Within minutes of starting, Denny Chen, the sushi chef at Jasmine Chinese & Thai Cuisine in Oxford, presents his completed work — a plate filled with a rainbow of sashimi, maki, wasabi, pickled ginger and a even a glowing pile of shredded radish.
Making sushi is more of an art form than other types of cooking, and every sense needs to be stimulated. Plating, the art of arranging food on the plate, is just as important as the taste, said Nikky Chen, Denny’s wife and the general manager of the restaurant.
“Japanese cuisine is not just a meal for the mouth, it’s a meal for the eyes, too,” Nikky said. “The sight, the smell … plating is the essence of Japanese cuisine.”
For Denny, that means garnishing the dishes with sculptures made of lemon and paper, and even a small LED flashlight — what gives the shredded radish its glow.
Denny, who is originally from southeast China, has been mastering his technique for about 10 years, beginning shortly after he moved to the United States. His first job here was as a kitchen aide for a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan. The master chef there took Denny under his wing and taught him about sushi.
Like any apprentice, Denny learned the ins and outs of making this edible art — from making sure the rice has the correct consistency (the sushi will fall apart or be too tough if it’s not perfect), to using the proper knife to cut the fish and rolls (Denny uses a $1,500 knife specially designed and imported from Japan), to how much pressure to put on the rice when readying it to be rolled in the seaweed.
“To be able to master all the techniques is at least five years,” Denny said, speaking through Nikky because of his limited knowledge of English.
After training in Manhattan, Denny worked at an Asian fusion restaurant in Miami before moving to Alabama in 2008. He worked as a sushi chef at Fuji restaurant in Oxford, until Jasmine opened earlier this year.
Denny created all of the sushi rolls on the menu, some of which are typical, such as the California and Philadelphia rolls. But he also creates his own, such as his personal favorite, the Tiger roll — spicy crab, avocado and shrimp topped with spicy salmon, green onion and masago (fish eggs).
“Denny makes his sushi stand out,” Nikky said. “His technique, integrity, passion … and using the best-quality ingredients. It’s the best and prepared with a lot of passion. He likes to bring freshness and healthier alternatives.”
Nikky said their customers are split between favoring raw and cooked rolls, but people shouldn’t be afraid of trying the raw fish. All the fish is sushi-grade, meaning it’s USDA inspected, must be kept at certain temperatures and is usually wild-caught.
“You’d be surprised how un-fishy raw fish tastes,” Nikky said. “Fishy fish means it’s not so fresh ... except mackerel — it’s very fishy.”
Another part of the art of making sushi is knowing the relationship between different tastes — something the Chens take into consideration when making their own soy sauce.
Soy sauce brings out the sweetness of fish, Nikky said. “If it’s too salty, you’re tasting the sauce, not the fish. If there’s not enough salt, it tastes bland. (Denny) understands the relationship between each ingredient and why some things taste good together and others don’t.”
For those who have a taste for other Asian flavors, Jasmine also serves traditional Chinese and Thai dishes. The focus for those dishes is on the natural flavors of the ingredients, Nikky said, not on a sauce overpowered with salt and sugar.
Those dishes are cooked by Key Chen, one of Denny’s best friends, who trained with a master Thai chef in Washington, D.C. But Denny’s passion remains behind the sushi bar.
“(I) love doing sushi because it’s an art,” he said. “It’s pretty to look at and nice to savor. I get a lot of satisfaction from making products customers like. It’s healthier food that won’t break the bank or send them to the hospital.”
Traditional words associated with sushi, defined by Nikky Chen:
Sushi: A way of preparing food using rice marinated with vinegar. Sushi rolls are not always raw, and are not always rolled in seaweed (see Nigiri).
Sashimi: Sliced raw fish, without rice.
Nigiri: A slice of fish, cooked or not, on top of rice.
Maki: Sushi roll of rice, seaweed and other ingredients. A typical maki has the seaweed on the outside. When rice is on the outside it is an “inside-out” roll.
Wasabi: Japanese horseradish, typically put on the sushi before dipping it in soy sauce.
Pickled ginger: Used to cleanse the palate between tastings.
Jasmine Chinese & Thai Cuisine
1225 Snow St., Suite 15, Oxford
Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.