No other food is quintessentially more Japanese than sushi. It is an art form, as well as food. Ole G. Mouritsen, in his book, Sushi: Food for the eye, the body, and the soul, writes: “Sushi is a food that nourishes the body, enriches the brain, and is a delight for the eye.” There’s almost a Zen-like quality about sushi, displayed in the precision knife skills that slice each piece of fish to the perfect cut. This sushi guide tells the story of sushi from its unlikely origins to the iterations the world has fallen in love with.
The origin and evolution of sushi
The story of sushi begins somewhere between the 5th and 3rd Century BC, along the Mekong River, in what is now landlocked southern China, Laos, and northern Thailand. During the monsoon season, the river would flood into the rice paddies, and freshwater fish (especially carp) would be collected in the rice fields. As a result, the farmers were raising fish in the paddies along with the rice. But the supply of fish was limited to the rainy season, and the fish had to be harvested before the paddies dried up. They were looking for a way to store fish for later consumption. Packing the fish with salt was one method, but large amounts of salt were hard to come by.
They invented a second way to keep fish edible by packing the fish with rice. Fish was stored for months with the rice. A fermentation process took place due to lactic acid produced by the rice that preserved the fish. The rice, however, became gloopy and was discarded; only the fish was eaten. The fish remained intact and edible. This was the prototype of modern sushi and was known as nare-zushi. It arrived in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, sometime in the 8th Century.
By the 15th and 16th Centuries, Japanese people were eating a less fermented version of nare-zushi called namanare-zushi (semi-fermented sushi) or nama-zushi (raw fish). Fish was only fermented for days and was eaten with the rice used for fermentation. They discovered that the inside of the fish remained relatively fresh, and the rice was still edible and tasty at the earlier stage. At the start of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867) production of rice vinegar grew rapidly. Around the 17th Century, the closest version to modern-day sushi, haya-zushi (fast sushi), made its first appearance, where the fermentation process was accelerated by adding vinegar to the rice, replacing lactic acid with acetic acid.
Instead of packing fish in the rice to ferment it in lactic acid, sushi-makers now splashed vinegar on the rice. A similar taste was achieved instantly with the acetic acid in the vinegar. The purpose of the rice in sushi was completely reversed. The new sushi, fresh instead of preserved, became haya-zushi (quick sushi).
The fermentation period was further shortened to a few hours with the introduction of hako-zushi (pressed sushi) in the 18th Century. Fish and vinegared rice were pressed down in a wooden box for a few hours. The original nigiri-zushi (hand-formed sushi) was developed in Edo, modern-day Tokyo, in the 19th Century. As fresh fish supplies were becoming abundant, sushi quickly became a popular staple. Instead of fermentation, a slice of raw fish was served on a vinegared rice ball. Hanaya Yohei, a restaurant owner, is credited with improving the nigiri style in the 1820s. He shaped the rice in his hands to an oval shape, and a piece of raw fish was draped over it. Makizushi, a roll of vinegared rice stuffed with fish and wrapped in a sheet of seaweed, seems to predate nigiri-zushi and was available by the mid-1700s or earlier.
Sushi’s widespread popularity in the United States began in the mid-1960s. By the 1970s, California had established the Western sushi culture. The popularisation of sushi in the US is attributable to the development of the California Roll, an inside out sushi roll made without raw fish. It swapped out king crab for fatty tuna and used avocado and cucumber for the stuffing. Mayo, sesame seeds, and imitation crab would come later. The first Japanese restaurant in the UK was opened in 1967.
What is sushi?
The word sushi means sour or vinegared, a reference to the flavouring produced by vinegar in the rice. Rice is integral to sushi. Without the rice, the raw fish is called sashimi. There are several different varieties of sushi. Nigiri is perhaps the most iconic of all sushi types; the small oblong of vinegared rice topped with a sliver of raw fish is the simplest yet the most sophisticated form of sushi. Less-traditional varieties of nigiri sushi are topped with cooked fish, seafood, vegetables, or other ingredients. Maki rolls are made with sushi rice and any number of fillings wrapped in seaweed. Once sliced, they reveal the ingredients inside in rather a pleasing design. Uramaki is a type of maki roll with the rice on the outside of the seaweed, and temaki is a hand-rolled seaweed cone filled with sushi rice and other ingredients.
What are the ingredients?
While the ingredients can vary according to different types of sushi, the fundamental ingredients of traditional Japanese sushi include vinegar, rice, and the freshest raw fish. The rice is flavoured with rice vinegar, the most-used vinegar type in sushi. Salt and sugar are also used to season sushi rice to achieve the signature flavour used by each sushi maker or restaurant. Using reduced amounts of salt and sugar in vinegared rice is a healthier option.
A variety of nigiri toppings are used in fusion and contemporary sushi menus. These include cooked fish, prawns, scallops, & other seafood, avocado, tofu, rolled omelette (tamagoyaki), mushroom, fish roe, and plenty more. Sometimes the topping is bound to the rice with a thin strip of nori seaweed.
Maki sushi can have countless varieties of ingredients and combinations. Some of these include raw or cooked fish, cooked shellfish, vegetables, fruit, egg, and even chicken. Sushi is traditionally dipped in soy sauce for flavouring.
Types of seafood found in sushi
Salmon is a good choice. It is more sustainable than tuna, which is one of the most common choices for sushi. Salmon contains a good amount of omega-3 fats and a significant amount of vitamin D, essential for calcium absorption. Mackerel, sardine, greater amberjack, halibut, escolar, monkfish, sea urchin, unagi (freshwater eel), shrimp, clam, scallop, squid, octopus, trout, snapper, sea bass, and more types of fish are used in sushi. All fish should be sashimi-grade, which means it is quality controlled and safe to eat raw.
Vegan and vegetarian alternatives to seafood
Steamed, pickled, or fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, tofu, imitation crab, mushroom, seaweed, tofu, and eggs can replace seafood in sushi.
Different types of sushi
The world of sushi is much more colourful, beautiful, and diverse than you previously thought.
It is the most minimalist of all sushi, yet the most recognised the world over. Nigiri is made with cold rice dressed with rice vinegar, hand-pressed into shape, and topped with raw or cooked seafood, vegetables, egg, or other ingredients. Nigiri is also known as Edomae sushi. Edo refers to the ancient name given to what is now Tokyo. Freshly-caught fish from the Tokyo Bay area were used to make local sushi called Edomae-zushi. It is now a name synonymous with high-quality sushi. Nigiri is usually picked up by thumb and middle finger and dipped lightly in soy sauce, fish side down, and eaten in one bite.
You have never probably heard of this one because it is local, rustic, and hardly ever served outside of Japan. It is from Niigata and Nagano prefectures and is mostly prepared with wild vegetables local to the region and presented on a bed of sushi rice with a bamboo leaf for a plate.
It is the archetype of sushi. Fish were preserved in rice and, in the process, fermented in lactic acid from the rice. The gooey rice was cleaned off the fish and thrown away. Only the fish was eaten. Funazushi is an iteration of the earliest style of sushi, which was aged for longer than narezushi (about three years). Both narezushi and funazushi are still made in Japan and eaten as a delicacy.
Also called battleship sushi, it is hand-formed, oval-shaped sushi wrapped in nori seaweed. Traditionally, it is topped with fish roe, but wakame, finely chopped tuna, and sea urchin gonads are also used as toppings. Typically, soft toppings are spooned onto the oblong-shaped rice with seaweed wrapped around it.
Chirashizushi means “scattered sushi” and has two main variations: vinegared rice topped with main ingredients and main ingredients mixed with vinegared rice. Often the dish comprises a bed of vinegared rice, topped with sashimi slices, vegetables, and shredded egg crepe. It is typically served in a bowl, wooden box, or on a plate. Due to its colourful appearance and relatively easy prep involved, the dish is also served on special occasions as party food.
Temari means handball, and the vinegared rice is shaped like a handball. It is a type of nigiri sushi with a decorative top. Toppings include salmon, cucumber, shrimp, avocado, sea bream, tofu skin, pickled radish, shiitake, egg sheet, lotus root, and many more ingredients of your choice. These have more ornamental toppings than other sushi types, and ingredients are finely sliced to retain the ball shape. It is served with soy sauce on the side for dipping.
