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What is Sushi?

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If you were to ask experts on Japanese society and culture what aspect of present-day Japan has been most successfully exported out to the rest of the world, there is a good chance that their response will be ‘sushi’. Since it was introduced to Japan thousands of years ago as a rice-fermented fish dish, sushi has evolved, adapted, and diversified with the times to encompass a wide range of dishes made using vinegar-seasoned Japanese rice. Whether eaten from a takeaway bento box bought at a local convenience store with little ginger and soy sauce sachets included, or prepared and served by the leading experts in making sushi, one small dish at a time, sushi is an entirely unique and enigmatic delicacy that fascinates Japan and the rest of the world alike.

Although sushi comes in a range of different formats, there are some types of sushi that are more well-known than others. These include makizushi or maki sushi (rice and different fillings wrapped up in nori seaweed), nigirizushi or nigiri sushi (bite-size pieces of rice with thin slices of fish, seafood, or egg laid over the top), oshizushi (layers of rice and different toppings pressed together with the aid of an oshibako, or sushi press), inarizushi (sushi rice stuffed into pockets of fried tofu) and chirashizushi or chirashi sushi (different toppings scattered over bowls of seasoned rice). While the ingredients used to make sushi can vary extensively, it is almost guaranteed that some key ingredients will always be involved in your sushi meal, including sushi rice, nori seaweed, sliced seafood, wasabi paste, gari sushi ginger, and soy sauce.

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As the Western world has become more familiar with sushi, there has also come an increased interest in learning how to make homemade sushi. If you have come across this Sushi Guide with an eye for finding out how to make sushi rolls with the best of them, consider yourself in luck. Japancentre.com has everything you could possibly need to make your own sushi, including cookbooks filled with Japanese sushi recipes; online advice for how to make sushi rice; a wide range of sushi ingredients, sushi fillings, takeaway sachets and more; and sushi making kits which enable all sushi makers to purchase everything they need in one convenient package. Be sure to explore japancentre.com for all of your sushi-based essentials.

To find out more about the wide world of sushi, click through the other tabs in this Sushi Guide.

Sushi: Then and Now

History/Background

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The first recorded variety of sushi was quite different from sushi as it is known today. Known as narezushi, this dish was a type of gutted and salted fish that was wrapped in cooked rice and left for several months while the rice fermented and the fish pickled. The rice was then cleaned off and discarded and the fish was eaten. This dish was invented in Southeast Asia in around the 4th Century BC, and had made its way to Japan by the 7th or 8th Century AD. During the Muromachi period (15th Century) cooked rice started to be added to the inside of the gutted fish and allowed to ferment for about one month for partially pickled fish and rice with a delightful ‘sour’ taste that could also be eaten. By the mid-1700s rice vinegar had been invented and was starting to be used to give rice its sour flavour instantly, rather than needing to rely on the time-consuming fermentation process. The first modern-day varieties of sushi came into existence at around this time, including oshizushi and makizushi.

In 1824, Hanaya Yohei set up a sushi street stall in Edo (now Tokyo) and started to sell the first nigiri sushi, which took Edo by storm. In the wake of the Kanto earthquake of 1923, many nigiri sushi chefs scattered around the rest of Japan and sold their wares wherever they relocated, thus spreading sushi’s popularity throughout the nation. By the 1950’s sushi was almost always served in restaurants, and this change from street vendor food to interior, restaurant cuisine allowed for sushi to start to be viewed and treated as its own delicacy. When refrigeration technology advancements enabled fish produce to be transported across long distances, sushi was able to grow into a huge network of distributors and suppliers with the capability and resources to start taking sushi to America and the rest of the world.

How to Enjoy Sushi

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These days the best sushi is prepared in special sushi bars by qualified sushi chefs with years of specialised training. Customers normally sit at the bar in front of the itamae (the head sushi chef) and order either a set combination, or they leave it to the itamae to provide the day’s best produce. The itamae will then prepare the sushi in the order it should be eaten, and serve it on a special wooden serving board called a geta. Customers will be served one or two pieces of each type of sushi, which can be eaten with either chopsticks or hands. The sushi should be turned around so the fish side is down, one corner of the fish should be dipped lightly in soy sauce if desired, and then the whole piece should be consumed in one bite. After one type of sushi is eaten, the customer should take a small bite of gari, or sushi ginger, to cleanse the palate, before moving on to the next type of sushi. As a general rule of thumb, the lighter flavoured sushi should be eaten first, while the heavier, fattier sushi should be eaten just before the sweet tamagoyaki (egg) sushi, which serves as a dessert and meal-ender.

While going to a sushi bar is the most ‘proper’ way to enjoy sushi, it is also the most expensive. As such, most Japanese people hunting for an everyday sushi fix look toward less pricey options, including kaitenzushi restaurants (where the sushi travels along a restaurant-wide conveyor belt on colour-coded plates that indicate how much each dish will cost); convenience stores; supermarkets, where sushi comes in bento boxes (complete with separate sachet bags of gari, wasabi, and soy sauce); and, last but not least, at home, where Japanese cooking enthusiasts will get out their sushi kits and make their own delicacies. There is no doubt that the Japanese love their sushi, and that love only seems to grow as time goes on and more of the world is converted.

Sushi Types

With the sheer number of different shapes, fillings, and flavours of sushi out there, it could be fair to say that there are at least as many varieties of sushi out there as there are sushi makers. However, most sushi can be segmented according to the basic procedure used to make it. Read on to find out more about each of the main sushi types.

