Sushi is one among the many quintessential Japanese food that carries with it a charm that reflects the Japanese approach on so many things—deceptively simple in form yet in reality, an art borne out of strict discipline, patience, and respect to tradition.
Sushi, universally defined as small food articles consisting of vinegared rice and usually added with raw seafood and vegetables, is technically derived from two Japanese words: su for vinegar, and meshi for rice. And while the Internet age will direct you to sites that will teach you how to do sushi the easy way, it doesn’t hurt to appreciate sushi done the traditional way.
With sushi, perfection is key. The complexity and delicateness of sushi preparation is manifested from the beginning to serving, accompanied by a set of how-tos in consumption. First, you have the sushi-grade produce such as seafood, perfecting cuts, and molding the sushi rice made out of the Japanese kitchen staple: short-grain rice. The road to being an itamae (sushi chef) is tedious.
There are several kinds of sushi and the most extensive of sources would tell you that there exists at least a hundred of it. But let’s list the basics, and then you may explore this particular field further when you feel like trying out your hand in becoming an expert of some sort.
- Chirashi sushi, derived from the term “scattered sushi,” consists of sushi rice topped with carefully selected varieties of sashimi or raw fish. This kind is basically a feast of the flavors of the sea and aesthetics. Day Zschock, author of The Little Black Book of Sushi: The Essential Guide to the World of Sushi, nicknamed chirashi sushi as the “sushi salad.” It’s typically served during the famous Hinamatsuri (doll festival), and is broken down according to region specialties, such as the Edomae chirashizushi of Tokyo, which is basically what was described earlier; the Kansai-style Gomokuzushi with the ingredients blended in the rice; and the Sake-zushi from Kyushu that uses rice wine instead of rice vinegar, with the shrimp, sea bream, octopus, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and kinshi tamago (shredded egg crepe) as toppings.
- Inari sushi requires the use of fried tofu pouches called abura age, and is stuffed with sushi rice. Sometimes these pouches would be seasoned in dashi (soup stock) and with mirin (sweet cooking wine). The end product of this would be called Inari Age. Majority of the Asian stores in the country carry these deep fried tofu pouches (check the fridge, they’d have it) and in Korean groceries, these tofu pouches come with rice flavorings.
- The maki, strictly the maki sushi/norimaki, is the sushi type that the Filipinos are most familiar with that sometimes the terms sashimi and maki are used interchangeably. In general, this sushi form would have the rice, fish, and/or vegetables rolled tight in a nori (seaweed wrapper). The most popular maki in the local scene is the California maki, which usually consists of crab stick, cucumber, avocado, and Japanese mayo. However, in the Philippines, mango substitutes for the seasonal avocado. Under the maki umbrella, Japan boasts of several types, one of which would be the futomaki or the fat maki, known for being stuffed with numerous ingredients, but which generally veer toward the vegetarian setting. Where the futomaki would have several, the hosomaki are of the thin variety, sticking with one or two fillings at the most. Uramaki would be the inside-out kind, which is basically more contemporary than its family and non-traditional. Then, the shikai maki that highlights the skills of the itamae since it usually is elegant in form, complex in structure, and artistic in visuals.
- Nigiri sushi is perhaps the most textbook in nature, given that this structure is the most common among many sushi fans. On a bed of carefully-molded sushi rice lies a precise cut of a fish filet or shellfish, and wedged in between is a dash of wasabi.
- Usually called the hand-roll, the temaki sushi is a cone-shaped, tightly-rolled sushi comprised of vegetables, fish, and, of course, the sushi rice. Like the maki, it’s also rolled up in nori, however, this is cone-shaped, while maki is cylindrical.
- From the region of Osaka is oshi sushi or “pressed sushi,” which is rectangular in nature and is celebrated for being one of the oldest sushi forms, rooted in the tradition of seafood preservation. A necessary requirement for this is the box-shaped mold called oshibako which would traditionally be made of wood. Essentially, oshi sushi is characterized by alternating layers of sushi rice, core ingredients, and toppings while pressing in between layers to keep the shape intact.
Sushi can arguably be considered as Japan’s trophy in terms of contributions to the global palate. With a wider market caught up in its charm, several attempts at fusion, modernization and revolutionizing the sushi has come and passed, and while the globalization may have contributed to appreciation of Japanese food in general, it also left consumers unaware of the tradition, history, and hard work poured in perfecting the art of sushi.
Interestingly, the 2016 winter anime season in Japan has Sushi Police in its lineup, with the plot revolving on correcting the ways of sushi worldwide and aggressively exercising their police power to eliminate “unauthentic, bad sushi” while protecting local cuisine via the establishment of the World Food-culture Conservation Organization (WFCO).