Sushi is delightful. So much so that you can eat it almost anywhere in the world. Many people that at first react with “eeew, raw fish!” end up loving sushi more than local delicacies.
Sushi is definitely one of the best-known symbols of Japan. But the truth is that sushi restaurants around the world adapt their preparation and serving style to the local culture. In Japan, though, sushi culture had centuries to develop, resulting in an intricate web of serving and eating etiquette.
In my last blog, I introduced you to the concept and kinds of sushi. Today, we’ll dig into topics like how sushi got the form it has today, what kinds of places serve sushi, and how to make the best out of your experience in a sushi restaurant!
A Quick History of Sushi
When sushi first appeared in Japan in the 9th century, it was far from the bite-sized pieces we eat and love today.
For about 1200 years, due to Buddhist philosophy, the Japanese diet was almost completely vegetarian. Being an island nation, Japan turned to plants and the sea as its main sources of nutrition.
At first, the word sushi referred to a Southeastern Asian way of preserving fish. Without refrigerators, people used fermentation to keep their fish, soybeans, rice, and veggies good to eat for a long time.
In particular, sushi was used for salted fish (often ayu,yellowtail, or mackerel) fermented with cooked rice.
Layered in big barrels and left to ferment for months or even years, the fish was called narezushi (熟れ鮨) – matured sushi. Due to the long curing process, only the wealthy indulged in this pickled fish.
The sour rice was usually discarded. Up until somebody near Lake Biwa discovered han-narezushi (half-turned sushi). Later on, chefs bypassed the fermentation process entirely, discovering that vinegared rice was quite delicious too!
In 1606, Edo, the city we today call Tokyo became the capital. Edo quickly grew thanks to the rising merchant class.
Stalls selling snacks to have on the go started popping up around major roads – and one of these Edo snack stalls was the birthplace of modern sushi. A man named Hanaya Yohei is credited with selling the first nigiri in the 1820s.
Instead of fermenting rice and fish for months, Edo-period sushi makers used:
- Fresh fish from the nearby Edo bay
- Cooked rice seasoned with rice vinegar.
However, back in the day, a single piece of sushi was about 3 times the size of today’s nigiri. Bite-sized sushi came with food shortages after World War 2 – and so did sushi filled/topped with vegetables only, like cucumber.
The Many Places Where You Can Buy Sushi
In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Edo (Tokyo), wreaking havoc across a huge area. One of the results was a quick decrease in land prices. The silver lining is that the disaster empowered sushi vendors to purchase or rent rooms and move their businesses indoors.
The result were sushi-ya (寿司屋) – the first sushi restaurants.
Today, there’s an incredible variety in ways sushi is served in Japan and worldwide. You can find sushi sold for anywhere between $0.5 and $200 per piece.
From cheap conveyor belt and standing sushi bars to high-end restaurants, you can find the perfect sushi whatever your budget.
Heck – even grocery stores sell alright-quality sushi, in clear plastic packaging.
Types of Sushi Restaurants
Sushi restaurants come in many forms. Some function in a similar way to typical western restaurants, and others come with unique concepts that revolve around sushi.
- In high-end restaurants, everything’s designed to provide an amazing customer experience. From tea ceremony-level decoration to the very limited number of seats. Usually, up to 10 guests at a time are seated at a counter. The sushi chef’s station is right across the counter, and the guests can watch and interact as the chef makes and serves sushi. Sushi is served on a wooden board called geta thanks to its shape similar to a type of Japanese shoe. When picking up sushi from the counter, don’t move the geta – simply pick up the sushi with your chopsticks. The sushi chef will put your next delicious piece there soon ! Some medium-range restaurants use this concept too, but they usually also have a few tables to seat more guests.
Standing sushi bars (tachigui sushi – 立ち食い寿司) are usually small, chair-less restaurants near busy train stations. Once again, the chef is right across the counter, but as the name implies, the guests stand at a bar instead of dining seated. Standing sushi bars are great spots for a quick, reasonably priced meal, but they’re not exactly a relaxing dining spot.
Sushi-go-round, conveyor belt sushi, kaitenzushi (回転寿司) – all are names for a unique restaurant concept with partially automatic sushi ordering and delivery. It first appeared in Osaka in the 1950s, when clever restaurateurs found a quick, unmanned way to deliver sushi to guests – using conveyor belts. The guru-guru (round-and-round) way to serve sushi means offering many different kinds of sushi on a conveyor belt that runs through the restaurant. This way, you can pick anything that attracts your attention. When you’re done, the restaurant staff will count the color-coded plates to calculate the total price.
The Delicate Art of Making Sushi
Rice ball and neta cutting, even sushi assembling machines exist. Many conveyor belt sushi chains are equipped with them.
You can also make sushi at home.
It’s not too hard – but chances are that you’ll later need to handle your sushi with care. Some pieces may even fall apart in your chopsticks.
