What is Sushi?

If you’ve never eaten sushi before then it is a good idea to do a bit of research before your first time. A lot of people are apprehensive about trying sushi because they aren’t very sure if they want to eat raw fish. Sushi need not always include raw fish. In fact, if you think that it is raw fish that you will eat you are probably thinking of sashimi.

Sushi can be prepared with raw and cooked fish or meat. In the West most often the sushi chefs offer cooked ingredients. Another misconception about sushi is that it always includes fish. This too is wrong; sushi can also be a vegetarian preparation.

Understanding Sushi

The word sushi translated means, ‘it’s sour’. This form of food preparation dates back centuries, when common folks used rice and salt, and later vinegar to ferment the fish or meat so that it could be eaten during the difficult winter months. Once the fish or meat had fermented, the rice was thrown away and only the meat was consumed. However, over time the rice also became an essential part of sushi preparation.

Earlier it would take months for the sushi to be prepared, but later in the 19th century in Edo, now known as Tokyo, a street vendor came up with a new and innovative way of preparing and serving sushi. Raw fish was served over balls of fermented sushi rice. This was the start of the nigiri sushi also known as the Edonae nigirizushi because it used freshly caught seafood from the Edo Bay.

Today sushi refers to a dish that is prepared with vinegared sushi rice. It comes close to the nare zushi which was made with cooked rice, which was fermented and salted. Generally speaking the sushi rice is offered with either a topping or a tane or neta or a filling or gu. The ingredients for the tane and gu are interchangeable. So, what may be the gu is a makizushi maybe the tane in nigirizushi.

Conventionally there are four types of tane. These include akami or dark tane such as salmon or tuna. White tane or shiromi may be in the form of flat fish which has white muscle. Hikari mono is the shiny tane like mackerel and herring. Nimono dane refers to cooked tane like octopus and eel. Tane such as shrimp and roe, which are excluded from the other categories are called hokanomono tane.

Sushi that uses gu, or a filling, the ingredients may include vegetables like spinach, sprouts, spinach and mushrooms. Fish, omelet, crabmeat are also preferred choices for gu. Often the tane or gu needs to be prepared by marinating, simmering, salting or cooking before it can be served. The tane or gu may need to be frozen for a certain period in order to bring out the flavor of the ingredients.

How Fresh is the Raw Fish?

First time sushi eaters often wonder how fresh the raw fish in their dish is. It all depends on the preparation and the type of fish that is used. Sometimes the fish is eaten fresh, soon after it dies, even before rigor mortis sets in. While at other times the fish is allowed to ripen, this is called noijime. The noijime for sushi needs to be prepared and served soon after it is defrosted. Red fish like tuna and salmon are good examples of noijime. Sushi lovers enjoy the subtle flavor of the ocean on their palate. Chefs aim to achieve a delicate balance in flavors and so there is a minimal use of sauce.

The Art of Sushi

There are many who are fascinated by the aesthetic appeal of sushi, and there are those who compare this culinary form to a Zen like art. Sushi aims to create a fine balance in flavors, textures and colors, and offer the palate a tantalizing delight. This kind of food also offers the body a perfectly balanced and nourishing meal. It contains carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Sushi uses polished rice that retains the endosperm.

It is said that it takes over a decade for a sushi chef to learn the science and art that goes into this culinary style. To truly understand sushi and enjoy it to the fullest, it is a good idea to sit at the sushi bar close to the chef, rather than at a table. There are some rituals and customs that are associated with sushi and following them will make your sushi experience more enjoyable. You can use your fingers to eat the sushi. This is how generations of Chinese and Japanese have eaten sushi. If you are comfortable using chopsticks, you can use them too. Usually sushi is meant to be eaten in a single bite. If the piece is too big, you may take a bite and hold the rest in your fingers or your chopsticks.

Types of Sushi

There are several different ways of serving sushi and here’s a look at some of them:

Nigirizushi refers to the ‘hand pressed sushi’. It is pretty easy to identify and is usually rectangle in shape. The sushi rice has a touch of wasabi on top, over which a topping, usually seafood like tuna or salmon is placed.

Makizushi means ‘rolled sushi’ and is one of the most popular forms available and enjoyed in the USA. This form of sushi is usually rolled in seaweed, also known as nori. The chef can also use soy paper, shsiso leaves or thin omelette for the covering. The makizuishi can be shaped in different ways. While temaki is the cone shaped roll, the hosomaki is the thin roll which has the rice on the inside and nori on the outside. The chumaki is the medium roll, while the futomaki is the thick roll. The uramaki is the inside out roll with the rice on the outside and the nori inside.

Chirashizushi translates literally as ‘scattered sushi’. This type of sushi includes the sushi rice along with several toppings. It is served in a bowl and is commonly eaten in Japanese homes and doesn’t necessarily include meat or fish. In fact, it is a great dish to create with leftovers.

Inarizushi is said to be named after the Shinto god Inari who is believed to have a fondness for fried tofu. This form of sushi includes fried tofu and sushi rice. A popular version of inarizushi includes vegetables like green beans and carrots. It is wrapped in fried tofu along with the sushi rice. This version is considered something of a Hawaiian specialty and is shaped like a cone.

Oshizushi or ‘pressed sushi’ is also called hako sushi. This literally means box sushi, and is named so because it makes use of a box like wooden mold called oshibako. The box is first lined with the topping and then filled with the sushi rice. It is then pressed down, and when removed it is served as squares or rectangles.

Getting Rid of Sushi Myths

  • Sushi is raw fish: Sushi is essentially vinegared sushi rice that is served with a topping or a filling. The topping or filling, may occasionally be of raw fish, but sushi also uses an extensive range of ingredients including vegetables, herbs, and marinated or cooked fish.
  • Some more raw fish worries: If you are eating raw fish that is served by itself then you are eating sashimi and not sushi.
  • Sushi is eaten with soy sauce: A good sushi chef applies the right amount of sauce, if required, so as to balance the flavors. Soy sauce has a strong taste and will overwhelm the experience of the sushi, and so, should be used minimally.
  • Add wasabi to the soy sauce: Soy sauce and wasabi should not be mixed, and it is considered rude and irreverent to do so. Good sushi chefs achieve a fine balance of tantalizing flavors, and it would be wise to eat a piece before you decide to add a touch of soy sauce or wasabi.
  • Sushi should be enjoyed with sake: Traditionally sake is not drunk with sushi. This allows you to enjoy the flavors of the dish that you are eating. Similarly, wine should also be avoided when you are feasting on sushi. Instead, you can enjoy green tea or beer.
  • Sushi should be avoided on Sunday and Mondays: This myth is related to patrons’ worry about how fresh the fish that they are eating is. Interestingly only some types of sushi preparation use raw, fresh fish. Most others use marinated and fermented ingredients. Sushi chefs take great pride in handpicking the ingredients that they use, and only offer their guests the very best.

Men make the best sushi chefs: Superstitions and a sense of patriarchy have led to this myth. There are those who believe that women tend to have warmer hands and so they aren’t able to prepare the sushi as well, have been disproved by scientific research. Great sushi chefs learn and practice their culinary art for years and their proficiency is based only on their skill and experience.