- it's white and rubbery and looks like someone slashed grooves in it. It looks harmless and tastes neutral, but the texture turns some people off. Leave this one for when you're feeling adventurous.

* Orange roughie (white, fishy-looking) is bland and dull. Avoid it unless you like bland and dull. Also, I hear they're getting endangered, so you can feel morally superior by refusing to "contribute to the species' downfall."

* Herring, as mentioned, is VERY strong and fishy. It's grey with a darker or silver edge. Not one for beginners unless you like pickled herring already. Which is even weirder than liking sushi, if you ask me.

* Yellowtail is, in my opinion, the king of all sushi. It's creamy-white or pale yellow, and is usually more expensive. It has a weird oily fishy flavor that sends me right to heaven, but freaks most people out the first time they try it, so leave it for me-- er, for later, I meant. Yeah. That's the ticket.

Hmmm...that'll do for starters, I guess. My overall recommendation is, once you've gotten past the initial "fear of raw fish," to try one of the everything. You never know what you'll wind up loving! At very worst, you can spit it out and gulp down a glassful of water, right? One safety tip, however: don't eat the green blob or the pink flakes. That's hot mustard (wasabi) and pickled ginger, and both are rather nasty things meant to be used as condiments only!

Good luck, don't forget to finish the meal with green tea ice cream, and leave some for me. And whatever you do, don't stick wasabi up your nose. I've seen it happen. It ain't pretty.


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