All Around Sushi
Beginning as a method of preserving fish centuries ago, sushi has evolved into an artful, unique dining experience. In its earliest form, dried fish was placed between two pieces of vinegared rice as a way of making it last. The nori (seaweed) was added later as a way to keep one’s fingers from getting sticky.
Technically, the word sushi refers to the rice (the Japanese word su means vinegar, and shi is from meshi, the Japanese word for rice, hence sushiis ‘vinegared rice’), but colloquially, the term is used to describe a finger-size piece of raw fish or shellfish on a bed of rice or simply the consumption of raw fish in the Japanese style (while sushi is not solely a Japanese invention, these days, the Japanese style is considered the de facto serving standard). This can be eaten as is, or is often dipped into shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) and then eaten. Great care is taken in the creation of the dish and the many methods of preparing the food indicate the importance of appearance to the educated consumer. Sushi is a work of art as much as a food, and while it is now available in a western ‘quick and easy’ serving style, the traditional ways are far from lost.
There are a few different kinds, depending on how the item is presented. They are:
Futomaki – thick rolls
Hosomaki – thin rolls
Uramaki – inside-out rolls
The Beginnings of Sushi
Sushi has been around for a surprisingly long period of time, although not in its present form. The history of sushi is an interesting tale of theevolution of a simple dish. What was to become sushi was first mentioned in China in the second century A.D. Originally, sushi arose out of a way of preserving food. Fish was placed in rice and allowed to ferment, which allowed an individual to keep the fish edible for some time. The rice was thrown away and the fish was eaten when needed or wanted.
The method spread throughout China and by the seventh century, had made its way to Japan, where seafood has historically been a staple. The Japanese, however, took the concept further and began to eat the rice with the fish. Originally, the dish was prepared in much the same manner. In the early 17th century, however, Matsumoto Yoshiichi of Edo (now Tokyo) starting seasoning the rice with rice wine vinegar while making his ‘sushi’ for sale. This allowed the dish to be eaten immediately, instead of waiting the months it might normally take to prepare the ‘sushi.’
The Evolution of Sushi
In the early 19th century, a man by the name of Hanaya Yohei conceived a major change in the production and presentation of his sushi. No longer wrapping the fish in rice, he placed a piece of fresh fish on top of an oblong shaped piece of seasoned rice. Today, we call this style ‘nigiri sushi’ (finger sushi) or “edomae sushi” (from Edo, the name of Tokyo at the time) and is now the common way of eating Japanese sushi. At that time, sushi was served from sushi stalls on the street and was meant to be a snack or quick bite to eat on the go. Served from his stall, this was not only the first of the real ‘fast food’ sushi, but quickly became wildly popular. From his home in Edo, this style of serving sushi rapidly spread throughout Japan, aided by the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, as many people lost their homes and businesses and moved from Tokyo.
After World War Two, the sushi stalls were shut down and moved indoors, to more sanitary conditions. More formal seating was later provided (the first iterations were merely an indoor version of the sushi stalls) and sushi changed from ‘fast food’ to a true dining experience. Sushi spread around the globe, and with the advent of the promotion of seafood, this unusual style of serving fish was quickly adopted by western cultures, always eager for something new, especially something that had grown as sophisticated and unique as sushi.
Sushi, the artful dining experience once uniquely Japanese, has now evolved to another level beyond the traditional Japanese methods. Western influences have given rise to new styles of sushi, such as California rolls and the many elaborate ‘fusion’ creations at upscale sushi restaurants. The history of sushi is a long one, at least 1,800 years in fact, but the current iteration is popular around the world, and rightly so. It is not often that something so singly cultural can not only take the world by storm, but also influence the direction of food in other cultures. Demand for sushi is only increasing and seems to be continuing to evolve. Traditional sushi restaurants sit alongside ‘fusion’ restaurants and both are popular for their own reasons. The history of sushi is still far from over.
Funny Facts About Sushi
- Not long ago, a sushi chef (itamae) had to undergo ten years of training before working in a restaurant. Today, demand for these skilled food artists is so high that many start work after only two years of training.
- Approximately 80% of the world’s bluefin tuna catch is used for sushi.
- Sushi dates back to at least the second century A.D., beginning as a method of preserving fish in China. See our History of Sushi page for more details about sushi history.
- Nearly half the fish consumed as food worldwide are raised on fish farms rather than caught in the wild, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
- Japan’s Agriculture Ministry has set up a panel to discuss a certification system for Japanese restaurants abroad. Possible gastronomic crimes include slicing fish too thick, using too little or too much wasabi and over-boiling rice. Japanese tourists have also been known to complain about greasy tempura, floppy, lifeless noodles and seaweed that is not crispy enough. The ministry said its aim was to “spread correct Japanese gastronomic culture” and “improve the reliability of our country’s food” in foreign countries.
- The highest price ever paid for a sushi grade Bluefin Tuna was $173,600 for a 444 pound fish ($391/lb) on January 5th, 2001 at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.
