Answering sushi related questions on Quora was the beginning of my writing career. I’ve written over 300 sushi and food-related articles on Quora since 2016.
I realized that there were many sushi eaters out there who did not know some of the basic things about sushi, like where it came from and what sushi is. I also discovered there was a lot of misunderstanding about sushi and Japanese cuisine. Many non-Japanese people thought eating Fugu meant automatic death when no one (or only a few in several years) dies from eating Fugu in Japan.
I’ve been a sushi chef for almost twenty years, and I’ve learned a few things about sushi since then. Like many of you, I did not know most of the things in this article when I started my training.
Here are some of the most common things you probably did not know about sushi.
1. Sushi is not raw fish.
By definition, sushi is seasoned rice with ingredients. It is said the word sushi came from Su Meshi, vinegar rice. Sushi rice is called “Shari” in Japanese. “Neta” is an ingredient. Fish happens to be the most popular Sushi Neta. Some traditional non-fish Netas includes Tamago (Egg custard), Oshinko (Daikon Pickles), Cucumber, Ume (pickled plum), Kanpyō (dried gourd strips) Spinach, Shitake mushroom to name a few. In recent years, we have seen “newcomers” like mac and cheese sushi, hamburger sushi, beef sushi and Banana Sushi introduce by one of the Kaiten Sushi restaurant, Kura Sushi.
2. Sushi was not invented in Japan
Originally developed in Southeast Asia as a way to preserve fish in salt and rice. The preserving technique was introduced to Japan through China around the 8th century. The form of sushi, nigiri and rolls we know now was developed in Tokyo (called “Edo” around the 19th century. In the beginning, it was a street fast food served at a sushi stand, just like a hot dog stand. We see the remaining of the original stand as a sushi bar at sushi restaurants.
3. Sushi rice is not sticky rice
Many people think sushi rice means “sticky rice.” Sticky rice refers to mochi rice, which is used to make mochi. To make sushi rice, sushi chefs add sushi vinegar to cooked rice. Sushi vinegar has salt and sugar. The high sugar content in sushi vinegar gives stickiness to rice and keeps rice stick together. This, I believe, is why many people assume sticky rice is used to make sushi rice.
4. California Roll is an American invention
The story goes like this. One evening a customer at the sushi bar in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, requested a “special.” The sushi chef used avocado (that was not a common sushi ingredient back then) and called it avocado special. The customer liked it so much that it became a regular menu and evolved to the California Roll we know now. Recently, a sushi chef in Canada claimed he invented it first. Regardless, California roll has become the most popular sushi item in America.
5. Nobody ate Tuna sushi until recently
Around 12–13 century in Japan, tuna was called “shibi,” which rhymed with “day of the dead” in Japanese. So, they avoided eating tuna because it was bad luck. Until the 19th century, when Yohei Hanaya invented nigiri sushi, people considered eating tuna as a low class. Yohei marinated tuna in soy sauce and used for his sushi and became a popular sushi item (full article here).
6. Nigiri or roll?
When Japanese say sushi, they think of nigiri. When Americans think of sushi, they say Rolls.
7. Not all fish taste great when they are really fresh
Similar to beef aging, tuna (yellowfin, big eye and bluefin) starts to taste better after one to two weeks of aging. Fresh off the boat Halibut has no flavor and chewy. It’s like eating rubber. (more on here)
8. Sashimi is not fish
Sashimi means sliced meat. Therefore, sliced raw beef has the name “Beef Sashimi.” Japanese enjoy chicken sashimi (only fresh selected chicken) and vegetable sashimi as well.
9. Most so-called wasabi is not really wasabi
Most sushi restaurants in the US use powdered wasabi — a combination of “western” horseradish and mustard with some food coloring. Of course, there are some restaurants that use “real” wasabi powder. So why do most of them use non-wasabi power? Because wasabi costs a lot. The fresh wasabi from Japan can cost anywhere from $50-$100/lbs., which could cost more than Toro (tuna belly).
10. Purple is Soy Sauce at the sushi bar
There are many secret words sushi chefs use. Aniki, an “older brother,” refers to older ingredients (fish). Ototo, “the younger brother,” is a newer ingredient (fish). Shibuichi means a quarter cut of tuna. Yama, mountain means sold out as “eight-six” in the American kitchen. Agari means Green Tea. Murasaki, “Purple” is soy sauce because of its color. The name “Gari,” pickled ginger, comes from the sound it makes when chewing. Omakase loosely translates as “I leave it up to you.” When asking for a check/bill, you can say, “Oaiso” in Japanese (more on here).
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