寿司 / Sushi -Food culture Japan proudly shares with the world-
Sushi is written as 寿司 and is made up of the words kotobuki (寿) meaning ‘to celebrate’ and tsukasadoru (司る) which means ‘to rule or govern’. There are probably a lot of people who believe that you cannot begin a new year’s feast without sushi and sake (also known as nihon-shu); it really is the king of Japanese food culture. Sushi is hugely popular here in Australia, so the next time you are enjoying some, make yourself an ambassador and spread the word!
‘Sushi’ is one of the Japanese words that are understood all over the world. The combination of cooked vinegared rice, known as sumeshi or shari, and seafood and other toppings (known as neta) could be called Japan’s national food, however the simple title of ