In Japanese cuisine, sushi is a food made of vinegared rice combined with a topping or filling of fish, seafood, vegetables, or egg. The topping may be raw, cooked, or marinated; and may be served scattered in a bowl of rice, rolled in nori, laid onto hand-formed clumps of rice, or stuffed in small pouches made of tofu.
In Japan the word sushi refers to a broad range of food prepared with sumeshi or sushi meshi, which is vinegared rice. Outside Japan, sushi is often taken to mean raw fish. It is sometimes confused with sashimi, which is delicately sliced seafood served with only a dipping sauce.
Although sushi uses relatively few ingredients, it is notoriously difficult to prepare well. Sushi is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the minimalistic beauty of Japanese cuisine. As such, its preparation requires the use of the highest-quality ingredients, a thorough understanding of local and seasonal fishes, and an attention to detail and harmony.
First-time sushi eaters generally start with maki, which is rice with fillings such as fish and vegetables wrapped in seaweed. Consider starting with cucumber rolls, known as kappa maki, which contain no fish. Perhaps you can try tuna maki next - the taste of the seaweed and slightly sweet taste of the vinegared rice complement the tuna. Then try a roll with more complex flavours, such as a California roll (crab stick, avocado and cucumber) which is popular in the United States, or a rainbow roll, with salmon and avocado wrapped around the outside.
Once you have tried maki, broaden your sushi experience by ordering some nigiri. Nigiri is nothing more than raw fish placed on top of sushi rice. Eating nigiri allows you to truly enjoy the taste of the fish. Since this is your first time, you’ll want to start out eating fish you are familiar with. Maguro is the Japanese name for a particular cut of large tuna, and is the most popular fish to eat as nigiri. It has a very pleasant taste, and some sushi-eaters believe it’s the best choice for your first time. Others believe that salmon, such as Norwegian salmon, provides the best introduction to eating uncooked fish. Ebi, shrimp, and Hamachi, yellowfin tuna, are also good choices (note that the shrimp will actually be cooked, though cold). If you are feeling even more adventurous, try Ika, squid, which has a creamy texture and sweet taste. You might want to avoid Uni, Anago, and octopus for now.
As long as you are in a small Japanese restaurant, you should feel comfortable ordering small amounts of sushi, and ordering multiple times. A common mistake of first-timers is to order a “sampler.” These may contain varieties that you won’t want to try just yet.
You may be given miso soup to start. If you’ve never tried it, it is likely that it will not taste like anything you’ve had before. However, some people associate the taste of miso with the salty taste of home-canned green beans. Miso soup is strong, salty, and slightly fishy. Some restaurants bring you a spoon, others do not. In the case of the latter, stir it with your chopsticks, then drink directly from the bowl. Careful, it will be very hot. Miso soup consists of miso paste, made of fermented soya beans, dissolved in “dashi“ stock, a stock made with kelp and dried bonito fish. Sometimes ingredients like tofu, seaweed or spring onion are added. Some people like to add soy sauce to theirs, but be sure to taste it first, since it is quite salty before it comes to you and soy sauce can easily overpower the flavors.
When your sushi comes, it will be on a wooden board or a plate. If you are sharing with friends, it may all come in a single wooden dish. Everyone gets a ceramic dish for soy sauce. Also on the table are thin pink or white slices of ginger, called gari. They are there to eat between pieces of sushi as a palate cleanser, if one wishes. Some people really enjoy gari, some don’t really care, and others think it tastes like Purel shampoo. Finally, everyone gets some wasabi.
Wasabi is a green paste made from a Japanese plant that has a flavour reminiscent of horseradish. It is very strong, and a key ingredient in sushi. If you’re okay with hot things, you should try some wasabi to start out: put a very small piece no larger than a teardrop onto the tip of your chopstick. Place the wasabi onto your tongue, and smear it around the roof of your mouth. You may want to keep a glass of water and napkin to wipe your eyes nearby. Alternatively, just enjoy the explosive feeling and sit it out, because it disappears as suddenly as it arrives.
You should know that even if you don’t try it plain, your sushi will contain some wasabi. However, it is unlikely to make your sushi hot, since it is only in very small amounts.
Some people add wasabi to the soy sauce in their soy dish, while others believe this is bad etiquette.
