It’s hard to imagine the American culinary landscape without sushi. A staple in Japan for centuries, sushi was introduced to mainstream America in the 1950s and since then has found a voracious appetite in the West, with many American-menu favorites developed here as the dish adapted to regional tastes.
At its core, sushi is cooked vinegar rice, sushi-meshi, combined with seafood, vegetables and tropical fruits. Rice is the foundation of sushi. Traditionally made with short-grain white rice (brown rice sushi is becoming more popular in the States), sushi-meshi is made with a seasoned mix of rice vinegar, salt and sugar (awase-zu). Chefs then either roll—maki—the rice with seaweed and seafood or form small mounds and drape with a seafood topping—nigri.
Here are the basics of sushi to make your next visit to the restaurant more enjoyable.
- Sushi-meshi—sushi rice.
- Awase-zu—the rice vinegar, salt and sugar mixture used to make sushi-meshi. This is a catch-all phrase for vinegar sauce, meaning combined vinegar.
- Nori—dried seaweed used in makizushi.
- Neta—seafood topping or filling.
- Aburi refers to nigri sushi, where the topside of the fish is grilled and the bottom side is raw.
Know the Names
For those new to sushi, a little a background info will go a long way.
Maki, meaning “roll” in Japanese, is the root for what most commonly refer to as a sushi roll. In America, the four most common maki-style rolls are:
|Hosomaki is sushi rolled up using a bamboo mat with nori on the outside and, along with rice, usually containing one filling, such as tuna, crab, cucumber, thinly sliced carrots or avocado. The bamboo mat allows for hosomaki to be relatively tight, generally one-inch in diameter and cut into six to eight pieces.
Futomaki builds on the hosomaki tradition by adding additional fillings to the mix. Cointaining two or more ingredients of raw vegetables and cooked or raw fish, futomaki is about two inches in diameter, with nori making up the exterior layer. These are then sliced into six to eight pieces when served.
Uramaki is one of the more popular rolls in the United States and is actually derived here for many consumers’ dislike of nori on the exterior of the roll. Like futomaki, uramaki contains two or more fillings of raw or cooked fish and vegetables, but the roll appears inside out, with the nori on the inside and rice making up the exterior. The ever-popular California roll falls under this category.
Temaki is a conical, hand-rolled nori presentation stuffed with rice and fillings. Temaki is best eaten immediately after construction because as the nori absorbs moisture from the fillings, it loses it crispness and becomes difficult to bite through.
|Nigri is a hand-formed sushi using a mound of rice pressed into a rectangle by the chef’s palms and topped with neta (common toppings include salmon, tuna and shrimp). More often then not, nigrizushi (pictured below, center) does not include nori unless using certain toppings like octopus, eel and squid, which are bound to the rice by a thin strip of seaweed. Typically, the chef adds a dab of wasabi between the layers of neta and rice and is primarily eaten with the fingers. When dipping in soy sauce, do so fish-side down, and do not mix the wasabi and soy sauce, which is frowned upon in Japanese dining etiquette.
|A cross between nigri and maki, gunamaki (picture above, left-most and right most) is a clump of rice (nigri-style) wrapped with a wide band of nori, which acts like a small fence. The rice is draped with neta and then topped with loose toppings, most often roe or occasionally uni (sea urchin).
Sashimi is technically not sushi but often finds itself on the menu along with nigri and maki. Consisting of sliced raw fish served without rice, shashimi is a chopsticks-only dining style.
How to Eat
When eating sushi, don’t be afraid to use your hands. Nigri is traditionally eaten with your fingers. If using soy sauce, dip fish-side down. If it is too difficult to invert the sushi, baste the soy sauce on the topping using the ginger.
Rolled sushi, makizushi, is also primarily a finger-food, though if it is a sauced roll, chopsticks are acceptable. Proper sushi etiquette would have diners using their fingers, so if the chef—itamae—is especially attentive and traditionally trained, use your hands.
Sashimi is always eaten with chopsticks.
If you are feeling brave and are up for just about any ingredient, let the chef, itamae, help you with your choice. Called omakase, this essentially allows chefs to choose what they think is particularly good that day and serve you until you are finished. If you have an aversion to a certain fish or style, it is best to avoid this dining option.
When it comes to sushi, there are three additions that usually accompany the plate: wasabi, soy sauce (shoyu) and pickled ginger (gari).
Wasabi does not necessarily need to be added to everything, especially nigiri, which is usually already seasoned. And unless you are dining on sashimi—thinly sliced fish without rice—it is not custom to mix wasabi and soy sauce.
Pickled ginger is primarily used as a palate cleanser between bites. It can also be used as a means to add soy sauce to the roll by simply brushing it with chopsticks.
If you’re making maki-style sushi, you’ll need at bamboo rolling mat. These are available almost anywhere and are essential to make a tightly bonded roll. For harder-to-find items, head to a specialty market like Food Town in West Palm Beach or Saigon Oriental Food Market in Lake Park (561-863-6467), both have a sizeable selection of cookware and groceries.
Also, when sourcing seafood, head to a reputable market. Almost all seafood coming from outside of the United States has been frozen—it’s the law—but that’s not a bad thing, as this kills parasites and allows for easier transport. Most fish set for transport to be used in sushi has been flash-frozen as soon as it hits the dock. This ensures the quality and integrity of the fish while keeping it safe to consume thousands of miles away from market. Cod & Capers in North Palm has a great selection, as does Old Dixie Seafood in Boca Raton, while Whole Foods Market will work in a pinch.
Here’s a handy list of some of the most popular seafood fillings/toppings.
- Maguro and Shiro-Maguro—tuna
- Tai—red snapper
- Noro—chopped tuna
- Unagi and Anago—eel (always cooked)
- Kamaboko or Surimi—imitation crab meat (always cooked)
- Ama Ebi—sweet shrimp
- Hotategai—scallop (seared)
- Uni—sea urchin
- Takuan—pickled daikon radish
- Tsukemono—pickled vegetables
- Natto—fermented soybeans
- Tamagoyaki—layered omelet