Sushi is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ – but once you try it a few times, it can be quite addictive!
There are many tips and tricks to making and eating sushi, so we are going to try to give you the best ideas for mastering the art of both. Rice is definitely the basis for many sushi dishes – but it is not just any old rice, it is a special type of short-grain rice, which is essentially seasoned with rice vinegar, salt and sugar, to give it that sticky consistency. Not only is the consistency necessary for flavour, it also makes it easier to ‘mould’ the sushi into the various shapes needed for all types of this delicious dish.
One of the main obstacles for learning how to eat and enjoy sushi stems from the beginning mindset – raw fish? Rice? What on earth are we eating? It is easy to feel totally lost and abandoned in a sushi restaurant with the huge variety on offer. If you can, go with friends or family who understand sushi and respect it. As a first timer, this is invaluable. Don’t feel afraid to ask waiting staff or even the sushi chef, in spite of the extremely sharp knives he wields! They are more than happy to discuss their art. In fact, be adventurous and ask for ‘omakase’ – this means, in Japanese, ‘trust the chef’, similar to looking at chefs’ specials or recommendations on any traditional menu.
History of Sushi
Historically, sushi originated in China and then spread to Japan, where, dare we say, it was perfected from the very basic sushi created in China back as far as 2nd Century AD, and it was actually used more as a way of preserving fish with rice, which now has the resurgent name of ‘fermentation’, a method adapted by many Far Eastern cultures.
As time moved on, clever and ingenious chefs decided that they could serve fresh sushi, by making the rice mix with a seasoning of rice wine, which meant that it could be eaten almost immediately. In the early 19th Century, sushi really hit the market, pioneered by a chef called Hanaya Yohei. The world can thank him for ‘nigiri sushi’, most popular these days in sushi restaurants throughout the world. Simple but delicious, an oblong piece of fish is placed on top of an oblong shaped moulded and seasoned rice – how did it take so long to work this out?
Sushi stalls were the modus operandi until after World War II, a disastrous time for the Japanese people. Street stalls disappeared and sprung up indoors, for sanitation reasons. From thence, the growth of sushi throughout the world has been astronomical, and one of the most popular cuisines served now throughout both Eastern and Western spheres, and is categorically now placed in the fine dining echelon.
Top Tips for Eating Sushi (particularly for beginners!)
There is a wealth of valuable tips and facts that could be very useful for the ‘virgin’ sushi eater. Under the sushi menu, you will quite often see both ‘sushi’ and ‘sashimi’ grouped together – they are not one and the same! Sushi is almost always made with the sticky rice, whether rolled or not. Sashimi, however, is basically just the meat or fish content (mainly meat) which is normally served with Japanese radish, commonly known as ‘daikon’. You will never see rice with traditional sashimi! Sashimi will appear with dips – either basic soy, or soy mixed with wasabi (horseradish mayonnaise style), or ‘ponzu’ – a combination of soy and citrus- totally delicious.
Eating sushi is not just about what you eat, but also what order you eat it in – very important if you really want to enjoy your meal. Eat it whichever way you want, but with thousands of years of experience, we trust the Japanese judgement!
Here are the tips:
- Start with ‘cooked’ items or rolled items. If the thought of raw fish gives you the horrors, you don’t want to be put off sushi straight away. Rolled items are a good idea, as you cannot see the contents!
- If you have particular fish that you enjoy, pick those. Start with a taste that you know and that you are happy with. If you love salmon, go with that, if you love scallops DO try those first – marinated scallops taste almost the same as those lightly seared and take on a wonderful texture.
- To really savour the food, start with the lightest white fish – this will enable your taste buds to get used to this style of eating.
- Try vegetarian sushi – cucumber rolls like you have never eaten before, to get you used to the style of eating. When looking on the menu, look for ‘kappa maki’.
- Progress through gradually – don’t feel you have to try too much, especially if you are on your first sushi experience. Move from white to silver fish, then on to ‘red’ fish and finally to heavier varieties. Otherwise, it could be too much for you to take if you are a novice. Any fatty style fish would always be the last choice on your journey.
- Japanese desserts are not that common, and usually lacking in choice. Be careful what you order, eggs are prolific in Japanese desserts and not necessarily as you would like them!
- Most Japanese sushi menus will be quite descriptive, but if they are not, never feel afraid to ask. The courtesy imparted by most waiting staff is impeccable, and they love to help you.
In the UK, the etiquette for eating sushi is by no means as strict as in Japan. You can take photographs without permission, you can wear perfume or aftershave (!) and you can query what is brought to your table. There is a wealth of respectful situations that are not conducted in London, whereas you would be thought to be rude and disrespectful if you did them in Japan!
The most important rule relates to chopsticks! Most people assume that this somewhat tricky and slippery style of eating involves the use of the ‘long pointed items’ that so many folk struggle with! However, it is recommended that with certain dishes you eat with your fingers, such as maki rolls and nigiri. In most London restaurants, you will find ‘high class’ utensils that you would expect in a find dining situation. If however, you are presented with less favourable items, NEVER rub them together – it is considered an insult to the chef!
When eating your sushi, it is best not to overdo the soy sauce or any other accompaniment. Simply pick up the sushi with your chopsticks, roll it, and put the soy on the fish, not on the rice. This is a typical mistake made in restaurants, but you will get used to it over time.
If you have ordered soup, such as miso, it is perfectly within your rights to drink it straight from the bowl – it is not only easier but it also makes it look like you know what you are doing, and are an old hand in Japanese dining!
Two final tips – if you heap too much wasabi onto your plate and feel you are about to die with the inner fire it creates – breathe through your nose, don’t breathe through your mouth, and don’t take a sip of sake! The pain will diminish rapidly.
By the way, if you are not sure what the bowl of orangey-brown stuff is, placed on your table – it is inevitably ginger, and whilst not to everyone’s taste, it is a great palate cleanser – so try it!
Making Sushi at Home
If you become serious about sushi, and don’t want to dine out all the time, a simple sushi making course can turn you into a professional really quickly – learn the do’s and don’ts, and you will very soon be turning out sushi with a bit of practice. Very good and economical courses are available in London, which are also fun and a great way to spend a few hours of your day.
To make it at home, get yourself a sushi starter kit including a rolling mat, and a couple of sharp knives to thinly cut fish.
Keep work surfaces clean, and keep your knives clean and ‘wet’. This makes cutting so much easier. Relax, don’t rush and never put too much filling into sushi rolls – it will spill out, make a silly shaped sushi, and make you look like an idiot!
Finally – watch out for the sticky rice – it gets everywhere, makes a mess and is really hard to clean up!