Once you’ve got your soy sauce, you’re finally ready to go. It’s entirely up to you to decide whether you want to use chopsticks or your fingers to eat nigiri sushi. Using your fingers will help you to avoid the problem of the fish slipping off the rice. Take the nigiri, turn it upside down, and dip just the fish lightly into the soy sauce, then place the entire thing into your mouth. Do not dip the rice into the soy sauce, since it will most likely absorb too much of it and fall apart all over your plate.
Remember, moderation and taking your time are key to enjoying sushi.
The common ingredient in all the different kinds of sushi is sushi rice. Variety arises in the choice of the fillings and toppings, the other condiments, and in the manner they are put together. The same ingredients may be assembled in various different ways:
Nigirizushi (hand-formed sushi). Arguably the most typical form of sushi in Japan, it consists of a oblong mound of sushi rice which is pressed between the palms, with a speck of wasabi and a thin slice of a topping (neta) draped over it, possibly tied with a thin band of nori. Assembling nigirizushi is surprisingly difficult to do well. It is sometimes called Edomaezushi, which reflects its origins in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in the 18th century. It is often served two to an order.
Gunkanzushi (battleship roll). An oval, hand-formed clump of sushi rice (similar to that of nigirizushi) is wrapped around its perimeter with a strip of nori, to form a vessel that is filled with some ingredient—e.g. roe, natto, or less conventionally, macaroni salad.
Makizushi (rolled sushi). A cylindrical piece, formed with the help of a bamboo mat, called a makisu. Makizushi is generally wrapped in nori, a sheet of dried seaweed that encloses the rice and fillings. Occasionally the nori is substituted with a paper thin fried egg wrapper. Makizushi is usually cut into six or eight pieces, which constitute an order. During the Setsubun festival, it is traditional to eat the uncut makizushi in its cylindrical form. Makizushi superficially resembles the Korean dish gimbap.
Futomaki (large rolls). A large cylindrical piece, with the nori on the outside. Typical futomaki are two or three centimeters thick and four or five centimeters wide. They are often made with two or three fillings, chosen for their complementary taste and color.
Hosomaki (thin rolls). A small cylindrical piece, with the nori on the outside. Typical hosomaki are about two centimeters thick and two centimeters wide. They are generally made with only one filling, simply because there is not enough room for more than one.
Kappamaki, filled with cucumber, is named after the Japanese legendary water imp, the kappa.
Temaki (hand rolls). A large cone-shaped piece, with the nori on the outside and the ingredients spilling out the wide end. A typical temaki is about ten centimeters long, and is eaten with the fingers since it is too awkward to pick up with chopsticks.
Uramaki (inside-out rolls). A medium-sized cylindrical piece, with two or more fillings. Uramaki differ from other maki because the rice is on the outside and the nori within. The filling is in the center surrounded by a liner of nori, then a layer of rice, and an outer coating of some other ingredient such as roe or toasted sesame seeds.
Oshizushi (pressed sushi). A block-shaped piece formed using a wooden mold, called an oshibako. The chef lines the bottom of the oshibako with the topping, covers it with sushi rice, and presses the lid of the mold down to create a compact, rectilinear block. The block is removed from the mold and cut into bite-sized pieces.
Inarizushi (stuffed sushi). A small pouch filled with sushi rice and other ingredients (named after the Shinto god Inari, who has a fondness for rice products). The pouch is fashioned from deep-fried tofu, a thin omelet, or dried gourd shavings .
Chirashizushi (scattered sushi). A bowl of sushi rice with the other ingredients mixed in. Also referred to as barazushi.
Edomae chirashizushi (Edo-style scattered sushi). Uncooked ingredients artfully arranged on top of the rice in the bowl.
Gomokuzushi (Kansai-style sushi). Cooked or uncooked ingredients mixed in the body of the rice in the bowl.
Narezushi is an older form of sushi. Skinned and gutted fish are stuffed with salt then placed in a wooden barrel, doused with salt again, and weighed down with a heavy tsukemonoishi (pickling stone). They are salted for ten days to a month, then placed in water for 15 minutes to an hour. They are then placed in another barrel sandwiched and layered with cooled steamed rice and fish. Then this mixture is again partially sealed with otosibuta and a pickling stone. As days pass, water seeps out, which is removed. Six months later, this “funazushi” can be eaten, and it remains edible for another six months or more.