Makizushi, or Maki Sushi Rolls

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If you have ever eaten sushi in London, been in the market for a sushi rolling mat, or bought one of japancentre.com’s sushi starter kits, makizushi is already familiar to you. With a name literally meaning ‘rolled sushi’, makizushi are long rolls of sushi rice with various meat, protein, and vegetable fillings on the inside, and a sheet of nori seaweed on the outside (although sometimes other edible outer layers are used instead of nori). The five classic types of makizushi are hosomaki (thin rolls, normally with one filling), chumaki (medium-sized rolls), futomaki (thick rolls, normally with many fillings), uramaki (where the rice is the outermost layer and the nori lies between the rice and the central fillings), and temaki (a cone-shaped makizushi that can easily be rolled using one’s hands instead of a sushi mat).

Nigirizushi

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This is the other main variety of sushi available in most takeaway sushi variety sets, and it is the most popular sushi in Japan. ‘Nigiri’ means ‘hand-pressed’, and this sushi is comprised of a bite-sized rectangle of rice with a dab of wasabi and a slice of neta, or nigiri topping, draped on top. Common types of neta include salmon, tuna, eel, squid, and tamagoyaki; a sweet Japanese omelette.

Oshizushi, or Hakosushi

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Meaning ‘pressed sushi’ or ‘box sushi’, oshizushi is made with a wooden sushi mould, known as an oshibako. To make it, the oshibako is filled with layers of sushi rice, toppings, and condiments. The lid of the oshibako is used to press the ingredients down in between each layer. After the final pressing, the formed oshizushi is cut into slices and served. Oshizushi is one of the lesser-known varieties of sushi, but it is eye-catching, delicious, and relatively easy to prepare if you are just starting to make your own sushi.

Inarizushi

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Unlike other varieties of sushi, which can be altered using a wide range of different toppings or fillings, inarizushi has little room for variation. Made by filling a pouch of fried, seasoned tofu (known as abura age in Japanese) with sushi rice, this simple sushi has a delightfully sweet and umami-rich flavour. Already immensely popular in Japan, inarizushi is also making itself known around the rest of the world. It is particularly popular as a vegetarian sushi, as the ingredients used to make it are usually vegan-friendly.

Chirashizushi

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Meaning ‘scattered sushi’, chirashizushi looks more like a donburi (one-bowl meal) than a sushi dish. It is sushi rice served in a bowl and topped with different meats, proteins, and/or vegetables; the most popular of which being abura age, tamagoyaki, carrots, beans, and fish cakes. Chirashizushi is often eaten in Japan during the Doll’s Festival, which, given how pretty chirashizushi looks in its bowl, is not surprising.

Important Sushi Ingredients

Although some sushi traditionalists might disagree, sushi can theoretically be made using any type of meat, protein, pulses, or vegetables. However, there are some ingredients for sushi that are always, or almost always, essential for a proper sushi meal. Read below to find out more about each of them.

Sushi Rice

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Rice is the most essential ingredient in sushi. If you try sushi rice on its own, you will notice that it has a slightly sweet/salty/sour flavour. This flavour is achieved by adding a combination of rice vinegar, sugar, and salt to a large bowl of rice (serious practitioners will use a special type of bowl called a sushi oke) and stirring through until every grain of rice is covered. As well as adding extra seasoning to sushi, the still relatively neutral flavour of the rice acts as a nice counterpoint for the different, often intense toppings and fillings.

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Nori Seaweed

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Used mainly for makizushi, nori are flattened sheets of seaweed that normally comprise the outermost layer of a maki roll. Like most seaweeds used in Japanese cuisine, nori has an inherently savoury flavour. This flavour is quite mild, however, and its slight umami richness often highlights the savoury flavours of the sushi toppings.

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Sliced Fish

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Sushi started as a fish dish, and even today fish continues to be the main topping or filling of choice for most sushi amalgamations. Because so many different varieties of fish can be used to make sushi, sushi chefs in training spend large amounts of time learning how to identify, choose, and prepare fish for its eventual sushi destiny. The art of cutting perfectly sized slices of fish for the sushi in question is one of the most difficult skills for a sushi chef to learn, and it can take some chefs years to perfect it. Tuna, salmon, prawns, octopus, squid, and mackerel are some of the fish most commonly used to make sushi.

Gari, or Sushi Ginger

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Gari are the slices of pink or yellow pickle that can be found in most takeaway sushi boxes, or in jars between place settings in sushi bars. Gari is made by pickling young ginger in a solution of rice vinegar and sugar; a process that will turn the ginger pink if it is young enough. Gari is used to cleanse the palate between different sushi dishes, mainly because the differing flavours of the sushi can be difficult to detect if eaten one after the other. A bite of gari between each sushi dish makes for an entirely more sensational sushi experience.

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Wasabi

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A spicy condiment similar, but not identical, to horseradish, a little wasabi is added to some varieties of sushi in order to soften any unpleasant fish smells that might exist, as well as draw out the flavours of the fish that the chef wants you to experience. Sushi bars and restaurants will often have a jar of wasabi available next to the gari for you to use if you so choose. One thing to bear in mind, however, is that the chef will have often already added the perfect amount of wasabi necessary for the best sushi flavour, and adding more might ruin the experience.

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Soy Sauce

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Soy sauce is one of Japanese cuisine’s most commonly used condiments, and not just for sushi. However, it is important to bear in mind how sushi is supposed to by enjoyed. Soy sauce is a flavour enhancer and a very powerful one, so only a small amount is necessary. To add soy sauce to your sushi, pour a little sauce into a shallow soy sauce dish, turn your sushi piece over so the fish side is down (for a nigiri sushi), and dip just one corner of the fish into the soy sauce.

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