Sushi: A Guide to the Unknown
A Japanese Delight
If you have not had sushi, you are missing out. If you have had sushi, you might be missing something. I intend to explore restaurant sushi with you so that you may learn something - may it be what to order, safety guidelines, or just a few fun facts about Sushi.
A Brief History
The first reference we see of the word Sushi was in the 9th century, but many are doubtful to what the word is referring to. It went through many modifications in the following centuries until it became what it is today. Sushi was the first fast food; it could be eaten with chopsticks or fingers and could be eaten in public. One such popular place was the theater! When Tokyo (Edo) was hit by an earthquake in 1923, sushi chefs were displaced from the city and spread through Japan quickly, with them spreading the popularity of this delicious food.
The word Sushi refers to the process of making the rice and literally means vinegared rice.
Firstly, know that raw or under-cooked foods has a chance to be unsafe for eating. This is the same warning one hears when ordering a rare steak, sunny side up eggs, or anything under-cooked. Sushi involves eating raw fish a lot of the time, so there are a few precautions I like to take.
1. Look at the restaurant.
- This is simple. Does the restaurant look high quality? Does it look clean? If it looks low quality and dirty that is a sign your food might be as well, and when dealing with raw fish you do not want to risk it.
2. Proper Refrigeration.
- The best situation is if it is a sushi bar and they make it to order. Most higher quality sushi establishments do this. If you can see they are pulling fish from a cooled area, such as behind glass with a visible cooling bar and thermometer you can rest assured all food is properly maintained.
- If it is a kaiten (conveyor belt sushi, usually in the name like track sushi, sushi train, sushi boat, etc) make sure it has a lot of business. They can put the product out and leave it there for a while, if they don't know the sushi hasn't been taken it can go around for hours.
- To avoid risks, if you think something has been out for a while, or there aren't many people in, you can always order from a menu and have it made it fresh for you.
Types of Sushi: Sashimi
Starting with the simplest first we find Sashimi, which is simply a raw fish sliced thinly to eat. Usually the method of ordering this is a Sashimi plate, or sometimes there are Sashimi Bowls that have rice covering the bottom such as the image to the right.
A lot of people are uncomfortable eating Sashimi, which is understandable if you haven't been introduced to the concept at a younger age. You should not try it out on your own before trying Nigiri Sushi - which I will cover next - so that you can understand the rich flavors of raw fish and get a feel for the types of fish you like.
Sushi Types: Nigiri
Nigiri is a type of sushi where a piece of Sashimi is laid over a bed of rice. Sometimes the sushi chef will slide a piece of wasabi underneath to kick up the flavor.
As seen above, Nigiri can be made out of anything. Depending on the restaurant and the price you pay for your food, the size will be different. If you go to a 'dollar plate sushi mart' you will get quite a small piece, which may be fine for starting off and learning what you are getting into but may be underwhelming. If you go to a more expensive place, a plate with the Toro (fatty tuna) pictured to the right may cost 6-12 dollars, depending on the quality of the fish and local availability.
Raw fish has unique flavors that disappear with cooking fish. You will have to try different kinds of fish to see what you like and don't like. Since they are usually sets of two, I recommend going with a friend and splitting it so you can test out a large amount of different flavors. Maybe start with something simple like Salmon and work your way up to something richer like Toro which just melts in your mouth.
Sushi Types: Roll
Roll sushi is a western style of sushi that westerners enjoy more. There are thousands of kinds of roll sushi because there are hundreds of ingredients and so many ways to combine them into a roll. A basic roll usually has rice around a layer of seaweed which covers the contents of the roll. (Image below)
Another variation on this would be a hand roll, which is a piece of seaweed that has rice flattened over it and the fillings layered in before rolled together in an easy to eat hand held package. (Image to the left)
Below is a table of common Rolls. A lot of times the California Roll is the base of the roll because it is simple yet delicious, allowing other added flavors to shine.
Delicious Sushi Rolls
Outside of Roll
Inside of Roll
Avocado, Crab, sometimes Cucumber
Raw/Smoked Salmon, Cream Cheese, Avocado or Cucumber
Yellowtail, Tuna, Salmon, Snapper, White Fish, Eel, Avocado
Raw/Smoked Salmon, Avocado, Cucumber
Fried Softshell Crab, Avocado, and Spicy Mayo
Warm Scallops mixed with Spicy Mayo and Baked
Shrimp Tempura Roll
Fried Shrimp, Crab, and Avocado
Spicy Tempura Asparagus Roll
Spicy Mayo, Teriyaki Sauce
Fried Asparagus, Cream Cheese, Sometimes Avocado
Tempura is a lightly battered and fried item. This can be shrimp, lobster, or assorted vegetables. Some sushi rolls contain fried foods such as a shrimp tempura roll, lobster roll, spider roll (crab), asparagus tempura roll, or fried squid roll. I find these are the easiest to get people who are reluctant to eat sushi to try, because most people like fried shrimp or lobster. Furthermore, if you get tempura sweet potato and tempura onion rings it is like sweet potato fries and onion rings!
Sushi Condiments and How To Eat
When you go to a sushi restaurant you probably see a bunch of items scattered around. Red bottle of Soy Sauce, Green Bottle of Soy Sauce (Low Sodium, which tastes fine by the way), yellow or pink pieces of Ginger, Green Wasabi, or more.
Soy sauce and wasabi go into the tiny plates that are available. Ginger is to clear your pallet and remove any taste from your mouth so you can enjoy each piece of sushi as if it were your first.
Depending on where you go it can be okay to eat sushi with your hands, which can be a lot easier than chopsticks (even if you are good with chopsticks) because some rolls are delicate or large. Nigiri Sushi lends itself to hands nicely as well. The best way to eat Nigiri is to hold it fish down, dip the fish into the soy sauce gently, and then eat. This makes it so the delicate flavor of the rice is not compromised, yet the delicious fish is accentuated with soy. As with any cuisine you are unfamiliar with, watch other people eating it before eating it yourself to make sure you are being polite.
There are many drinks at a sushi restaurant. I highly recommend NOT having soda. I feel that it clashes with the light and healthy flavors. If you have to have soda, see if they have Ramune - a fun Japanese soda which isn't as harsh as American soda.
I highly recommend drinking tea. Green Tea is my favorite sushi restaurant drink; it is healthy and helps with digestion but also has a mild flavor that doesn't interfere with others.
Sake is always a favorite for some, and others prefer Japanese beer.
If you have a few extra bucks, I would suggest an oyster shooter. These are hearty and delicious shots of alcohol that are probably unlike anything you have ever tasted. The one that I get has quail egg, caviar, oyster, and a small drop of hot sauce.
If, by some miracle, you have enough room after eating sushi I would suggest trying some Mochi. This is a rice based desert that can be in vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, green tea, taro, or many other flavors depending on the sushi restaurant. They aren't very expensive so if you are unsure of it, just try one. You may be pleasantly surprised.
I hope that you have learned something in this somewhat comprehensive guide to sushi. There are many things that I have not covered because it is hard to describe the differences between the many flavors of fish. Once you find something that you like, try to explore the variations of it and you might find something that you like more. Remember to be safe and have fun!