References: Barber, Kimiko;Takemura, Hiroki (2002). Sushi: Taste and Technique, DK Publishing. ISBN 0-7894-8916-3.
Kawasumi, Ken (2001). The Encyclopedia of Sushi Rolls, Graph-Sha. ISBN 4-88996-076-7.
Sushi rice. Sushi is made with white, short-grained, Japanese rice mixed with a dressing made of rice vinegar, sugar, salt, konbu, and sake.It is cooled to body temperature before being used. In some fusion cuisine restaurants, short grain brown rice and wild rice are also used. Sushi rice (sushi-meshi) is prepared with short-grain Japonica rice,which has a consistency that differs from long-grain strains such as Indica. The essential quality is its stickiness. Rice that is too sticky has a mushy texture; if it is not sticky enough, it feels dry. Freshly harvested rice (shinmai) typically has too much water, and requires extra time to drain after washing.
There are regional variations in sushi rice, and of course individual chefs have their individual methods. Most of the variations are in the rice vinegar dressing: the Tokyo version of the dressing commonly uses more salt; in Osaka, the dressing has more sugar.
Sushi rice generally must be used shortly after it is made. The Wiki Cookbook has a simple recipe.
Nori. The seaweed wrappers used in maki and temaki are called nori.This is an edible seaweed traditionally cultivated in one of the harbors of Japan. Originally, the plant was scraped from dock pilings, rolled out into sheets, and dried in the sun in a process similar to making paper. Nori is toasted before being used in food.
Today, the commercial product is farmed, produced, toasted, packaged, and sold in standard-size sheets, about 18 cm by 21 cm in size. Higher quality nori is thick, smooth, shiny, and has no holes.
Fish. For culinary, sanitary and aesthetic reasons, fish eaten raw must be fresher and of higher quality than fish which is cooked. A professional sushi chef is trained to recognize good fish, which smells clean, has a vivid color, and is free from harmful parasites. Only ocean fish are used raw in sushi; freshwater fish, more likely to harbor parasites, are cooked.
Commonly-used fish are tuna, yellowtail, snapper, conger, mackerel and salmon. The most prized sushi ingredient is known as toro, a fatty, marbled cut of tuna. This comes in varieties ōtoro (often from the bluefin species of tuna) and chutoro, meaning middle toro, implying it is halfway between toro and regular red tuna (akami).
Seafood. Other seafoods are squid, octopus, shrimp, fish roe, sea urchin (uni), and various kinds of shellfish. Oystersare not put in sushi; the taste is not thought to go well with the rice.
Vegetables. Pickled daikon radish (takuan) in shinko maki, pickled vegetables (tsukemono), fermented soybeans (natto) in nattō maki, avocado in California rolls, cucumber in kappa maki, asparagus, yam, tofu, pickled ume (umeboshi), gourd (kampyō), burdock (gobo), and sweet corn with mayonnaise.
Red meat. Beef and ham.
Other fillings. Eggs (in the form of a slightly sweet, layered omelet called tamagoyaki), raw quail eggs.
Shōyu. Soy sauce.
Gari. Sweet, pickled ginger.
Wasabi. Green paste with a sharp, horseradish-like flavor. It is believed to kill any germs on raw fish.
References: Shimbo, Hiroko (2000). The Japanese Kitchen, The Harvard Commons Press. ISBN 1-55832-176-4.
In Japan, and increasingly abroad, conveyor belt sushi/sushi train (kaiten zushi) restaurants are a popular way to eat sushi. At these restaurants, the sushi is served on color-coded plates, each color denoting the cost of that piece of sushi. After finishing, the bill is tallied by counting how many plates of each color have been taken.
More traditionally, sushi is served on minimalist Japanese-style, geometric, wood or laquer plates which are mono- or duo-tone in colour, in keeping with the aesthetic qualities of this cuisine. Many small sushi restaurants actually use no plates -- the sushi is eaten directly off of the wooden counter, usually with one’s hands.
Modern fusion presentation, particularly in the United States, has given sushi an European sensibility, taking Japanese minimalism and garnishing it with Western gestures such as the colorful arrangement of edible ingredients, the use of differently flavored sauces, and the mixing of foreign flavors, highly suggestive of French cuisine, deviating somewhat from the more traditional, austere style of Japanese sushi.
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