Sushi 101

If temaki is still as foreign to you as Tokyo, read on. We tell you all about raw fish and rolls, seaweed and sashimi — everything you need to know to become a sushi sophisticate


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Sushi Q&A

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

What does the word “sushi” mean?
You may be surprised to find that the word “sushi” doesn’t mean raw fish; it is an outdated Japanese term that literally means “it’s sour.” It refers to vinegared rice, commonly topped or mixed with fish or vegetables. Over 600 years ago, rice and raw fish were fermented together to create what is now known as narezushi. In later years sushi chefs added vinegar to the rice to increase the dish’s sourness. The recipes evolved to become what we know as sushi today, but some restaurants in Japan still serve forms of the original narezushi.

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

Where does sushi as we know it today come from?
During the 19th century, a Japanese chef named Hanaya Yohei decided to create an alternative version that could be eaten on the go with little mess — a sort of “fast food” form of the original. Since the fermenting process took a while, he developed a fresh fish and rice dish that became quite popular. It was originally called Edomae sushi because it was made with fresh fish caught from the Edo-mae (Tokyo Bay). Some traditionalists still insist on using the term for modern-day sushi.

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, so am I out of luck when it comes to sushi?
No. Certain types of sushi do not use fish as an ingredient at all; Inari typically is made up of only rice and tofu. You can also ask for temaki or maki without fish. Some popular vegetarian maki include umeshiso (salted plum and basil), oshinko (pickle), avocado, cucumber, or asparagus rolls.

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

What is that spicy, gritty-looking mound of green paste on my sushi plate?
It’s wasabi, of course! Real wasabi is the grated above-ground root of the wasabi plant, a small leafy sprout native to Japan. The paste that results is a highly sought-after culinary ingredient and is used in only the most elite Japanese sushi bars and restaurants. Most sushi joints here in the U.S. use an imitation wasabi mustard from Japan that consists of horseradish and mustard powder and is dyed green.

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

Is it true that certain types of sushi can kill you?
One type of sushi, fugu, that has been named the deadliest food in the world. Fugu is the meat of the blowfish, those little sea creatures that puff up when frightened. The organs and roe of the fish contain deadly toxins that, when ingested, cause paralysis at best and death at worst. (You might remember the famous Simpsons episode in which Homer goes through an existential examination of his life after downing a fugu meal.) Japanese chefs train for seven years before becoming licensed to prepare the deadly dish, since the smallest twitch of the wrist can cause the toxins to leak into the meat. “Fugu is thought to be one of the most delicious fish,” says Makio Idesako of Amici Sushi in High Falls. “The people who die from it are usually those who want to try to get high from tasting the liver.” (In minuscule portions the poisons in the liver cause numbness in the lips and a floating feeling; this high is occasionally not lethal, but in many cases is followed by respiratory failure.) Even though dozens of people die from ill-prepared fugu dishes each year, fugu is becoming more and more common in Japanese homes and supermarkets. As far as finding fugu in this country, about 10 restaurants in New York City are licensed to serve it. Who’d think that such a cute little fish could be such a killer?

Japanese kanji (or character) for "sushi"

Why do I rarely see women working as sushi chefs?
Traditionally, women could not become sushi chefs because their hands were thought to be warmer than a man’s. It’s important to have very cold hands when making sushi because rice sticks to warm fingers. A cold-water tap often runs near the sushi bar so that chefs can rinse their hands. Today, many women are training to become sushi chefs.


Next: How to be sushi-savvy »


Did you know...?

The Hudson Valley is jam-packed with great sushi joints! Dig in to our Web Exclusive, “Ready to Roll,” to find out where they are.


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