Japanese Customs – What is Sushi?

Once virtually unknown in the USA, sushi is now a common food associated with the Japanese. So what is sushi? Basically, sushi is cooked rice that has been treated with vinegar and then topped with other ingredients, most commonly seafood. It can also be rolled into a cylinder and sliced, which is called makizushi. Sushi is different from raw sliced fish (served without a bed or rice), which is called sashimi. The traditional form of sushi is fermented fish and rice, preserved in salt. Sushi literally means “it’s sour”, not raw, a misconception of the Western world.

So how is sushi made? Sushi rice is special, short-grained variety of white rice. After cooking, it is mixed with rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. Sometimes sake is added. The rice has to be seasoned at room temperature or it will be too sticky to handle. Traditionally, it is mixed in a hangiri, a round wooden tub, with a shamoji, a wooden paddle. The consistency of the rice is different from the long-grain rice of India and Vietnam. What makes the Japanese rice so desirable for sushi is its stickiness. While different regions of Japan use different types of vinegar and seasonings for the rice, the rice variety remains consistent throughout Japan.

Traditional Japanese sushi is topped with raw fish. Uncooked fish of course must be fresher and of higher quality than fish that is cooked, which is why professional sushi chefs are trained to recognize high quality fish. They have to be able to judge a fish’s characteristics, which include smell, color, and firmness. Commonly used fish are tuna, snapper, yellowtail, mackerel and salmon. Nori, the black seaweed wrapper used to make sushi rolls, is a type of algae. Pressed, dried and flavored with teriyaki and salt, the nori is often eaten alone as a snack, though nori used in sushi making is rarely flavored with teriyaki.

Condiments used to compliment sushi include soy sauce, pickled ginger, gomashio (roasted sesame seeds and sea salt) and wasabi (a green horseradish paste). True wasabi has anti-microbial properties which reduce the risk of food poisoning. A commonly used substitute is horseradish and mustard powder mixed with a green dye, sometimes called “Japanese Horseradish.” In traditional Japanese sushi bars, green tea is always included with the meal. Sake is another common drink served with sushi. Sake, a wine made from rice, is normally served hot in the winter and cold with lemon in the summer months.

Want to impress your friends or family? Host a sushi party – it’s easier than you think. Prepare a low table with some cushions or mats surrounding it. Place a simple vase with a flower or two on the table. Purchase or download some traditional Japanese music that includes the shakuhachi (flute) and shamisen (stringed instrument) to play in the background. Buy a low cost vintage kimono for your guests or just one for yourself if you are serving. Purchase fresh sushi to go at your favorite restaurant or food store (make sure you use it right away). Use a wooden platter for the sushi and small plates for each guest. Don’t forget the chopsticks! Heat some sake, make some green tea, light the candles, turn down the lights, and you are ready to go. A wonderful evening in Japan for your guests!