What is sushi?
The representative food of Japanese cuisine
Sushi is a representative Japanese dish that is eaten worldwide. Although there are various types of sushi, such as oshi-zushi (lightly pressed pieces of sushi topped with cooked ingredients) and maki-zushi (sushi rolls), the most famous sushi type is nigiri-zushi (hand-rolled sushi). It is a bite-size food where fish fillets about 7-10cm in length called neta are placed on a handful of shari, rice sprinkled with vinegar. It is often eaten with soy sauce and a hot condiment called wasabi. There are about 100 different types of neta, such as tuna, salmon and squid. In particular, the section of tuna which is called otoro (tuna belly) has a tenderness that seems to melt the instant you put it into your mouth. Therefore, it is known as a high-end neta among Japanese people. Furthermore, high season for seafood varies by region and season. Furthermore, it is said that the taste of sushi is greatly influenced by the freshness of the neta. Because of this, it is generally perceived that sushi that uses fresh seafood that has just been caught, rather than frozen seafood, is more delicious. Therefore, the areas near famous fishing ports and fish markets are bustling with sushi restaurants. Tokyo has the famous Tsukiji Market, with many different types of sushi restaurants located in its surroundings, ranging from inexpensive conveyor-sushi places to expensive high-class restaurants. Many customers, from tourists to office workers, crowd this area during lunchtime. In particular, a restaurant called Sushi Dai is so popular that customers have to queue up to two hours even in the morning. The fresh neta and shari that the expert chefs prepare are exquisite.
Sushi first started as a fermented food
Sushi’s roots can be traced back to around 700 - 800, and is said to have been introduced from Southeast Asia to China before reaching Japan. According to Japanese literature, the word ‘sushi’ is used for the first time in a historical material called Yororyo that came out in 718. However, sushi at the time was called “narezushi” and it was a preserved food made by fermenting seafood and rice in salt for a long period of time. It was a food item that had a completely different taste and shape to the current nigiri-zushi. As a side note, funa (crucion carp) zushi eaten in Shiga prefecture is said to be the oldest narezushi in Japan that still exists.
Raw fish began to be used from around 1820. This style was invented by a chef called Hanaya Yohei in Tokyo during a period referred to as the Edo period (1603-1868). Although sushi is currently known as a very luxurious food to Japanese people, at the time it was sold from food carts and was a cheap and quick food for commoners. The reason why most sushi restaurants do not have a kitchen and chefs come face to face with customers over the counter is a remnant of this period. Nigiri-zushi was sold mainly in Tokyo, and then was passed on to the rest of Japan with the development of modern facilities, such as refrigerators. In 1958, a semi-self-serve type restaurant called kaiten-zushi made an appearance, where customers can freely take sushi placed on a rotating conveyor belt. Since sushi could be eaten at a cheaper price than sushi restaurants where customers are served at the counter, kaiten-zushi was widely accepted by the general public. Nowadays, such restaurants exist all around Japan. Furthermore, when sushi was introduced as a healthy, low fat, low-cholesterol food in the United States in 1977, sushi bars started to open in the United States one after another. Sushi became a huge hit in the United States, made popular by sushi made with avocado and the Californian roll made with cheese and mayonnaise. Thus, sushi came to be known as a Japanese food eaten internationally.
Many years of experience are needed before a sushi chef is allowed to hold a knife.
There is a saying among sushi chefs since the old days that goes, “three years of being a beginner, becoming the right-hand man in the fifth year, and departing in the seventh year.” This means that the first three years of training to become a sushi chef begin with such duties as washing dishes and pouring tea. In the fifth year, a trainee is finally allowed to hold a knife and in the seventh year, the trainee finally becomes a full-fledged sushi chef. Although it may seem like a dish that is easy to prepare, sushi chefs in Japan are not allowed even to press sushi if they don’t first go through long, arduous training. Because it is a simple dish, detailed care and techniques are required. One example of this is the cutting methods of fish. Fish generally referred to as red-fleshed fish, such as tuna, is cut from the right, and white fish, such as sea bream, is cut from the left. Furthermore, in order to not lose any savoriness, fish is swiftly chopped off in bite-size pieces without hurting the fibers. The flavor deteriorates if the fibers are cut even slightly at this point. In addition, refined high-level techniques are also necessary when pressing sushi. Methods such as maintaining the hands at a high temperature to make the sushi glisten and moderating how much the fish fillet and the rice come into contact are something a machine cannot imitate at all. It has been reported that in Sukibayashi Jiro in Ginza, Tokyo, which has been awarded three stars by Michelin for six consecutive years, the degree in which the sushi is pressed is moderated according to the hardness of the fish meat. Delicious sushi cannot be made without many years of experience.
There are many sushi types that aren’t pressed or rolled.
Due to large temperature differences between regions in Japan, the crops that can be harvested and the seafood that can be caught differ greatly from region to region. Therefore, there are various types of sushi dishes across Japan. Each region has made developments unique to the region; seafood was used in sushi in regions by the sea while mountain vegetables were used in mountain regions. Such sushi is commonly known as “kyodo (local) zushi”.
In Kansai region such as Kyoto and Osaka, oshi-zushi is a traditional type of sushi. Oshi-zushi is made by putting vinegared rice in a box with ingredients, such as salted mackerel, put on the top. It is then pressed using an inner lid. This type of sushi has a stronger acidic taste than nigiri-zushi and one can taste flavors such as kombu dashi.
There is also thick maki-zushi, which is always available during festivals in Chiba, located adjacent to Tokyo. Spinach, carrots and Japanese pickles are added to vinegared rice, which is then rolled using nori (dried seaweed) or tamago-yaki (rolled omelet). Thereafter, when the cylindrical sushi is cut using a knife, beautiful patterns can be seen on the cut ends, such as cherry blossoms and people’s faces. Since no raw fish is used at all, this is sushi that foreigners can eat easily. There are many other sushi types, such as Tago-zushi from Shizuoka where rice is sandwiched with sea bream or abalone. There are also kaki-no-ha-zushi, in which sushi is wrapped with kaki leaves, and bara zushi, in which many ingredients are chopped up into small pieces and added on top. Unlike nigiri-zushi that was mainly developed for food carts, most of kyodo zushi has been eaten as a household food. Although such kyodo zushi dishes can be enjoyed all across Japan, if you would like to know the authentic taste, you could visit different regions and taste different sushi dishes of the regions.
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- As popular as sushi, sukiyaki is also a dish eaten when there is a cause for celebration.
- Just like sushi, tempura is also a representative of Japanese cuisine.
- The topping thought to be good on sushi, may in fact taste different when eaten as sashimi. The comparisons may be interesting once you try them.