By Erin Kelly | Contributing Editor
Sushi isn’t what you think. Maybe you’ve tried it already, and you already know what it’s all about. But if you’re new to the sushi game and aren’t sure how to play, don’t worry. It’s not as intimidating as it looks, and once you’ve thrown your hat in the ring, it only gets better from there. Because you’ll be eating sushi.
Are you imagining raw fish? Don’t. Raw fish without rice is called "sashimi,” not sushi. And although traditional Japanese sushi is typically served as an oblong mound of sushi rice draped with toppings of raw fish, the Americanized version of sushi—known as makizushi, or sushi rolls—commonly incorporates cooked ingredients. Yes, makizushi sometimes involves raw fish, but you can also get cooked seafood too, along with a host of other ingredients like avocado, cucumber, cream cheese, and carrots.
Tuna, salmon and yellowtail are among the most common types of fish on American menus, according to Hiroko Shimbo, a global authority on Japanese cuisine.
"The types of fish will depend on the region of the country,” she says. In Louisiana, for example, diners can have rolls stuffed with crawfish.
When it comes to sushi, Hiroko repeats the same word again and again: "Fresh.” Everything is fresh, from the sushi rice to the seafood. The art of crafting those fresh ingredients into delectable pieces of sushi is a long and intricate process that takes years to master, but it pays dividends for the proud chef and the hungry patron. According to Hiroko, author of The Sushi Experience, many sushi beginners get their feet wet with the California roll because of the familiar ingredients (avocado and crab meat), but she clarifies that the idea of a "sushi roll” is largely external to Japan.
She said it’s also uncommon in Japan for diners to pile pinches of wasabi on top of every bite. "In Japan, when the chef makes sushi, wasabi is already included, so no additional wasabi is needed,” she says. "It isn’t topped with additional wasabi, which is common in America.” But, she adds: "There is no one way to eat wasabi that says ‘this is it.’”
Ginger? That’s another story.
For those who have yet to order sushi, here’s a head’s up: Your rolls arrive with wasabi, slivers of ginger, and soy sauce. It’s not uncommon for American diners to pile the ginger on top of their sushi roll, but word to the wise—you’re not supposed to."No, no, stop it,” Hiroko says. "The ginger is a mouth refresher for cleansing the palate between pieces, not to put on top.”
Feel free to have a field day with the wasabi and soy sauce (although some sushi purists insist that the two should never be mixed).
Now, the chopsticks.
It’s perfectly acceptable to eat sushi with your hands. In fact, that’s how it’s done in Japan most of the time. But if you insist on using the chopsticks, make sure you’re doing it right so you can relish the full sushi-eating experience.
"Some people don’t know how to use the chopsticks properly. They squeeze the roll between the chopsticks to pick it up, and the roll gets destroyed,” Hiroko says. "That’s much worse than eating it with your hands.”
When you’re not sure what to order, Hiroko says it might be a good idea to start with ingredients that are familiar to you. Hence, the ever-popular California roll.
You can also ask your server for suggestions. You certainly won’t be the first.