Sushi is one of Japan’s most beloved dishes and its popularity has spread throughout the world in recent times. Slightly vinegared sushi rice, known as sumeshi or shari, topped with the freshest, naturally sweet and mouth-watering seafood…What’s not to love? While it may seem simple in writing, sushi chefs take years, even decades, to hone their skills and perfect the craft of making sushi.
From salmon to tuna, to scallops, there are endless neta (toppings) and variations, which makes sushi so exciting and indulgent to eat. Nigirzushi and makizushi are two of the most common types of sushi but there are many more that are not as common but just as delicious! So here’s everything you need to know about sushi in Japan!
History of Sushi
Sushi originated in Southeast Asia as a means of preserving fish using salt, vinegar and rice (which was later discarded). It was later introduced to Japan during the Nara Period (710 - 794) under the name nare-zushi. During the Muromachi Period (1336 - 1573) it later developed into namanare-zushi, where the fish was removed earlier in the fermentation process and was eaten with pickled rice. Instead of being a way to preserve the fish, it became a new type of Japanese cuisine.
Moving on to the Edo Period (1603 - 1867), haya-zushi was born, as a way of eating rice and fish at the same time. Instead of fermenting, the rice could be enjoyed with the slight flavor of vinegar. This later developed into the nigirizushi we all know and love, which has been attributed to chef Hanaya Yohei (1799 - 1858). Chef Yohei was said to have invented the nigirizushi in his shop in the Ryogoku district, which was close to the Sumida River. It’s said that he was able to source fresh fish from the bay so there was no need to ferment it and, instead, could be made in a few minutes.
With the advancement of storing methods through refrigeration, sushi gained even more popularity as it became easier to handle fresh fish. Now, sushi is known and loved across the globe! That was just a quick explanation of how sushi came to be.
Sushi Restaurants in Japan
The most common type of sushi restaurant in Japan is called kaitenzushi, or conveyor belt sushi. Plates of sushi are rotated around the restaurant on a conveyor belt, with customers choosing what they want to eat as they pass by. However, in recent times, a more favorable system of ordering by tablet has been implemented. Customers can order electronically and their sushi will arrive on the conveyor belt directly to their table. In many of the kaitenzushi restaurants, you can find a wide variety of sushi from the popular salmon and tuna to more unique sushi such as sea urchin and eel. These types of restaurants are often very cheap and can range from 100 yen to 500 yen per dish, depending on the type of sushi. On your table comes soy sauce, wasabi, gari (pickled ginger), and green tea to use as you like.
However, in higher-end sushi restaurants, the true craftsmanship, skill and theatre of sushi can be appreciated. These types of restaurants are typically countertops, with the chef masterfully preparing your sushi right in front of you. The theatrical display of slicing the fish to expertly molding the sushi is breathtaking. Seeing how years, even decades, of training have culminated into the piece of sushi in front of you is mesmerizing. A knob of wasabi is placed between the rice and neta, then glazed with the restaurant’s own soy glaze and is encouraged to be eaten by hand, so you can appreciate the sushi even more.
The Different Types of Sushi
Nigirizushi is the most recognizable and common form of sushi. It’s simple in composition - shari and a seafood neta. However, just the rice itself takes years of rigorous training to master. The rice is washed, drained, soaked, cooked, and then mixed with vinegar. It often goes unnoticed but rice is the key component in making great sushi - the texture of the rice, how it balances with the fish and how it holds in your hand.
Then there’s the neta, which is typically a piece of fish or seafood. Popular choices are salmon and tuna, however, they can range to vegetables and even beef. The sourcing, preparation and storage of all of these ingredients take even more training for sushi chefs to perfect, making it one of the most meticulous and intricate foods to master. Toppings such as avocado, which are not typically in the Japanese diet, are not commonly found in sushi in Japan but are popular overseas.
Depending on the type of restaurant, wasabi will be placed in between the rice and neta or added to the soy sauce. Wasabi is a green paste made from grating the rhizome of the Wasabia Japonica Plant. Freshly grated wasabi is sweet, herby, fragrant and has a slight heat to it. In many cases, you might find that the wasabi is very spicy. This may actually be imitation wasabi, which is a mixture of horseradish and mustard! Finally, there is usually an accompaniment of gari to help cleanse your palette.
Nigirizushi can be eaten with chopsticks but in higher-end restaurants, you will be encouraged to eat with your hands. Also, always dip the neta side of the sushi into the soy sauce, otherwise, it will soak into the rice and break apart!
Makizushi is another common form of sushi available. Shari and various ingredients are rolled in a sheet of nori seaweed, which is then cut into smaller pieces. It is often referred to as norimaki: “Maki” meaning to roll and “nori” referring to the nori seaweed used to wrap the ingredients. Hosomaki contains just a singular ingredient such as tuna and cucumber, while futomaki contains various ingredients inside such as salmon, shrimp and egg.
Gunkan directly translates to “battleship” and gains its name from its appearance. Similar to makizushi, rice is wrapped inside the nori, however, the neta is placed on top, resembling the shape of a battleship. Popular toppings are salmon, negitoro (raw minced tuna), crab and sea urchin. In many cases, you can find vegetarian options such as corn and cucumber.
Inarizushi is another popular type of sushi but differs greatly from the others mentioned. In its simplest form, it is just rice wrapped in inari, which is aburaage (deep-fried tofu) that has been simmered in dashi, soy sauce and mirin. It’s named after the Shinto god, Inari, who is the protector of crops and is said to like tofu. People offered aburaage to the Inari diety in the hopes of a successful harvest.
Temakizushi is a more casual type of sushi that can not typically be found in restaurants. The rice and toppings are wrapped in nori and formed into a conical shape. Whereas nigirizushi and makizushi are strict on shape and form, temakizushi is not, making it great for sushi parties with friends and family!
Chirashizushi is simply a mix of ingredients you would typically find in makizushi, placed on top of shari. The result is a beautiful array of colors that tastes just as delicious as it looks. Chirashizushi is typically eaten on special occasions and can be eaten as is or with soy sauce poured on top.
Other types of sushi
There are a few other types of sushi that are less common. Kakinoha-zushi, hakozushi and temari are types of pressed sushi, which were common as a form of preservation. Kakinoha-zushi originated in Nara, where the sushi is wrapped in persimmon leaves, imparting a delicate fruity flavor. Hakozushi is similar to nigirizushi but cut into squared bite-size pieces and pressed in an oshibako (wooden box mold). Temari, translated to “hand ball”, are small round balls of pressed rice topped with a thin layer of fish. Finally, sasazushi is wrapped in bamboo leaves that are thought to have originated from Nagano prefecture during the Warring States period (1467–1573).
Sushi is an iconic dish in Japan and more recently, the world. These days you can find sushi pretty much anywhere in Japan, from supermarkets and convenience stores, to izakayas (Japanese-style pubs) and dedicated sushi restaurants. No matter where you try sushi, it’s a special experience, where you can enjoy the craftsmanship, the care and skill of the chefs, the delicious ingredients and the countless variations!