- The United States Food and Drug Administration stipulates that all fish to be eaten raw (with the exception of tuna) must be frozen first, in order to kill parasites.
How To Eat Sushi (Sushi Etiquette)
Arriving and being seated
• It is polite in any restaurant to greet the host or hostess, who may greet you with the traditional “irasshaimase” which means “please come in.” You just need to acknowledge their greeting and are not required to say anything back, other than to answer the questions about your evening (seating, etc).
• If you are interested in watching your food preparation or conversation with the itamae (sushi chef), ask to be seated at the sushi bar, otherwise a table is fine (and the bar better left for those who would prefer the interaction).
• If you are seated at the sushi bar, only ask the itamae for sushi. Drinks, soup, and other non-sushi (or sashimi) items are handled only by the waiter/waitress.
• Ask the itamae what he would recommend, never ‘is that fresh?” as it is insulting to imply that something may not be. If you think it may not be fresh, you shouldn’t be eating there, however a good itamae will steer a diner towards the food he feels will be most satisfying and highlight his skills.
• Respect the itamae, he is often quite busy. But feel free to engage him in conversation if he is able. This is also a good way to build a rapport with him and you may reap the rewards later as a regular (I really have with one particular itamae at one of my favorite places).
• Keep your palate in mind and order accordingly. It is impolite to leave food on your plate after your meal or act as though a particular item is ‘gross’ if you don’t like it.
• You may be offered a hot, wet towel (called an oshibori) at the beginning of your meal. Use it to wash you hands and try to fold it back neatly the way it was offered to you before returning it.
• Do not rub your chopsticks together. When not in use they should be placed parallel to yourself on the holder (if there is one) or on the shoyudish. They should also be placed there when finished with your meal.
• Don’t be afraid to ask for an item not on the menu as the sushi-ya may have special or seasonal items that are not listed. It is perfectly acceptable to ask, and often the itamae will appreciate your interest.
• Don’t put wasabi directly in the shoyu dish. Nigiri-zushi (fingers of rice topped with fish or another topping) comes with wasabi placed under the neta (fish) by the itamae, and reflects what he feels is the proper balance of wasabi to fish. Some of us like a little more, and you can always sneak some separately on the fish or with it.
• It is OK to eat nigiri-zushi (sushi) with your hands. Sashimi is only to be eaten with your chopsticks.
• Pick up the nigiri-zushi and dip the fish (neta) into your shoyu, not the rice (which will soak up too much shoyu). The rice is like a sponge, and too much shoyu will overpower the taste of the food and could also lead to the rice falling into your shoyu dish and making soup, which is not a good thing.
• Do not pick up a piece of food from another person’s plate with the end of the chopsticks you put in your mouth. When moving food like this use the end you hold, which is considered the polite way.
• Eat nigiri style sushi in one bite. This is not always easy (or possible) in North America where some sushi-ya make huge pieces, but traditional itamae in Japanese sushi-ya will make the pieces the proper size for this. In North America, try your best and don’t worry if they won’t let you.
• Gari (ginger) is considered a palate cleanser and eaten between bites or different types of sushi. It is not meant to be eaten in the same bite as a piece of sushi.
• Slurping noodles is OK, less so for soup, but a bit is fine, at least by Japanese standards.
• In more traditional sushi-ya, if you are not given a spoon for your soup, do not ask for one. You are expected to pick up your bowl to drink the soup, using your chopsticks to direct the solid pieces to your mouth.
• It’s nice to offer a beer or sake to the itamae (but of course not required). He may remember you and treat you well upon subsequent visits.
• Never pass food to another person using chopsticks as this is too close symbolically to the passing of a deceased relative’s bones at a traditional Japanese funeral. Pass a plate instead allowing an individual to take food themselves.
• Also, never stick your chopsticks in your rice and leave them sticking up. This resembles incense sticks and again brings to mind the symbolism of the Japanese funeral and prayers to one’s ancestors.
• Technically one doesn’t drink sake with sushi (or rice in general) only with sashimi or before or after the meal. It is felt that since they are both rice based, they do not complement each other and therefore should not be consumed together. Green tea is a great option with sushi or sashimi.
• With alcoholic beverages, it is considered customary to serve each other (if not alone) instead of pouring one’s own drink. Be attentive of your fellow diner’s glasses and refill them. If you need a refill, drink the remainder of the beverage and hold the glass slightly and politely towards a dining partner.
• Sake is available both chilled and hot, depending the quality and style. Experiment to learn what you like, but generally, higher quality sake is served cold. And some is quite good as well as sophisticated.
• Belching is considered impolite at the Japanese table, unlike some other Asian cultures.
• “Kanpai!” (“empty your cup”) is the traditional Japanese toast you may hear. Do not say “chin chin” as to the Japanese, this is a reference to a certain male body part best left out of proper conversation.
Read more: http://www.sushifaq.com/