Sushi shot to fame in the West as perhaps the ultimate yuppie food in the mid-1980s – being met by groans of “Ugh, raw fish!” from people with more traditional European tastes.
But in fact it’s not necessarily anything to do with raw fish at all. Sushi is simply vinegared rice served with other ingredients which may or may not include raw fish. Other ingredients typically involved in making pieces of sushi are meat, fresh or pickled vegetables, egg, tofu and of course nori – the greenish-blackish sheets of dried seaweed which often forms a wrapping.
The type of rice is a key factor. Sushi rice is a sticky, soft, short-grained form of rice, much more similar to Italian risotto rice than the long-grained rice typically eaten with Chinese, Indian or Thai meals.
Originally sushi started out – over 2,000 years ago – as a means of preserving fish, where the fish would be wrapped in rice and salt and left to ferment. The fish would be eaten and the rice wrapping thrown away. There are still some forms of sushi that resemble this process (funazushi, made around Lake Biwa near Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto, is a strong-smelling example).
Then, around the sixteenth century, people started to add vinegar to the rice, which made the fish taste better and keep longer. It also enabled the fermentation process to be shortened and, eventually, abandoned – the rice and fish were simply eaten together when the sushi was made.
Types of sushi
There are several basic forms of sushi:
This simplest form of sushi consists simply of hand-formed mounds of sushi rice with a slice of fish (or sweet egg) laid over it, often with a small blob of wasabi (the hot Japanese horseradish-like root). Sometimes a strip of nori binds the topping to the rice.
Perhaps what most Westerners think of as sushi, these are the rolls made using rice, sheets of nori (usually) and a wide variety of fillings. They’re made using a bamboo mat called a makisu. There are several variants, including futomaki (a wide or fat maki roll), uramaki (rolled with rice on the outside, sometimes with roe or sesame seeds as an outer coating) and temaki (cone-shaped rolls with the ingredients spilling out at the open end).
A speciality of Osaka and the Kansai region towards the western end of Japan’s largest island, Honshu. They’re made using a wooden mould called an oshibako in which the toppings are laid, covered with sushi rice, and then the whole thing pressed together. The rectangular block is then removed from the mould and cut into individual pieces.
Literally “scattered sushi”, this is a bowl part-filled with sushi rice and topped with a variety of ingredients, often raw fish. It’s eaten every year at the Doll Festival in March. There are several regional variations – in the Tokyo Bay area the ingredients are arranged artistically on top of the rice, in Kansai they’re mixed in with the rice.