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As a popular cuisine that originated from Japan, sushi has come a long way from its roots. Not only is it served in various restaurants worldwide, but you can also find sushi in convenience stores and food stalls. In fact, it has become such a gastronomic phenomenon that many restaurants even serve “fusion-style” sushi that incorporates other ingredients that aren’t normally included in its original makeup. But what does sushi taste like exactly?
As simple as this question may be, the answer is not as straightforward. It really depends on the kind of sushi you’re eating. The freshness and quality of the ingredients, as well as the preparation method employed, also play an important part in the overall taste of sushi. Sushi shouldn’t have an overwhelming “fishy” flavor, and there should be a harmonious balance in taste with all the ingredients, such as ginger or wasabi. In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about sushi.
Sushi Then and Now
Discussing any type of dish or cuisine would not be complete without delving into its origins. In the case of sushi, what makes it rather unique is that just as it requires a precise and artful method of preparing specific ingredients, its beginnings are also rife with culture and history. According to “A Tale of Sushi: History and Regulations” by Cindy Hsin-I Feng, published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, Volume 11, Issue 2, sushi began as a means to preserve fish in 7th century Japan.
During this time, the Japanese adapted pickling as a means to preserve fish, pressing it between rice and salt topped by a heavy stone for weeks. The fermented rice is what causes the picking of the pressed fish, the result of which is called a naresushi, which is made from carp.
The same study notes that, sometime in the 17th century, pickling was abandoned in favor of a vinegarization process that caused sushi to ferment for a shorter time. However, it was around the 1820s that raw fish was introduced to sushi rice, which eventually became a form of snack food.
According to The History Kitchen from PBS.org, sushi first came to America, specifically Los Angeles, sometime in 1966. A man named Noritoshi Kanai and Harry Wolff, his Jewish business partner, opened Kawafuku Restaurant in Little Tokyo, which served traditional nigiri sushi to their customers. In 1970, not only did the first sushi bar outside of Little Tokyo open, but refrigeration methods also became available, which made it possible for sushi to be transported abroad. The ‘70s also marked the emergence of conveyor belt sushi or kaitenzushi.
Selecting Ingredients for Sushi
Since then, sushi has gained popularity, which led to different styles of sushi being served with new ingredients like beef or cream cheese and even vegan or deep-fried variants. Traditionally, however, sushi is composed of fish or seafood, sushi rice, and vegetables. What’s considered authentic sushi, as opposed to commercialized sushi, is prepared by an itamae, a sushi chef who has had years of training and employs a masterful and no less artful way of cutting fish in a precise manner.
To achieve that balanced taste of sushi, being able to select the right ingredients is essential.
What Types of Seafood is Used to Make Sushi?
Salmon, tuna, or eel are the types of fish commonly used for traditional sushi. The freshness and quality of the fish play a big role in getting the sushi to taste as it should. If the taste is “fishy,” it is often an indication that the fish is not that fresh or the sushi was not prepared well. It is also important to cut the fish in a precise and consistent manner, so it would melt in your mouth once you eat it.
In an interview with CNN, 30-year sushi chef Masaki Teranishi notes that fresh and quality fish must have firm flesh, and a mushy texture often indicates that the fish is breaking down. If a fish has liquid oozing out of it, Teranishi recommends avoiding it.
Common Ingredients in Sushi
An often underrated ingredient, sushi rice is different from regular rice as it must be mixed with red vinegar and salt. American variants of sushi rice may sometimes add sugar, but that is not a common practice among authentic Japanese sushi chefs.
Moreover, instead of mixing it in a metal bowl, it is best to mix sushi rice in a wooden steamer with a wooden spoon so that the taste of metal will not affect it.
Vegetables like cucumber or tropical fruit like mangoes and even egg omelets are all selected based on how they could balance out the taste of the fish.
More often than not, it may depend on the type of sushi that’s being made, whether it’s a maki (sushi roll), a nigiri (hand-pressed sushi), temaki (cone-shaped sushi wrapped in nori or seaweed), chirashi (bowl of sushi rice topped with fish or seafood), or inari (sushi wrapped in a pouch of tofu), but the main objective is to harmonize all the flavors.
Sushi cannot be served without soy sauce — Japanese soy sauce in particular, as this tastes different from other types of soy sauce. It is important to note, however, that you shouldn’t marinate the sushi in soy sauce; simply dip a small part of it in order to fully appreciate the taste of the sushi itself.
Pickled ginger is also served as a side dish, but one that’s not meant to be eaten with the sushi. Instead, pickled radish is meant to be eaten to cleanse your palette.
Of course, sushi is almost never served without wasabi, but sushi-eating etiquette states that you shouldn’t mix the wasabi directly on the soy sauce. Instead, it should be added onto the sushi.
A Harmony of Flavors
For the Japanese, sushi is more than just raw fish on rice — it takes a certain kind of skill and artfulness to prepare this seemingly ostensible yet sophisticated dish. There’s a lot that goes into the preparation and selection of ingredients, particularly in the fish that’s being used.
Freshness is, of course, the overriding quality, so if you’re interested in making your own sushi, you might consider, say, caring for a salmon in aquaponics systems to ensure its freshness and quality.
So, again, what does sushi taste like? It is a harmony of flavors in which its ingredients and preparation play a significant role in keeping its flavor authentic and nothing short of a unique experience.