The name comes from the Shinto god of agriculture, Inari. It is made with vinegared rice tucked inside little deep-fried tofu pockets. They are vegetarian and vegan-friendly. The deep-fried tofu pockets (aburaage/inari age) are simmered in dashi-based broth seasoned with mirin, sugar, and soy sauce. Excess liquid is squeezed out before filling the pouches with sushi rice. Sometimes, sesame seeds are added to the rice for nuttiness. It can be served with the pouch closed or open with edges tucked in, and different types of toppings can be used on the rice as well.
Oshizushi or ‘pressed sushi’ is layered sushi rice and toppings placed in a mould and pressed together by weight to form a tightly-stacked sushi. Once, out of the mould, it almost looks like a sushi cake. It is then sliced into pieces. The mould gets submerged in water to stop the ingredients from sticking. Cured/fermented fish is a typical topping, but various other ingredients are used too.
Commonly known as a sushi roll outside of Japan, makizushi or maki rolls are sushi rolled in nori sheets. Maki means ‘to roll.’ They are also called norimaki. The hand-rolled sushi consists of a sheet of nori, then a layer of vinegared rice with fillings in the middle, such as fish, vegetables, and fruit. The roll is sliced into bite-size pieces, which reveal the fillings inside.
Temaki is hand-rolled into a cone shape. It is eaten quickly to stop the warm rice from softening the nori sheet. The conical temaki can hold a larger number of fillings due to its shape. They are also called hand rolls as they are eaten without slicing and the need for chopsticks.
Uramaki is an inside out maki roll with the rice on the outside and nori wrapped around the filling. It is a Californian invention, the same technique used for the California roll. The Dragon roll is another uramaki-type sushi roll that represents the colours and scales of a dragon. Eel, crab, and cucumber are used as fillings, as well as shrimp tempura. The sushi rice is topped with avocado, black sesame seeds, and unagi sauce or wasabi.
Accompanying dishes and beverages
Eating sushi is not complete without soy sauce. It is served on the side in sushi dining as a dipping sauce. The intense umami flavour of soy sauce enhances the natural flavour of fish. Light dipping rather than dunking is encouraged to ensure sushi’s fine balance of salty, sweet, & sour tastes is not depreciated.
Known to contain millions of probiotics that improve gut health and a range of nutrients from iron to zinc, miso soup is a protein-rich staple in Japanese cuisine and is often served with sushi. Having a bowl of miso soup after a sushi meal can aid better digestion. Authentic miso soup is a clear-broth soup that includes wakame and tofu. It is full of antioxidants, low in calories, and nutrient-rich.
Edamame is young soybeans that are buttery in taste and nutty in texture. Steamed edamame preserves its delicate sweetness and is a nutrient-rich appetiser or a side. They contain a high amount of vitamin K1 and folate and are protein-rich. These come in their pods, and you can scrape the beans out with your teeth.
When ordering a side dish for sushi at sushi restaurants, don’t forget gyoza, Japanese dumplings. Steamed gyoza are a delight to have with sushi and will make a satisfying meal that doesn’t leave you feeling too heavy.
Salads complement the freshness of sushi and bring a gamut of texture and flavour to your sushi meal. It will also fill you up without too many calories.
Green tea, ginger ale, and kombucha make good pairings with sushi.
How is sushi eaten?
Chopsticks are for picking up sushi and dipping it in soy sauce, but not for nigiri. Nigiri sushi should be picked up with your fingers (thumb and middle finger) and dipped in soy sauce fish-side down. The rice is less compact in nigiri than in maki rolls and picking it up with chopsticks can scatter the rice. Only dip the tip side, making sure not to drown the sushi with sauce. Dipping rice side down will soak up too much sauce, and the rice could disintegrate. Maki rolls should be dipped on their seaweed side. Dipping the rice side will soak up too much salt from soy sauce.
It is considered impolite to rub chopsticks together. This method is used to get rid of splinters on low-quality wooden chopsticks, and many restaurants now have better-quality chopsticks.