Sushi is perhaps the most popular dish for Japanesefood enthusiasts (especially outside of Japan).
It takes many forms, but always combines vinegared rice with seafood or other ingredients.
While sushi may seem like the simplest of foods to prepare, and it is certainly possible to make perfectly edible
sushi at home, mastering the art of sushi preparation takes many years of training and practice. Why so, you might ask? Apart from mastering cooking the perfect Japanese rice (did you know that, when prepared correctly, all of the grains of rice should actually be facing the same way?), selecting and handling the seafood takes a great deal of knowledge and skill.
All seafood should be as fresh as possible. In Japan and in other parts of the world serving up sushi and fortunate enough to be in close proximity to an ocean, the best time to consume sushi is in the late morning, or by noon at the latest, as this ensures optimal freshness.
Also, did you know that, according to some, sushi should be enjoyed beginning with milder-tasting fish and working up to richer, more oily fish? Other experts suggest starting with your choice of tuna (toro, chu-toro, o-toro or maguro) and ending with either sweet-tasting egg (tamago) or nori-roll sushi. Feel free to use your fingers to pick up each piece, making sure to lightly dip the fish side (rather than the rice side) into the soy sauce. The exception are pieces of seasoned sushi, which are meant to be consumed withoutdipping. All sushi “fingers” should be enjoyed in one or two bites maximum. However you choose to enjoy your sushi, and in whichever order, make sure to nibble on a piece of ginger in between bites to cleanse your palate.
A word about soy sauce used for sushi. If you are visiting Japan and asking for soy sauce in a restaurant, do not ask for it by shoyu (the typical word for soy sauce), but rather by murasaki (translating into “purple”), likely due to its dark colouring. Most specialty sushi restaurants make their own house soy, made by reducing soy sauce or tamari sauce over heat with sake, mirin, bonito flakes and other seasonings.
So far, I have been using “sushi” to refer to the crown jewel of all sushi: nigiri-zushi. Other popular kinds of sushi are oshi-zushi, which is where rice is packed into a mould, covered with marinated or boiled fish, and then cut into bite-sized pieces; maki-zushi or nori-maki, where vinegared rice is wrapped around small morsels of fish and other ingredients, rolled and then cut into rounds; gunkanmaki, a type of nigiri-zushi that’s wrapped within a piece of nori; and chirashizushi, which is simply seafood and vegetables scattered atop a bed of vinegared rice if prepared in a standard Tokyo style, or all of the ingredients mixed together in the Osaka style. There are also varieties of mixed sushi (mazezushi), well-suited for a packed lunch, such as inari-zushi (stuffed, deep-fried bean curd pouches) and fukusa-zushi or chakinzushi (thin omelette wrapped around mixed ingredients).
As mentioned earlier, making sushi rice takes a lot of practice and technique. Traditionally, sushi rice, which is slightly chewier and harder than other rice, is cooked starting with hot water, then cooled quickly once it has been cooked. To do this, chefs use a hangiri (or sushi-oke), a shallow wooden tub made of Japanese cypress and hooped with copper. The wood from the Japanese cypress absorbs moisture from the hot rice, thus allowing it to cool quickly so as to ensure that the individual grains retain their form, rather than getting smooshed inside the tub. There is no one particular beverage to enjoy with sushi. If you prefer to stick with hot tea, that is perfectly acceptable—as is sipping on sake (hot or cold), beer or shochu cocktails.
Popular kinds of sushi
The most beloved of all the sushi types, nigiri-zushi is thought to have its origins in Tokyo, where the people of Edo had access to and a great love of the freshest of fish. Nigiri-zushi is sushi that is shaped like a finger with a strip of seafood on top.
Maki-zushi is a great option when your stomach is empty but you are also watching your pocketbook. Smaller portions of your ingredients of choice are wrapped in vinegared rice and nori, then rolled and cut into rounds.
Deep-fried bean curd (tofu) pockets filled with sushi rice. Other ingredients such as toasted sesame seeds, cooked carrots, shiitake mushrooms or daikon can be added to make your inari more exciting.
Hand rolls where your choice of filling is wrapped with sushi rice in a large piece of nori, making temaki-zushi easy to hold and fun to eat. A favourite to make at home, temaki-zushi can contain all sorts of ingredients to please everybody!
A type of sushi from Osaka, oshi-zushi means “pressed” or “box” sushi. Oshi-zushi stems from the ancient ethod of preserving fish by packing it tightly with vinegared rice.
