Rice, fish, and nori are the most common sushi ingredients. One of the most noticable features of a sushi restaurant is the counter and the glass cooler filled with the fish and seafood. These fish may be sliced and served without rice as sashimi or may be placed on the rice as nigiri sushi. A closer look reveals that between the rice and the topping there may be a thin spread of spicy wasabi. After a few visits to sushi restaurants you will begin to discover that there is much more to sushi than fish and rice. Trying these can make each visit an exciting new experience.
Sushi is prepared to attain maximum flavor and visual appeal.
Rice is arguably the most important sushi ingredient. It is the basis on which almost everything else is built. Sushi requires a special short-grain rice that will stick together when molded and yet not be too sticky. When cooked and mixed with vinegar and sugar this becomes sushi meshi (寿司飯), the rice used in sushi. Prepared properly sushi rice has an excellent flavor and just the right stickiness to hold its shape. I'd suggest buying a high quality cultivar such as koshihikari (コシヒカリ, 越光) and making it yourself. After mixing the rice, vinegar, and cooling it is ready to use and is now called 'shari'. It takes some practice but even on your first try you should have better tasting shari than most American sushi restaurants.
Sushi chefs choose their rice carefully. Often mixing for desired consistency. They do not use "new" rice because it contains too much moisture and will result in shari that is too sticky. Never insult itamae's rice - unless you are not planning to return.
The vinegar used on the rice is rice vinegar, called 'komezu'. There is also a flavored version called 'awasezu'.
Nori is a thin paper-like product that is sometimes refered to as seaweed. However, it is made from red algae. It is sold in sheets and used to wrap sushi or flavor soups and sauces. Both quality and freshness are important when choosing nori for sushi. In stores you may find yakinori or sushi nori, these are versions that are roasted or dried over fire giving a lightly smoked flavor.
Two species Porphyra umbilicalis and Porphyra tenera are used. The British call this seaweed "laver" so you may see this for some translations of nori.
Full size sheets, approximately 7 inches by 8 inches, are used for sushi. The sheets should be fresh, meaning dry and crisp or they will be leathery. After opening keep them tightly sealed to maintain crispiness. You may need to briefly roast them over charcoal or electric plate if they are not. Open flame doesn't work as well because it has a high moisture content. The sushi rice should be cool before using or the steam coming from it will soften the nori.
Norimaki is any maki that uses nori. They include futomaki, uramaki, temaki, and gunkan maki. All use nori for flavor and to help maintain the maki's shape.
Wasabi - 山葵
Wasabi is the spicy condiment used between the rice and the topping. It is the rhizome of the Wasabia japonica plant. The plant is in the same family as horse radish and mustard but it has a unique taste. The taste has a burning sensation to both the mouth and to the nasal passages.
To prepare wasabi for sushi the rhizome is ground on a grater called an oroshigame or, more traditionally, on a board covered with shark skin (samegawa). After wasabi has been ground, a chemical reaction begins. This will create a spicy flavor that will build over time and then end within 15 minutes.
Wasabi powder or kona wasabi (わさび粉) is also available. To prepare wasabi with the powder begin with a high quality, freeze-dried, rhizome only, wasabi powder and mix with cold water. A good ratio to begin with is a 40/60 blend of wasabi powder to water. The addition of water begins the chemical reaction that creates the spicy sensation. Just like fresh wasabi the flavor will grow to a peak and then decline in about 15 minutes.
Have you ever had real wasabi with your sushi? Probably not. Almost all sushi restaurants use a prepared blend of horse radish, mustard, and food coloring. The wasabi plant Wasabia japonica grows naturally in the slow moving mountain streams of Japan. There are two methods of cultivation, in a field or in clear slow-flowing streams. Wasabi from streams is of higher quality and suitable for culinary use. Originally grown only in Japan stream-grown wasabi is now cultivated in the Pacific Northwest. The current price for this wasabi is $150/pound.
- Sawa wasabi
- This is the highest grade of wasabi. It is found in clear slow-flowing streams. It has been over-harvested and is now quite rare.
- Oka wasabi
- This type of wasabi is grown in fields. The wasabi plant likes cool even temperatures which are hard to control in a field. For this reason this type of wasabi is of lower quality. Because of the quality, this type of wasabi is used for nutritional supplements rather than culinary purposes.
- Hon wasabi
- Hon wasabi translates as "true wasabi". This is freshly grated wasabi, not the powdered "kona" wasabi or the paste that comes in a tube.
