So, you’ve decided to try sushi for the first time. Good for you! Trying something new can be intimidating, especially if that something involves eating raw fish. It shows you have an adventurous spirit and an open mind, and going into this experience with the right attitude is half the battle.
Most people who are reluctant to try sushi just automatically assume they won’t like it. A few will even say, “I don’t like fish, period! Why would I possibly consider eating raw fish?” My normal response to this would be, “Do you like tuna?” As it turns out, about 99 percent of people, particularly those who say they don’t like fish, like tuna.
What people who say they don’t like fish really don’t like is fishy tasting fish. Tuna has a very mild, almost sweet flavor and is therefore a good place to start when trying sushi for the first time. Granted, raw tuna is completely different, in terms of texture, than the stuff that comes out of a can. The texture is closer to that of meat, and is a good choice for people who think they only like meat.
When eating sushi, the trick is to not jump immediately into the deep end of the pool. If you are afraid of raw fish, begin with vegetable rolls, then try a sushi roll made of cooked fish (there are plenty of these, including the popular California roll), and then move on to a mild raw fish, like tuna. Don’t start immediately which a strongly flavored fish like mackerel or salmon (unless you are already familiar with, and like, salmon).
A common misconception about sushi is that sushi means raw fish. The word sushi actually refers to the rice, which is flavored with vinegar. The literal translation of the word sushi comes from an obsolete phrase meaning, “it’s sour.”
The term sushi encompasses a great many dishes, all of which include sushi rice. There are wraps and rolls, pressed and formed items, and dishes which simply incorporate various ingredients scattered over sushi rice. All of these items are properly referred to as sushi.
Alone, slices of raw fish served in sushi bars and restaurants are known as sashimi. Only when sashimi is placed on top of sushi rice does it become sushi.
Types of Sushi
Some common fish used in the preparation of sushi include: tuna, yellowtail, toro (a fatty cut of tuna), snapper, mackerel, salmon, kani.
For those of us who are squeamish about fish, some vegetable rolls are available. Common vegetables used in sushi include: cucumber, avocado, asparagus, yams, sweet corn mixed with mayonnaise, gourd, burdock, pickled daikon radish, and fermented soybeans called natto.
Maki rolls are what most people think of when they think of sushi. Maki rolls are cylindrical pieces of sushi formed with the use of a bamboo mat, and usually wrapped in a piece of nori. Nori is a kind of dehydrated algae, or seaweed, which is dried and formed into sheets. Nori is placed on the mat first, followed by a strip of sushi rice and other ingredients which may include vegetables and/ or seafood. The bamboo mat is then used to form the roll into a long cylinder which is cut into bite sized pieces.
Some maki rolls have nori on the inside with the sushi rice being the outermost layer. These inverted rolls are called uramaki.
Another common type of sushi, nigirizushi is a simple preparation where a slice of fish, known as a neta, is draped over an oblong mound of sushi rice. Two pieces of nigirizushi are typically served per plate.
A specialty of Osaka, oshizushi is formed using a block-shaped wooden mold. Fish and/ or other ingredients are placed into the bottom of the mold, which is known as an oshibako. The ingredients are then covered with sushi rice and pressed, forming a block which is then unmolded and cut into pieces.
Inari-zushi is a form of sushi in which a pouch is made in a piece of fried tofu which is stuffed with sushi rice. This type of sushi is a great option for people who don’t like fish, as there is usually no fish involved.
Fukusa-zushi is a common variation on Inari-zushi, in which a thin egg omelet replaces the tofu as the wrapper
This is sushi in its simplest form. Fish and other ingredients are simply spread on top of a bowl of sushi rice. This style of sushi makes for a heartier, more filling meal and is a good choice for someone who is particularly hungry.
This type of sushi is hearkens back to the oldest forms of sushi, but variations on the dish still exist today. Originally developed almost a thousand years ago as a way to preserve fish, the technique for making Narezushi is lengthy, involved, and to be frank, not very appealing to the average Westerner. As such, I will spare you the details, except to say that it is a process which can take years, and involves preserving and fermenting the fish using layers of salt and cooked rice, sticking the salted fish in a barrel for six months or so, and repeating the process until the fish is edible.
Besides being intimidated by the idea of raw fish, the other concern that first time sushi eaters usually have is in actually going to the sushi bar or restaurant. They don’t know how to order, what to order, what the proper table manners are, or even how to use chopsticks.
Unfortunately, the latter is not something I can really help you with. It takes practice, and it’s best to get a friend to teach you. So that is my first piece of advice. If you are intimidated, go with a friend, preferably one who has been to a sushi bar before.
But the truth is there are not a great many rules involved, only a few customs which it might be polite to observe.
Firstly, it’s a good idea to sit at the bar. Seeing your sushi being prepared is half the fun. It also gives you an opportunity socially with the other customers, as well as the sushi chef, known as an itamae. Order all your sushi from the itamae, and anything else, including drinks, from the servers.
Almost immediately after you sit down, it is customary for you to be given a warm towel. Use this to clean you hands before you eat. It may be left during the meal, or taken away before the food comes.
It is acceptable to eat your sushi using either your hands or chopsticks. If using chopsticks, they will come stuck together at the top and need to be separated. After pulling them apart, rub the tops together to dislodge any splinters.
If you are ordering any communal dishes that you will share with your friends or family, it is considered good manners to take the food from the communal plate using the top side of the chopsticks, or the opposite end of the chopsticks from that which you stick in your mouth.
If you are feeling adventurous, ask the itamae to prepare his choice of sushi. He will know what fish is freshest that day, and what his specialties are. The chef’s choice menu is known as omakase. Many sushi restaurants offer a fixed-price menu. They are usually listed in order of price. Matsu is usually the most expensive, followed by take, and ume is the cheapest.
While there are no rules for ordering sushi, it is considered good form to order sashimi first if you are going to be eating sashimi. The delicate flavor of the fish is thought to be best enjoyed when you palette is fresh. Beyond this, you may order as many pieces as you like as often as you like until you are satisfied.
When you have finished your meal, thank the itamae. “Domo Origato” is considered a very polite form of thank you. Tip the itamae well, and separately, from the rest of the wait staff.
A Note on Condiments
The most common condiments used in Japanese cuisine are: soy sauce, wasabi, and sweet pickled ginger known as gari.
Soy sauce is usually served in a small bowl on the side of your meal. It is considered polite to dip the fish side of the sushi into the soy sauce, so that you don’t end up leaving little bits of rice in the soy sauce.
Wasabi is a very pungent root similar to horseradish. In fact, most of the wasabi we get in this country is an imitation form of wasabi made from horseradish and dried mustard. Wasabi can be applied directly to the sushi or mixed into the bowl of soy sauce to your liking. If it is too strong for you, you may decide to leave it out altogether.
Gari, or pickled ginger, is a condiment that is not applied directly to the sushi, but rather eaten in between sushi pieces to cleanse the palette.
Sushi is gaining in popularity among people of the Jewish faith. Because there are specific rules for kosher cooking with which the typical Japanese chef may not be familiar, kosher sushi restaurants have begun to spring up around the city to fill this need. Many ingredients commonly used in traditional sushi, including shellfish, are not Kosher, so people who follow a kosher diet are advised to eat only at kosher sushi restaurants.