- 1 Eat sushi.
- 2 Common Types of Sushi
- 3 Japanese Etiquette
So, off we went to the only sushi restaurant in my city. It was unthinkable.
I had to eat raw fish? Is that even legal to sell? Would I die from salmonella poisoning?
I remember ordering the squid, and a black plate arrived in front of me with some pinkish shavings of something and 2 white balls. I wasn’t sure what exactly the “sushi” was. It couldn’t be the 2 white balls–they looked like onions–so I went for the pinkish shavings. It wasn’t until midway through dinner that I realized that I had been eating ginger shavings (gari), and the onion-looking things were the actual sushi. Doh!
A friend of mine had eaten the octopus, and he ran around screaming, “My lip is swollen! I’m having an allergic reaction!” He wasn’t, really, but such antics are part of the fun when you’re experiencing a new, crazy thing.
Fast-forward to today, where the sushi industry is a $2,250,000,000 a year industry in the US alone, and my rite of passage seems more like an average night out on the town.
Sushi originates from Southeast Asia. In days of yore, fishermen needed ways to keep their day’s catch from spoiling, so they stored it with fermented rice. People would discard the rice, eat the fish, and, thus came the earliest form of sushi.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that chefs began serving the raw fish with vinegar-ed rice to give sushi its signature look and sour, umami flavor that we so love today.
The most common type of sushi is called nigiri. It’s a ball of rice mixed with special sushi vinegar with a slice of raw fish on top. Traditionally, a thin layer of wasabi is spread between the rice and fish, and the whole thing is dunked into a dish of soy sauce before eaten. Most likely, you’ll try a variety of sushi while dining out, so eating a piece of gari is a good way to cleanse your palette between fish varieties. Now all you need is a hot cup of green tea, and you’re all set!
Sushi comes in a variety of styles and forms other than nigiri as well. It is also common for vegetables, fermented soybeans, minced fish, and even things like salmon roe to be rolled with dry seaweed (nori) and rice and eaten as a roll. This is usually called gunkan-maki at sushi restaurants. They are usually cheaper than nigiri.
Of course, it’s one thing to read about sushi and how great it is. But, really, the best way to experience sushi is to get out there and start eating. Here are a few different kinds of sushi restaurants you can find in Japan:
1. Conveyor belt sushi (kaiten-zushi)
This is the fun one! It’s a budget-friendly option for people who have no idea what they’re doing. What’s that slimy pink thing wrapped in seaweed? Sample it up! Hundreds of plates are coming your way on the conveyor belt, waiting for you to try what’s on them.
When you enter the restaurant, you simply sit down at a long counter or booth and start taking whatever looks good. The sushi is priced by the color of the plate, and when you’re done eating, a waiter/waitress will count your plates and tally up your total. If you’re on a budget, you can just fill up on ￥100 plates, which include pieces like egg, squid, and vegetable rolls. If you want the whole spectrum, plates can run up to ￥600 apiece at most places. Ever tried sea snails (awabi)? Now’s your chance.
First time eating sushi and not sure if it’s your thing? Hop into a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, plop down on a stool, and try a plate. There’s no minimum amount to spend, so you could try one plate, decide you don’t like it, and you would only pay for what you ate. (Just don’t do it all the time, or you might raise some eyebrows.)
2. Chain and mid-range restaurants
One of the more famous chain sushi restaurants is called Sushi Zanmai. These are peppered throughout the country, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a major train station without one. Here, you order sushi from the menu, and the chef hand-makes it behind the counter right in front of you. The price is very reasonable compared to other similarly styled sushi joints. If, however, the corporate thing isn’t your cup of tea, you can opt for more stylish places in shopping malls and restaurant areas. One great place I ate at was called Shari, which has a modern take on the concept of sushi. It reminds me of the Asian fusion dishes I used to eat in Los Angeles. The décor is pretty swank.
3. Japanese-style bars (izakaya)
Japanese izakaya are a gathering place for friends, co-workers, loved ones, or even significant others. The atmosphere is a bit like a restaurant, except louder, as most people are drinking and being merry. The menu includes just about any kind of Japanese food you could ever want, including the aforementioned sushi! The most famous chain of izakaya is the Watami group with a variety of different chains spread throughout the country. I particularly like their seasonal menus.
4. Upscale restaurants
I’ve never actually been to one of these since ￥10,000+ per head equates more to a hole in my pocket than a mouth full of delicious food. Masu Masuyama in his article likens an upscale sushi restaurant and the rare dishes they serve to buying a $1,000 bottle of wine.
I don’t drink $1,000 bottles of wine either.
To me, sushi is sushi, but if you’ve got the money and the really-expensive-night-out-in-Japan experience is appealing to you, by all means. I’m sure it’s a fabulous experience.
5. Grocery stores
Then again, if just hanging out in your Airbnb and watching strange Japanese TV shows is more your jam, grocery stores are a cheaper alternative to dining out for sushi. Even cramped everything-under-the-sun stores like Don Quijote sell a variety of gorgeously arranged platters. Unless you’re adverse to your food served in disposable plastic containers, this is an on-par alternative!
