I have always been fascinated by Japanese food. I like the tastes – the salty hot condiments, the fish so fresh it is often eaten raw, the vegetables so perfectly and lightly fried (or steamed or grilled), the beautiful courses devoted to vegetables only, served with a simplicity that permits us to taste the flavors and experience the textures of the beautiful ingredients.
In Kyoto, I went to a sushi bar that catered principally to local people – nobody spoke English nor was any fish displayed in the usual countertop manner. The fish I ordered was taken from the tank in which it was swimming, filleted on the spot, and the meat sliced to be eaten raw. Its bones were deep-fried and served deliciously crunchy. Another time, I went to a friend’s house who served me with deep-fried fish (Tempura).
I realized that wherever I went, the only thing that was sure to be included in the menu was fish-dishes. It became a fascinating topic to me, so I decided to write about Why fish is a significant part of the Japanese diet from the point-of-view of a foreigner.
The Japanese archipelago, encircled by the sea, abounds in marine products. Fish, in particular, is essential to the Japanese diet even though recent fishing regulations have made fish expensive. Because fresh fish is easily obtainable, dishes that are eaten raw, like sashimi and sushi, are popular.
Further observation of the Japanese diet has convinced me that fish is deeply related to Japanese culture. For example, when I was served sea bream, which was grilled whole at two consecutive weddings, I came to understand that this fish is considered good luck and is invariably served on such occasions as weddings. (A Japanese friend told me so.) Similarly, prawns are regarded as good luck because, in a figurative sense, the more its tail is curved and its back bent, the longer the eater’s life will be!
So, you can see the connection of fish to the Japanese diet and culture. It is considered an absolute necessity, and the fish dishes in Japan are very delicious!
Sushi is considered an art form. It is elegantly arranged to enhance its simplicity and natural beauty. The method of preparation, shape, and taste differ somewhat depending on the locality. Each sushi holds its tradition and characteristic. Sushi is very attractive because it is prepared quickly before the customer’s eyes by the sushi chef.
Sushi is not only the most famous Japanese dish among foreigners but probably also among the Japanese themselves. During the Edo period, “sushi” was pickled fish conserved in vinegar. Nowadays, sushi can be defined as a dish containing rice that has been prepared with sushi vinegar. There are many different types of sushi. Some popular ones are:
Nigiri sushi is a slice of fish (cooked or uncooked) pressed by hand onto a pad of rice. Fish roe is also served as nigiri sushi in a style called gunkan, meaning “boat”. Nigiri sushi contains a hint of horseradish and is meant to be dipped in soy sauce. They are always served in pairs.
- Temaki: Sushi cones rolled by hand.
- Norimaki: Sushi rolls: Rice, seafood, etc. rolled in nori sheets (seaweed).
- Futomaki: Especially big norimaki.
Maki sushi contains strips of fish or vegetables rolled in rice and wrapped in crisp, thin sheets of dried seaweed. There are many combinations that even the timidest can enjoy- smoked salmon, fresh crab, or shrimp. The adventurous can sample delicacies like an octopus, raw clams, sea urchin, or salted fish roe.
- Gunkan: Cups made with rice and nori filled with fish eggs (e.g., Ikura, Tobiko), other seafood, etc.
- Chirashi: Seafood spread over sushi rice.
- Inari: Aburaage (deep-fried tofu) bags filled with sushi rice.
Making Sushi at Home
Where do I get the ingredients?
Making sushi at home is easy, but most people prefer to leave it to the experienced sushi chef. Ingredients and equipment for sushi can be found at Japanese and Asian food stores as well as at natural food stores.
Fresh fish that is eaten raw must be prepared from fish that has not been out of the water for more than 24 hours and must be properly chilled. Most fish have a shelf life of about five days. A reliable fish shop can provide better quality fish than that found packaged in a supermarket. If you are in doubt about the freshness of the fish, do not eat it raw. It is IMPORTANT to know that no freshwater fish are eaten raw before it has been frozen because of the possible presence of parasites.
How To Make Nigiri
- Take a couple tablespoons of rice in the right hand and gently form into an oval-shape.
- Hold a slice of fish in the left hand.
- Put a streak of wasabi on the fish slice with the right index finger.
- Press ball of rice down on fish slice.
- Roll piece over either with your fingers or your left-hand thumb.
- Gently press down of piece with one or two fingers, rotate 180 degrees and repeat. Remember not to press the rice too hard, or it will become pasty and unappetizing. The ideal is to have each piece of rice intact.
Things to remember:
- The fish is supposed to be chilled. Don’t hold fish in your hand for too long because it will absorb the heat from your hand.
- The finished piece should have an arch to it and hang over the rice on all four sides.
- A sushi expert can make more than 12 pieces in a minute.
- It only takes a sushi chef 10 years to master this.
How To Make Maki Sushi
- Place a piece of roasted nori about one inch up from sushi roller.
- Spread rice over nori (seaweed), leaving a half-inch free of rice at the top. The amount of rice is up to you, but a good amount is just enough to cover the nori.
- Place fish and/or vegetables in the center of the rice.
- Pick up the roller from the bottom and roll around the insides. Make sure you get an excellent tuck so that there are no empty pockets inside the roll.
- Repeat, only pressing on the sides and not the top. Rolling twice is usually enough, but roll a third time if you have to. Remember not to press too tightly, or the rice will become an unappetizing paste.
- Slice into six pieces for regular rolls and four pieces for large rolls.
Recipe For Sushi Rice
- 2 cups white short-grained rice
- 2 cups of water
- ¼ cup of rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 3″ square of konbu (optional)
Rinse rice thoroughly till water runs clear. Drain the rice (for about an hour) and then add the water, bury the kelp, and the rice to the covered saucepan in which you will cook it. Bring to a boil. Remove kelp just as the water boils and discard. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 5 min. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook 15 minutes without removing the lid. Remove from heat and let sit covered for 10 min.
While the rice is cooking, heat vinegar, sugar, and salt until everything dissolves. Let cool.
Place rice in a large pan (use wood or glass, so the vinegar doesn’t react with any metal.) Set the fan up to blow on the rice. With a wooden spoon or rice paddle stir in seasoning a little at a time. Careful not to smash the rice. Periodically dip the paddle in cool water to keep the rice from sticking. This should take about 10 minutes.
Keep at room temperature covered with a moist towel. Don’t refrigerate. It should be eaten the day it is made. Have a little bowl of 2/3 cup water and 1/3 cup vinegar to dip your fingers in to prevent sticking while constructing sushi.
There’s More to Sushi then Just Food
Sushi began as a way of preserving fish. The raw, cleaned fish was pressed between rice and salt by a heavy stone for a few weeks. Then, a lighter cover was used, and a few months later, it was considered ready to eat. Not until the 18th century did a chef decide to serve sushi in its present form and forget about the fermentation process altogether.
In Osaka, there is still an elaborate tradition of sushi pressed with rice in wooden boxes. This type of sushi is called hako-sushi.
Japanese have a deep-rooted fondness of nature, and this is often carried over to the arrangement of food. The pieces are arranged to enhance their natural beauty. Often nature and the outdoors are captured by using a plate resembling a fish in motion, a quiet river nook, or a deep pool. The fish itself evokes an image of the creature swimming through underwater weeds and roots.