What Is Sushi?

Sushi is a centuries-old dish gaining popularity in the Western world but exactly what IS it? Read on and find out how to eat wasabi with confidence!

Thanks to the spread of international cuisine more and more people are being exposed to the uniqueness of Japanese food - sushi being one of the most popular and curious imports. But sushi didn't just spring up in the past few years on the dinner table - in fact the heritage and lineage of this tantalizing and distinctive cuisine is older than many countries!

The origins of sushi are uncertain, but one theory is that it was introduced into Japan around the 7th Century from China and other nearby lands. Originally the raw fish was pressed between layers of salt; weighted down with stones to press it as flat as possible. After a few weeks the stones would be replaced with lighter ones and a few months later on you would have fermented fish; ready to serve. Since there was no way to keep fish fresh during this time the salting was necessary to keep food over the winter. This original sushi is still available under the name of "narezushi"; made with freshwater carp. It has a very strong un-fishlike taste, however and somewhat of a specialty dish.

Over ten centuries later the fermentation step was dropped by a creative chef named Yohei. He decided to skip the salting and preservation of the fish and serve sushi much as we see it now; consisting of the raw fish and rice mixture. It proved to be a hit with the public and two distinct styles of preparation evolved, Kansai style and Edo style. Kansai style involves mixing seasoned rice with other ingredients and then the mixture is formed into decorative and very edible creations; pleasing to the eye and the palate. Edo style is more fish-based, since Tokyo (the present-day name of Edo) is sitting on the edge of the ocean and therefore has much more variety and availability of seafood. Usually the Edo style features a select piece of seafood or shellfish on a small pad of seasoned rice; technically called nigirizushi. Most Westerners are more familiar with the Edo style of sushi; although the Kansai is still very popular and rules in the creative arena.

The dictionary definition of sushi is "A Japanese dish consisting of thin slices of fresh raw fish or seaweed wrapped around a cake of cooked rice". But is sushi the same as raw fish in your mind? It shouldn't be. Raw fish is called sashimi and is not viewed as the same and as a totally separate cuisine. Sushi can include cooked fish, shellfish and as many vegetables as you can think of. Vegetarian sushi is popular on the West Coast of the United States where many people prefer to eat no meat or fish at all. The main ingredient of all sushi is the rice, seasoned with sweet rice-wine vinegar to make it sticky and tasty at the same time.

Aside from being a delightful change in your diet sushi is low in fat and is also a very nutritious food. A typical setting of 7 to 9 pieces contains only about 300-450 calories; depending on the contents. The fish provides protein as well as the omega-3 fatty acids that are recommended now by doctors; the vegetables a great source of vitamins and the rice complex carbohydrates, not to mention the seaweed wrapping being rich in iodine. Far from the calorie-laden fast food, sushi is a great addition to your diet!

Some of the more popular sushi dishes are:

Nigiri-zushi or finger rolls. These consist of hand-pressed mounds of rice with a dab of wasabi and a slice of raw fish/shellfish/other ingredients on top. Some popular nigiri-zushi are maguro (tuna), hamachi (yellowtail) and tako (boiled octopus). Don't flinch: they are all quite tasty and a delight to the palate.

Another very popular dish is the Maki-zushi - sushi rolls wrapped by seaweed (nori). This is also called norimaki. There are many kind of makizushi involving as many different vegetables as you can think of. Some are: tekkamaki (raw tuna roll), kappamaki (cucumber), and other varieties specific to the California region where creativity runs wild in the sushi bars.

As with any cuisine, the seasonings are important. In sushi the vital flavors come from soy sauce and wasabi, or Japanese horseradish. The soy sauce is used as a dipping sauce and the wasabi is usually included in the making of the sushi, with a small dish provided for you to mix with the soy sauce to flavor it to your liking. The most important side ingredient is picked ginger, or gari. The ginger is eaten between bites of sushi to cleanse the mouth for each new taste sensation and is vital to the enjoyment of the meal. Many stores now carry all the ingredients for making sushi as well as wasabi and pickled ginger.

Sushi doesn't need to be frightening nor a mysterious dish for the unwary. With a little knowledge and appreciation for this centuries-old dish, you can confidently sit down at any sushi bar and discover this amazing cuisine. Just don't eat the wasabi alone!

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