Chirashi is cut up seafood and vegetables on a bed of vinegared rice. Sometimes, the rice and seafood and vegetables are mixed together. Shredded omelette and cut-up, seasoned mushrooms can be part of a chirashi dinner.
Did you know…
Most of the wasabi that you are probably used to is not what is considered to be “true” wasabi, but instead comes from the Western Horseradish plant?
Many restaurants serve wasabi that comes in a tube and is a mix of Western horseradish and green dye. Real wasabi comes from the Wasabia japonica (Japanese horseradish) plant, grown in Japan and in some other select areas outside of Japan (the plant is notoriously difficult to grow outside of its natural habitat). While much of the wasabi that comes from a tube or jar is so spicy it makes your eyes water, real wasabi is actually much milder, with a slight fruity taste to it. Unlike most wasabi you might be used to, it does not overpower the sushi.
Popular fish and shellfish for sushi
When referring to sushi, neta is the topping, most often a strip of choice seafood. While certain seafood is available only in season, there are also many varieties that can be found throughout most of the year.
[Anago] A type of saltwater eel that is first boiled in seasoned stock and then grilled, brushed with a sweet and sticky sauce before serving. Anago has a soft texture that melts in your mouth and has a natural sweet taste.
[Engawa] Meat that comes from the dorsal fin muscle of fluke/ flounder or hirame. Engawa has a crunchy, chewy texture paired with a rich, oily taste, and it’s rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
[Saba] Deep-flavoured, decadent and oily, saba is rich in good fats and is highly nutritious. With a complex taste profile, the freshest saba tastes salty, slightly sour and even sweet!
[Maguro] Ah, tuna, one of the most coveted of sushi! Rich toro, which comes from the fattiest belly section of the fish, is one of the most select choices of sushi available, while akami, lean red tuna loin, is one of the most popular choices.
[Ikura] Salmon roe, cured in brine or salt, nested on a bed of rice, served in a circle of toasted nori… absolutely decadent! In addition, these salty salmon eggs are sustainable and economical.
[Hamachi] A golden- to pink-fleshed young fish with a silky, buttery texture and creamy, sometimes smoky taste. The high oil content in hamachi is what gives it its rich taste and texture.
[Tako] Tako has a delicate and juicy flavour that lends itself very well to pairing with vinegared rice and wasabi. Tako is also high in taurine, an amino acid that has been linked to longevity.
[Amaebi] Also known as spot prawns, these sweet-tasting shrimp are cold, deepwater (living at depths of 500 to 2,000 feet underwater!) northern shrimp that are translucent in appearance.
S u s h i DOs & DON’Ts
While you shouldn’t allow the following rules to put a damper on your enjoyment of sushi, following them might make your next meal that much more enjoyable!
Do call for a reservation
Call ahead for or make an online request for a reservation, especially if you have any dietary restrictions. Restaurants will try their best to accommodate you but typically they need advance notice. While you’re at it, make sure to find out what kinds of payment the restaurant takes— many in Japan are cash only.
Do not wear perfume or fragrances
Wearing fragrances to a sushi shop is a definite no-no—fragrances, even seemingly mild ones, can ruin the experience of other diners (including yourself) by interfering with their interaction with each dish. Please be considerate of others and keep your fragrances to the confines of your own home.
Do go with “omakase”
Omakase (chef’s choice) is one of the best ways to experience what the chef thinks is best (and usually the freshest). Let him or her take you on a journey, dependent on your pocketbook… often there are levels of omakase, priced accordingly: nami (standard), jō (premium) and toku-jō (extra premium). Toku-jō is for more highend ingredients like toro (fatty tuna), ikura (salmon roe) and uni (sea urchin).
Do ask for “sabinuki”
If you are not a fan of wasabi, or prefer to savour the flavour of the seafood without it, you can ask for “sabinuki.” This means that chefs will not put any wasabi in your sushi.
Do eat in the “correct” order
While nothing is written in stone, some people say that it’s better to start with whitefish and lighter-tasting fish followed by richer, more oily items. If you’re not sure, you can ask the chef what is recommended! In any case, you’ll want to cleanse your palate between each type of sushi with a bite of gari (pickled ginger).
Do use your hands
Yes, you can eat nigiri with your fingers! The pieces are easier to handle this way and I think taste better too. Chopsticks are not necessary unless you’re eating sashimi or chirashi.
Do not dip rice-side first
Dip your nigiri fish-side down into the soy sauce so as to not risk breaking the vinegared rice.