Seafood - 海鮮
Japanese approach seafood quite differently than other cultures. In Japan fish are often seasonal, much like fruits and vegetable in the rest of the world. They have names for various parts of the fish just as we do for chicken or beef. And the popular tuna called toro has three or four grades based on the amount of fat. Others change names with size and age.
Shusseuo (出世魚) are fish whose name changes throughout the life of the fish. The change depends of age and size. Some of the fish that are shusseuo include kohada, yellowtail, seabass, and bora.
Here are some examples:
For yellowtail: Wakashi - up to 15cm, Inada - about 40cm, Warasa - about 60cm, Buri - 90cm or greater
For seabass: seigo, fukko, suzuki, ootarou
For grey mullet: oboko, subashiri, ina, bora, todo
For gizzard shad: shinko up to 5cm, kohada about 10cm, konoshiro over 15cm
Seafood is, of course, much more than fish. Other than fish what is considered seafood? The organs of fish and the roe, decapods such as crab, shrimp, and lobster, shell fish such as clams, geoducks, and whelks, eels, octopus, sea urchins, and products made from fish.
Fish for sushi can be divided into two types akami and shiromi - red and white. These represent the two colors of fish, but not just color, each has a distinctly different origin, taste and different handling needs. Red fish is mainly tuna in its various types. The red in these fish comes from the amount of red blood cells in the body. These fish are powerful swimmers with strong muscles. With this comes distinctive robust flavor. Whitefish are slow, often feeding near the bottom. Their flavor is more subtle. Whitefish should be eaten as soon as possible after the fish is caught, while red fish needs to wait and then be eaten while still fresh.
In addition to red and white fish there are also "silvery" fish called hikari mono. These fish have a bright silver skin which is served with the skin side up. Some of the common types include mackerel, kohada, aji, sayori, and iwashi (sardine). Because they spoil easily hikarimono must be very fresh. They are also often small with many bones making them difficult to prepare, testing itamae's skills.
Not all fish used for sushi is raw. The fish may be cooked, lightly flame grilled, smoked, or cured. Fish that has been lightly grilled is called tataki.
On any given day there are over 400 items available at Tsukiji, Tokyo's largest fish market. Items change with the seasons and the luck of the fishermen. All languages have a variety of names for each fish, some due to regional variations and others due to marketing. Also, a name for a fish may actually represent several different species.
I have tried to cover as many of these as possible. This leads to some fish having multiple translations.
Here are some of the more common fish used for sushi:
|Sake||鮭・サケ||Salmon||Salmo and Oncorhynchus|
|Tai||鯛・タイ||Red snapper||Lutjanus campechanus|
|Toro||とろ・トロ||Slightly fatty bluefin tuna||Thunnus maccoyii|
|Chu toro||中とろ・ チュートロ||Medium fatty bluefin tuna|
|Otoro||大とろ・大瀞・オオトロ||Very fatty bluefin tuna|
|Hon maguro||本鮪・ホンマグロ||Highest grade of tuna, never frozen||Thunnus orientalis|
|Hamachi||魬・ハマチ||Japanese amberjack, yellowtail||Seriola quinqueradiata|
|Aji||鯵・アジ||Horse mackerel||Trachurus picturatus|
|Kanpachi||勘八・勘八・カンパチ||Greater amberjack||Seriola dumerili|
|Kihada||黄肌||Ahi, yellowfin||Thunnus albacares|
Eels are long thin fish and both freshwater and saltwater varieties are used. The common freshwater eel is Unagi and anago is a saltwater species; they are the two most common eels found in sushi restaurants. In Kyoto you may also find 'hamo' which is conger pike eel.
Preparing unagi is a multi-step process; they are first grilled and then steamed. Then they are then brushed with a sweet sauce and grilled again to get a crisp exterior. It must be served warm because the high fat content will be hard when cold.
Unagi begin their lives in the ocean. they lay their eggs there and the larvae find their way to fresh water streams. This makes them difficult to farm.
Anago is a saltwater fish. It is less fatty than unagi. This makes it suitable for eating cold. It is first boiled and then grilled. It is brushed with a sweet tsume sauce that makes anago a good choice for the end of a meal.
|Anago||穴子・アナゴ||European conger||Conger conger|
|Hamo||鱧・ハモ||Daggertooth pike conger||Muraenesox cinereus|
|Unagi||鰻・ウナギ||Japanese eel||Anguilla japonica|
|Noresore||のれそれ・ノレソレ||Conger eel larvae|
|Ma anago||真穴子・マアナゴ||Whitespotted conger||Conger myriaster|
Sushi shellfish includes mainly clams, scallops, and abalone. The Japanese word for shell or shellfish is kai (貝). When 'shell' is the second part of a Japanese word the 'kai' becomes 'gai'. So, as you can see in the table below, almost all shellfish that are mollusks end in 'gai'.
