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.