to Fans of Japanese cuisine, sushi might be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of “Japanese food.” These days, sushi can be found in both grocery stores and restaurants, but its origins may surprise you.
The origins of sushi go back to the 4th century, to a Chinese dish called narezushi, which is pickled fermented fish with rice. Interestingly, rice is usually discarded when eating fish, as it was only used to wrap and preserve fish.
However, this sushi is not quite like the sushi we know today. The person generally credited as the inventor of modern sushi is Japanese restaurateur and chef Hanaya Yohei.
Before sushi became the quick grocery food we could grab away, it was always considered a very artistic and skillful type of food.
As an art form, its appearance is just as important as its taste, with the focus on just the right color, flavor, and texture, which can take years or even decades to perfect.
When sushi was introduced to the West in the early 1900s, middle-class Americans began to try sushi themselves by the 1960s and began to like it. Because the idea of eating raw fish didn’t catch on right away in America, many Japanese restaurants began experimenting with new flavor combinations and sushi rolls. One of the most popular variations is the now ubiquitous California roll, which is an uramaki roll with cucumber, Crab meat, avocado with white rice.
Nowadays, sushi usually comes in six delicious forms, namely sashimi, nigiri, chirashi, maki, uramaki, and temaki.
Sashimi is a Japanese delicacy consisting of fresh fish or meat cut into thin pieces and often eaten with soy sauce and wasabi.
Nigiri is the typical sushi people identify with, which is an oblong, vinegar-shaped rice ball with slices of topping. Gunkan, meaning “warship,” is another form of nigiri, in which a long strip of nori (seaweed) forms a “bowl” filled with a looser topping such as fish eggs or chopped raw fish.
Unlike single, hand-pressed pieces of sushi, chirashi is a traditional style of sushi that has sushi spread over a bowl of rice served with a variety of vegetables. But don’t be fooled by the name, because chiraishi bowls have toppings that are served neatly and beautifully on top of the bowl.
Maki is rolled up sushi cut into small pieces wrapped in a thin layer of nori, usually found in sushi boxes. The fillings usually consist of long strips of vegetables, fish, or other meat and are rolled with a bamboo sushi rolling mat, called a makisu, which is where it gets its name from.
To make a maki roll, you should place a piece of nori, shiny side down on the makisu, then add a flat, even layer of vinegared rice on the bottom of the nori, before placing long, straight strips of the top layer. Just below the middle of the rice.
Next, take the bamboo mat and gently pull the bottom up over the filling. Continue rolling the sushi, pulling the mat straight away from you to coax a good roll. Once the roll is complete, pick up the carpet by the roll and press firmly. This will compress the rice into position, and the last bare piece of nori will stick to itself, sealing the roll. Cut the roll using a large, sharp knife, and you have a maki roll!
For uramaki, which means roll inside out, it is the same concept except that the rice roll rolls nori grass inside, creating an outer layer of rice with nori and filling on the inside. Meanwhile, temaki means “hand-rolled,” and this sushi is prepared and wrapped in nori in a conical shape. The conical shape was made so that the soy sauce, which was served with temaki, would not drip onto people’s clothes when people ate on the go.
The art of eating sushi
Now that you know all the different types of sushi, here’s how to eat it. Malaysians usually mix wasabi in soy sauce as a dipping sauce. However, the traditional way to eat sushi is actually to place a small amount of wasabi on top of the raw protein slice before dipping the other side of it into soy sauce. This is because wasabi is an expensive and difficult plant to grow.
More than 95% of the wasabi served at sushi restaurants does not contain any real wasabi. Most fake wasabi is made from a mixture of horseradish, mustard flour, cornstarch, and green food coloring.
Real wasabi paste is made by grating the wasabi rhizome. Fresh wasabi tastes best when freshly grated and has a pungent yet delicate taste that begins to break down within minutes. It is usually used to bring out the flavor of fish, which is why wasabi must be used skillfully and correctly to really bring out its flavour. Likewise, if you’re eating nigiri, the sushi chef will usually already include a small amount of wasabi inside the rice-covered bottom of the fish.
To eat it, turn it over slightly and dip the side of the fish in soy sauce, rather than drenching the rice in soy sauce.
Besides chopsticks, you can also eat sushi with your hands, as that was the original way of eating sushi. Sushi is traditionally prepared with bare hands, and good chefs rely on the sense of touch to gauge the quality of the meat they’re cutting and shaping to get the right bites. Well-trained sushi chefs adhere to strict rules of cleanliness and hygiene during their work, so good sushi is made with perfect care and attention and has (literally) a human touch.
Ideally, you should eat sushi made with lighter white fish first and then work your way up to rich, fatty fish. If you start with the stronger tasting or fatty layer first, it can be hard to savor the bland flavors afterwards. And if you see pickled ginger in Japanese restaurants, they are really there to help you bypass the burn of wasabi and clear up your taste buds by removing the lingering flavor of the last sushi roll to prepare you for the next dish.
Even after all this, you can still find sushi sold as casual food on the street or even in grocery stores. The truth is, it’s perfectly fine to eat sushi just the way you want it, as long as you savor all of the delicious ingredients. But if you’re looking to up your sushi game, try omakase at a formal Japanese restaurant.
Omakase is a Japanese phrase used when ordering food in restaurants, where guests let themselves be in the hands of a chef. The sushi served is usually seasonal, elegant, and artistic. Eating omakase means being face to face with the chef, and the chef will serve you one sushi at a time. Although it can be pricey, if you are looking to explore and try new things, omakase is a great option!