In English shellfish includes much more than mollusks, but here only mollusks are included. Oysters or kaki don't appear in the table because they are not often used in sushi.
|Baigai||蛽貝・バイガイ||Whelk, bullock, ivory shell||"Various"|
|Hamaguri||蛤・蚌・ハマグリ||Orient clam||Meretrix lusoria|
|Hotategai||帆立貝・ホタテガイ||Ezo scallop||Mizuhopecten yessoensis|
|Hokkigai||北寄貝・ホッキガイ||Duck clam||Mactra chinensis|
|Akagai||赤貝||Ark shell||Scapharca broughtonii|
|Mategai||馬蛤貝マテガイ||Razor clam||Solen strictus|
|Sazae||栄螺・サザエ||Horned turban||Turbo cornutus|
|Shijimi||シジミ||Corbica clam||Corbicula japonica|
|Tairagi||馬蛤貝・マテガイ||Razor clam||Solen strictus|
|Torigai||鳥貝・トリガイ||Bird shell clam||Fulvia mutica|
Shrimp, Crab, and Other Decapods
These are the shellfish with legs and claws; shrimp, crab, lobster, and squid are members of this group. Most of these are cooked before being served as sushi.
|Ama ebi||甘海老・アマエビ||Sweet shirmp||Pandalus borealis|
|Botan ebi||牡丹海老・ボタンエビ||Botan shrimp||Pandalus nipponensis|
|Hotaru ika||蛍烏賊擬・ホタルイカ||Firefly squid||Watasenia scintillans|
|Ise ebi||伊勢海老・イセエビ||Lobster||Homarus gammarus|
|Kuruma ebi||車海老・クルマエビ||Japanese tiger prawn||Marsupenaeus japonicus|
|Shiba ebi||芝海老・シバエビ||Shiba shrimp||Metapenaeus joyneri|
|Uchiwa ebi||団扇海老・ウチワエビ||Japanese fan lobster||Ibacus ciliatus|
Sushi aficionados are probably familiar with uni, ikrua, and tobiko, but there are many other roes and sex organs that make their way into sushi. These are usually salted or preserved in some way.
|Ankimo||鮟肝||アンキモ||Steamed anglerfish liver|
|Masago||真砂子||Smelt or capelin roe|
|Mentaiko||明太子||Marinated cod or pollock roe with red pepper|
|Sakana tamago||魚卵||Fish roe|
|Tobiko||飛び子||Flying fish roe|
|Uni||雲丹||うに||Sea urchin roe|
Surimi is ground fish (or meat) that has been pulverized and had ingredients added to solidify and flavor. The texture can be similar to other proteins or to hard-boiled egg. Surimi can be cooked using any method. When steamed it is called kamaboko.
Perhaps the most famous fish product is kani kamaboko or its shortened form kanikama - fake crab meat. It is made from surimi flavored with crab juice and then formed and colored to look like real crab meat.
Narutomaki is another surimi product. It is a molded cylinder about 1 1/2 inches (4 -5 cm) in diameter. When sliced a pink swirl pattern is revealed. This is served in soups or noodle dishes to add decoration.
Tamago is the Japanese word for egg but it also means the traditional egg omelet 'tamago yaki'. Tamago yaki is made in a pan called a tamagoyaki nabe (玉子焼き鍋・たまごやきなべ). These pans are often non-stick and rectangular shape making it easier to fold the mixture into layers.
Ingredients for tamago yaki include eggs, soy sauce, and a sweetener such as sugar or mirin. Mitsuba parsley, dashi, or other ingredients can be used to flavor the tamago yaki. When dashi is used for flavoring the dish is called dashimaki tamago.
The folded layers can be cut into slices for nigiri sushi. Because of its sweetness this is a good dish to have at the end of a meal.
There are only a few vegetables commonly used with sushi but almost any could be used.
Daikon is a large white radish that is either grated or cut into very thin strings and used as decoration.
Shiso leaf is used as a herb and may be wrapped inside a makizushi or used as an edible decoration. It is a member of the mint family. Shiso is known as beefsteak plant or perilla in English. Japanese use both green and purple cultivars.
Vegetables can be cut into strips and used as an ingredient in makizushi. Cucumber, carrots, asparagus, burdock (gobo) and avocado, are some of the more commonly used vegetables.