When we think of Japan, sushi is probably one of the first things that come to mind. It’s about time I dedicated a blog post to the quintessential Japanese food.
It may come as a surprise to you that this world-renowned Japanese food has an inspiring slum dog-to-millionaire history. The sushi that we all enjoy today has its historical roots in fermented fish and rice dishes, but the contemporary version is based on a fast-food dish that catered to Tokyo theater-goers and passers-by in the late 1700s, precisely because it consisted of non-fermented fish. This was known as “Edomae Nigirzushi,” that utilized fish caught in Tokyo (Edo, back then) Bay.
Most people don’t realize that the name “sushi” refers to the vinegar-rice – not the raw fish. In other words, sushi with raw fish, fresh cucumbers, or even cooked eel, is all sushi because it is accompanied (or accompanies, rather) that sweet-sour-and-bitter sushi rice we all love. If you’re only interested in the raw fish, no problem – just ask for sashimi.
Japanese sushi comes in several shapes and forms. Interestingly, you don’t see sushi in roll form (“maki”) nearly as often in a Japanese sushi restaurant as you would in a Western sushi joint. In Japan, expect to have mostly “nigiri” sushi – a hand-formed piece of rice, topped with a fish or veggie and a dab of wasabi or other toppings. Just as an anecdote, “nigiri” sushi evolved from a popular street food where rice and fish were pressed together into a bamboo box.
Prices vary even more. Today, you can easily pay ￥30,000 for a 3-star Michelin experience for 20 pieces of sushi at the famous Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo’s Ginza Station (featured in the film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”), or get small boxed sushi at a convenience store for ￥250. At the cheap end there are the ￥100 per plate “kaitenzushis,” or “running sushi.” The price, however, does not necessarily reflect the taste, because sushi is mostly about the rice – and rice isn’t expensive. The price tends to correlate with the freshness of the fish, as well as its serving size. Either way, you are sure to find a sushi eatery that fits your fancy (and your budget).
If you’re new to sushi eating in Japan, here are some helpful tips:
1. The green tea and the fresh ginger serve as palate cleansers. So take a drink and a bite between your delectable sushi. I say this ginger-tea combo is better than the French counterpart of cheese and wine. My French friend agrees.
2. It’s equally acceptable to eat sushi with chopsticks and with your fingers. If you’re not comfortable with the former, there’s no need to embarrass yourself.
3. When dipping sushi in soy sauce, make sure you dip the topping, and not the rice. Adding soy sauce to rice in Japan is offensive, especially if it’s specially treated sushi rice.