Basing a dinner party around sushi allows the host to free herself from the tyranny of cooking times and course rhythms but requires significant practice to produce the refined, elegant dishes that guests might be familiar with from Japanese restaurants. Access to an Asian grocery store is vital to locate some of the more exotic ingredients as well as the necessary equipment and tableware. Rice is the key. Sushi chefs in Japan can take two years to perfect seasoned rice, so ensure that you can consistently prepare rice to the proper standard for sushi.
For an authentic sushi dinner, the host takes on the role of the itamae, or sushi chef, preparing dishes steadily for guests, who help themselves from the platter. All dishes can be prepared up to a couple of hours ahead -- but no more -- and stored at room temperature, since refrigeration mutes the flavors. Prepare a clutter-free dining table with a raised central plinth to showcase each platter, and a small serving plate, soup bowl, shoyu dish and chopsticks for each guest. Sushi can be eaten with the fingers, in which case the meal should start with each guest receiving a hot towel to clean his hands. Apart from the rice, there is no need to go for broke by tracking down bluefin tuna or puffer fish. The majority of rolls use simple, fine-cut vegetables and conventional fish cuts, including salmon and eel, with only a small proportion served raw.
Prepare a mixture of rolls and individual nigiri sushi or sashimi pieces, which are usually served in pairs. For guests new to sushi, California rolls, with avocado, crab meat and cucumber, or Philadelphia rolls, with salmon cucumber and cream cheese filling, are both accessible. Whether you are wrapping the roll in nori seaweed or in rice using a bamboo mat for a maki roll, take a few dry-runs to master the technique. Nigiri sushi, a portion of fish arranged over rice, and sashimi -- raw fish slices -- are easier to create, since the chef only has to position the fish aesthetically. Sashimi is best reserved for exquisite cuts of high-grade fish. If these are not available, smoked eel or fresh salmon usually rise to the occasion, as do shrimp, crab and squid or even vegetarian options such as tofu.
Part of the allure of sushi is in focusing attention on small morsels of food one at a time. Each guest should have a shoyu dish for holding a small dose of soy sauce, with bowls of other condiments for communal sharing. Pickled ginger is adept at cleansing the palate between pieces, while fiery wasabi paste gives each piece a kick. Other typical Japanese condiments include shredded daikon, pickled in rice vinegar, and Wakame seaweed salad, tossed in sesame seeds, which is usually available in Japanese stores. Traditionally, nigiri sushi should be dipped fish-down into soy sauce to avoid the rice disintegrating and to ensure that all of the sauce used. Although sushi purists look down on the Western habit of serving wasabi as a condiment, since its use is the prerogative of the chef, it has come to be an integral part of the sushi experience.
Unlike Western dinners, which are divided into clearly distinct courses, the sushi dinner party should be more a rolling succession of subtly different items. Clear miso soup, for example, can be served throughout the dinner, and is traditionally drunk straight from the bowl rather than with a spoon. Likewise, sake has transformed from a rice wine drunk only with sashimi to a drink that can be served throughout the meal. For appetizers, look for palate-cleansing, crunchy vegetables, such as toasted edamame, still in the pod, and sprinkled with salt, or finely sliced cucumber tossed in sesame seeds.