Sushi For Everyone
There are some foods we immediately associate with Japan, chief among them being sushi. These vibrant cuts of fish and seaweed rolls are iconic. Perhaps it’s the excitement of eating something raw, or maybe the mystery of such perfectly sticky rice — either way, sushi is a must-eat item on any trip to Japan.
History of Sushi
The dish was likely first introduced into Japanese culture during the eighth century. As Buddhism spread, with its practice of abstaining from meat, so did the popularity of sushi. It began as fermented rice served with preserved fish and was referred to as nare-zushi, or aged sushi. Over the last 1,000 years the dish has primarily stayed the same, although these days it takes considerably less time to make.
Fermentation played a major role in sushi going from a delicacy of the elite to a favorite of the masses. While the technique varied by region, In the early days of sushi’s conception, fish was packed with salt under weights and then fermented with rice — a months-long process that meant only the wealthiest could afford to try sushi until the early 14th century. As new fermentation strategies were developed and as people realized the fish could be eaten raw, the dish was democratized. The invention of refrigeration meant that fresh fish could be delivered farther than ever before, resulting in sushi carts and restaurants popping up across the country.
It may look similar, but if you’ve ever eaten a piece of sushi then you know just how different sushi rice is from rice used in other dishes. Japanese short-grain rice, known as uruchimai, is steamed and mixed with rice vinegar, salt and sugar to create a sticky base perfect for hosting fresh cuts of fish.
Sushi comes in many forms, which can make sitting down at a sushi restaurant or bar intimidating. Understanding the basic styles is a great first step toward ordering confidently.
A firm cut of fish, sometimes raw, is served atop sushi rice. This style is ideal for diners who are excited to savor the fish itself. Nigiri often features bluefin tuna, halibut or salmon as their high fat content creates a delicious melt-in-your-mouth experience.
Western diners often confuse sashimi and nigiri, but there is a key difference that sets the two apart: sashimi does not have rice and therefore is not sushi. Sashimi is a cut of raw meat that is not limited to fish. Popular throughout Japan, it is often served at sushi restaurants and Izakaya (a Japanese-style tavern) and enjoyed with just a drop of soy sauce.
Likely what most people envision when thinking of sushi, maki is an incredibly popular form of sushi where a layer of seaweed is rolled tightly to hold together rice and a filling. Maki comes in several forms: hoso-maki, or thin rolls, futo-maki, or thick rolls, saiku-maki, or decorative rolls and temaki, or hand rolls. Maki-style sushi offers a wide range of flavors and ingredients, making it ideal for those trying sushi for the first time as well as seasoned diners looking to try something new.
Not all sushi is served in bite-size cuts. Chirashi is served on a round or square dish and starts with a bed of sushi rice, which is then topped with vegetables and fish. Toppings vary widely based on region and can be raw, cooked marinated in vinegar (especially for takeout meals).
The process of becoming an itamae, or sushi chef, calls for patience and dedication. Many itamae train for 10 years or more before being allowed the honor of standing at the main cutting board and serving customers in the restaurant.e in nature.
Proper Dining Etiquette
As with any dish that has been carefully crafted, there are certain things you should and should not do while eating sushi. Beyond consideration of culture and the importance of expressing gratitude for the meal, a chef has prepared each piece of sushi to taste a specific way — and that experience could be hampered by soy sauce overindulgence or a wasabi mishap. Here are a few things to consider when enjoying sushi.
Nigiri Sushi is made to be bite-size.
With the exception of hand rolls, nigiri should be eaten in one bite.
Chopsticks are not necessary.
While it’s very common to eat sushi with chopsticks, many sushi restaurants will provide hot towels so guests can clean their hands before eating. However, the only item that definitely requires chopsticks is sashimi.
Never stand chopsticks in rice, and don’t set them down crossed.
Japanese funerals honor the deceased by placing chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice, so doing this in a restaurant would be extremely bad form. When not in use, chopsticks should be set parallel to one another on either a designated rest or on the rim of your plates.
Finish what you order.
Leaving food behind, especially when ordering the omakase or chef’s choice, is seen as rude.
Eat when each dish arrives.
The itamae carefully plans the temperature of each piece, so leaving a dish to wait or saving it for later will hinder the dining experience.
Ginger is a palette cleanser, not a topping.
Instead of topping your sushi, eat a small piece between pieces to ensure you’re enjoying each piece’s full flavor.
Limit your use of soy sauce and wasabi.
When eating nigiri, turn the piece so only the fish is lightly dipped in soy sauce. The rice will absorb too much and will mask the fish’s flavor. Wasabi should be enjoyed sparingly and should not be placed in soy sauce.
Casual Sushi Spots
Whether you’re looking for a quick bite between adventures or just in the mood for a casual meal, these sushi spots are sure to fit the bill.
The standing sushi bar is reminiscent of sushi carts from centuries past, and stopping at one should be on any traveler’s itinerary. Uogashi Nihon-Ichi is a chain of standing sushi bars found all throughout Tokyo. Many guests appreciate being able to watch the itamae at work.
Kaitenzushi, or conveyor belt sushi, is yet another iconic way of enjoying sushi. Katsu Midori Seibu is known for its fresh food and great prices. Located in the heart of Shibuya, it’s ideal for a quick bite amid a busy day of shopping.
21-1 Udagawacho Seibu Department Store Shibuya 8F, Shibuya 150-0042
Local Sushi Standbys
Located in the Toyosu Market, these restaurants serve up the freshest sushi. The market itself is worth a visit — from an upstairs balcony, locals and tourists alike can watch the trading below.
Because Katsura buys their fish fresh from the market each day, none of their sushi is pickled. Their weekday lunch offering includes an excellent pre-set menu of sushi that takes the guesswork out of which piece to try next.
2-15-4 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0045
Perhaps the best place to try a sushi bowl is at the market. Ooedo has a reputation for not only picking the freshest fish, but the best seasonal items from each region. Come hungry, because these bowls are laden with things like sea urchin, pickled radish,salmon roe, tuna and more.
Fisheries wholesale building (6th street)
3rd floor, in the food and beverage district
6-5-1 Toyosu, Koto-ku, Tokyo, 135-0061
A trip to Japan may not be complete without experiencing the best sushi it has to offer. These establishments are world-renowned for their exquisite creations. Just be sure to book a reservation.
This three-star Michelin restaurant is so acclaimed, it’s the focus of the 2011 documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Sushi master and owner Jiro Ono has served dignitaries and presidents from his subway station location.
42−15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Open since 1935, Kyubey is a beacon to those who love food. The sushi restaurant has been included on the prestigious world’s best restaurant guide, La Liste, numerous times and currently stands with a 94.50 rating.
87-6 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Sushi is an iconic part of Japanese cuisine and absolutely worth trying while traveling in Japan.