Sushi 101

the number one fish dish

It may be the country’s most successful culinary export in terms of fame, but sushi is, despite the hype, rarely done well as it ought to be outside its homeland. Corners are cut in terms of the neta base ingredients themselves, rice authenticity - you need the Japanese grainsshoyu quality, skill in preparation, and freshness.

Ika sushi nigirizushiAnd somehow the great Edomae Tokyo sushi chefs mostly resist the lure of big bucks and temperate climates, in favour of cramped grubby apartments with a sort-of view of the Sumida River. If you want to sample the finest sushi in the world, there's only one solution: get yourself to Japan. 

For the record, sushi is not raw fish. It refers to anything served on, or within, vinegared rice. The most likely ingredients are fish or shellfish mostly raw, but not exclusively so. Raw vegetables, Hamo Pike Conger, or cooked egg are also ingredients used in sushi dishes.

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History of Sushi and the success behind 

There are differing views on sushi’s origins. Some say it came from South East Asia, others say it came from China. Either way, it was, essentially, a pickling technique, where fish was salted and encased in rice and left to mature some would infer ‘rot’ for up to a year.

This ancient sushi is termed narezushi, and the technique for making it is recorded as reaching Japan in the mid-Heian period. It remains the basis for such dishes as Shiga Prefecture’s extremely powerful – some say revoltingly stinky -funazushi carp sushi. It is still produced in the villages around Lake Biwa.

However, sushi as we know it today – as nigirizushi -originated in the early 19th century sushiville itself: Edo, later named Tokyo. It quickly achieved huge success as a kind of proto-fast food to satisfy the appetites of the city’s workers – 75% male, and not au fait with the Edo period kitchen – and the city’s large samurai contingent. It was cheap, tasty, and could be eaten at speed, standing up, qualities that explain why certain rarified elements of Japanese society – yes, Kyoto, we are looking at you – have never been able to embrace nigirizushi fully over the more refined Kyo-zushi and sashimi.

Contemporary sushi falls into four broad categories

  • nigarizushi 'hand-pressed sushi'
  • makizushi 'rolled sushi'
  • chirashizushi ‘scattered sushi’
  • oshizushi ‘pushed sushi’, 
Sushi not sure variety1)Nigirizushi

Nigirizushi, where toppings are pressed onto rice dabbed with wasabi, originated in Tokyo. Typically it is placed directly on the white wooden counter, accompanied by gari pickled, pinkish-red ginger, whereupon you dip it in shoyu, the classic way to eat sushi. It is generally the most elegant, visually appealing, and expensive part of a sushi menu, and the one you order first. Toppings such as toro fatty tuna, ika raw squid and tako octopus; shrimp raw as amaebi sweet shrimp, or cooked; ikura salmon roe, surrounded by nori seaweed or tamagomaki sliced egg-omelette are common favorites.

Luxuries include anago conger-eel brushed over with teriyaki sauce, an exquisite crunchy-soft combination; uni sea urchin, and the sake-lover’s favorite accompaniment, kanimiso, that is, er, crab reproductive organs. The latter loses something in translation, but it is really rather magnificent. Imagine a kind of dark olive-green caviar-without-the-crunch, tinged with the scent of a diver’s antique respirator. Just try it,

Makizushi, the familiar nori-wrapped torpedo or triangular cornet-shaped concoction, is always the sushi shop’s cheaper-end offering, but price shouldn’t necessarily be equated with quality. Shiso umemaki sour plum with beefsteak leaf is just fabulous, while kappamaki with cucumber is equally humble and delicious. Makizushi is rolled in the makisu, a bamboo mat. It is eaten, facing a propitious direction, at the Setsubun demon-exorcising festival in February.

Chirashizushi, sometimes called barazushi, is traditionally eaten at celebrations. Vinegared rice is topped with shiitake mushrooms marinated in shoyu, sliced omelette, beni shoga red pickled ginger, and other ingredients designed to be especially pleasing to the eye.

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Oshizushi is sushi pressed into a wooden mould, then sliced. It’s best known form is the Osaka favorite batterazushi, a strong, deliberately ‘fishy’ mackerel dish. Kyoto has its own favoured mackerel sushi, known as sabazushi. It is created using a makisu, and the process of kobumaki where the fish is wrapped in kelp that has been simmered in mirin, and cured before serving.

kaitenzushiSushi on conveyor belt, 'kaitenzushi'

Kaitenzushi is the massively popular, inexpensive 'conveyor belt' sushi that corporate chains have set up through Japan. Massively popular with foreign tourists. What can one say? Decent, occasionally good, great bang for your sushi buck.

But... you've come all this way. Isn't it worth going the extra yard or two to get the good stuff? In case you think I am being uneccessarily snooty,  I used to be in a band with a Japanese guy who worked in one of the earliest kaitenzushi places. His job was to sit in a back room, unobserved, and paint the toro maguro red with artificial coloring. Caveat emptor.

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