And if you’re really pinching pennies…
6. Convenience stores!
Yes, you can even get a full sushi meal at one of the plethora of convenience store lining the streets. Chains such as Family Mart and 7-11 sell a 9-piece set for about ￥600, which I dig into regularly. It’s cheap, you don’t have to take a train anywhere, you don’t even have to put on socks! Sushi at its most accessible.
Common Types of Sushi
1. Bluefin Tuna (maguro)
This is the flagship for any sushi restaurant. If you don’t have good tuna (or any at all), then WTF are you doing?! The 3 most common varieties of this delicacy are akami, chuu-toro, and oo-toro. Akami, like the Japanese name suggest, is identifiable for its deep red color. It’s the cheapest and most readily available. The mid-range, and most popular with Japanese clientele, is chuu-toro (medium fatty tuna). Chuu-toro usually runs about ￥100 more than the akami. And oo-toro is the mother of all fatty cuts. It’s also the most expensive at about ￥200 more than the chuu-toro. I’ve sampled all 3, and I still think akami is the most bang for your buck.
Of all the No.2s, this is the No.2-est. Salmon, like tuna, is served in a few different ways. It’s available in leaner and fattier cuts—the fattier ones being more expensive and tastier. It’s also served grilled, where they take a blowtorch-looking thing and fire it until it sizzles. You can also find it minced up and served in a roll with other ingredients such as salmon roe. Most of the non-Japanese people I know say that salmon is their favorite, and it’s one of mine as well.
3. Mackerel (saba)
Alright, you know how I said that salmon was one of my favorites? Well, this one is my definite favorite. It’s usually available vinegar-ed, so when you’re ordering it, say “shime-saba.” I love its slightly sour taste, and the fish itself is also scrumptious and buttery when grilled or fried. If I had a crown small enough to fit a fish’s head (or any crown, thereof), I’d dub thee King Mackerel.
4. Crab (kani)
Any crab fans out there? There’d be more of us if it were served more like this—without that pesky shell to crack open and stab your fingers with. Crab meat is served over rice, just like other cuts of sushi, and is delicious. However, as with the more annoying shelled variety, it’s a bit pricier than the rest, but no sushi feast is complete without at least one serving.
5. Squid (ika)
This is served anywhere from white slivers to half-bodies with the tentacles still hanging off. If you can get past the sight of it, its neutral flavor and chewiness is a nice cool-down.
6. Egg (tamago)
That’s right, it’s not all fish. An egg mixed with a pinch of sugar is fried, folded, and laid on rice and sometimes tied in place with a strip of nori. According to the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the quality of the restaurant hinges on how good the egg sushi is.
This is the oddball of the list. Among expats, fermented soybeans is the most loathed food of all Japanese cuisine. It’s stinky, slimy, it tastes bad, and now it’s invading your precious dinner plate. Natto is usually rolled up in nori and served with anything from slimy okra, slimy potato, even raw quail eggs! It seems that whoever enjoys this dish just wants to get slimed. ‘90s Nickelodeon game shows, anyone? That said, I’ll come forth and admit, I like natto, and I often order it at sushi restaurants (along with whatever slimy pairing the chef has in store). For you more adventurous diners out there, a sushi restaurant is a perfect place to try the famous natto for the first time. Just to say you did.
Once, a friend of mine from the US came to visit me in Japan, and we visited a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. I looked down to wipe my hands with the wet tissue (oshibori) before eating, and by the time I looked back up, he had already devoured 5 plates of sushi. He would take a plate, shovel the sushi in, then grab the next one chugging along.
“You don’t even use soy sauce?” I said.
“What are you talking about?” he said, his mouth full and reaching for his 10th plate.
Etiquette isn’t insanely strict—at least at casual restaurants—but there is a certain routine when eating sushi.
First, you sit down and grab an oshibori to clean your hands off with. Then, it’s time to set out your soy sauce dish and pour in about a tablespoon of soy sauce. Next, get one spoonful of green tea powder, put it in your cup, then fill the cup with hot water from the spigot on the counter. After that, you take a pair of chopsticks from the drawer on the table and rest the thin ends on the chopsticks stand (hashi-oki). If there is no stand, laying them over the soy sauce dish is acceptable.
For those who don’t like the spicy wasabi, it’s becoming more and more acceptable these days to ask for your sushi to be prepared without it—though, in the past, you were supposed to accept whatever the chef put in front of you, as he was the one who knew how the sushi should taste. At conveyor belt restaurants, there is usually a “with” or “without” wasabi option, and more times than not, wasabi is squeezed out in a ball on the side or available in packets. Simply take a small amount with your chopsticks and mix it well with the soy sauce.
As far as putting the sushi into your mouth, the traditional method is eating it with your hands, but these days it’s more common to see diners using chopsticks. When dipping the sushi into the soy sauce, you are supposed to turn the sushi upside-down and dip the fish into the soy sauce. However, if it’s too difficult (as it is for me), it’s not that big of a deal if you just dip the rice side into the sauce (just don’t soak it to the point where the rice falls apart, which may get a few snickers).
Sushi has come a long way in world cuisine since I was in high school. These days, it is a delicacy enjoyed throughout the world. If you’ve never tried it before, then what better place to start than its homeland: Japan!