For sure this doesn’t make sushi any less tasty, but there’s a big gap between machine, amateur, and professional-grade sushi.
Here are the skills a sushi chef needs to master:
- Developing a delicate palate of flavors and a good taste for mixing ingredients;
- Recognizing the best time and way to use any specific ingredient (depending on freshness, cut, source, and other criteria);
- Mixing sushi rice (shari – しゃり) – best-quality sushi rice has all its grains intact – so chefs train how to gently stir in vinegar; Shari must tightly hold in a rice ball, but not stick to the plate or your chopsticks.
- Seasoning and cutting the fish and other ingredients into equal, precisely measured pieces;
- Making rice balls by hand – The rice ball in your nigiri needs to stay put even when squeezed between chopsticks.Sushi chefs apply a particular technique of pressing and molding rice together with their hands. They use a weak vinegar solution called tezu (手酢) to deal with the stickiness of shari. Fixing the slice of food that tops the rice (neta – ねた) and making it stay in place is tough too;
- Wrapping the maki (巻き) rolls tightly using the rolling mat, and cutting into right-sized pieces;
Sushi chefs train for years to learn all that and to make those amazing pieces of delight. Chances are they learn all that and probably many other skills that I, as an amateur, am not aware of.
How to Eat Sushi – Japanese Sushi Customs
• It’s OK to pick up sushi with both your hands and chopsticks.
• Nigiri usually has a dab of wasabi in between the fish and rice. Most people don’t mind the wasabi as it’s just a small amount – but if you don’t want any, you can ask for “wasabi-nashi” or “wasabi-nuki” (no wasabi).
• Dip the neta (topping), not the rice – your nigiri rice ball will either soak up too much or fall apart if you dip it directly into soy sauce. Dip a corner of your fish instead, and make the fish the first thing that touches your tongue. Try your sushi only lightly dipped in sauce – you may like how a little bit of soy sauce brings out the flavors of sushi.
• That being said, don’t separate the fish from the rice. It doesn’t taste as good that way anyway.
• With gunkan sushi (sushi with fish roe), use a piece of gari to spread soy sauce over the roe without flipping the sushi.
• Gari (the pink pickled ginger) is a palate cleanser. Eat gari in between different sushi pieces to “refresh” and feel the flavors of the next sushi more thoroughly.
• Don’t mix soy sauce and wasabi. You can put both on your sushi though.
• Eat sushi in one bite. If you absolutely have to bite it in half, keep the remaining part in your chopsticks or hands. It’s bad manners to return the other half to the plate, especially if it’s a shared platter.
• If a sushi chef is making and serving sushi in front of you, don’t move their serving tray (geta). They’ll use it for your next sushi piece too, so simply pick up the sushi with your hands/chopsticks.
Green Tea and Sushi
Many sushi restaurants serve or provide free green tea with your meal. Why? Because it’s delicious and because it complements sushi amazingly!
While the Japanese usually use ocha (お茶), the term agari (上り) is a common name for tea in sushi restaurants. The word presumably takes origin in the Edo period, when tea was served at the end of the meal. The word agari (to get up), was used by chefs to secretly signify it’s time to wrap up a customer’s meal.
Today, we drink piping-hot green tea in between sushi courses to cleanse the taste palate. The tea’s astringency has a similar effect to gari – in a way, they refresh your taste buds. Green tea, in particular, washes off fish oils well, and it’s served super-hot to enhance that property.
Of course, having a cup of tea at the end of your meal, Edo-style, is a good idea too – it supposedly helps digestion!
Most often, sushi restaurants serve konacha (粉茶) – powdered tea. The powder is not the same as matcha. Konacha is a natural byproduct of regular and higher-quality teas like sencha and gyokuro – it contains dust, buds, stem, and leaf particles. Matcha, on the other hand, is a specially grown, finely milled type of tea.
Since konacha is quite cheap, sushi restaurants offer it for free. Of course, you can order finer-grade green tea to go with your sushi.
In many mid and lower-grade sushi restaurants, you’ll easily find stations with hot water dispensers and little tea packets or jars. You’re supposed to make the tea yourself, so the restaurants usually let you have as much as you want.
Want finer refreshments for the occasion?
The Japanese don’t usually mix sushi and sake, though it’s a common practice in Western restaurants. The reasoning is simple – sake and sushi are both made of rice, so they don’t mix well.
If you’re looking for a drink that works with sushi, give light red wines, fruit wines, or fruit beers a try.
Wrapping Up My Sushi Roll
Aaaand that’s all I know about sushi 😉
In my experience, sushi is a type of Japanese culture that’s always developing and changing. From the stinky and delicious pickled fish, over simple nigiri snacks, to the bright western additions (looking at you, California rolls), sushi is ever-changing, and so is the culture around it. I’m sure excited to keep exploring it!
Thanks for taking this journey with me. Feel free to use the comment box if you have any questions or you want to share more knowledge with my readers!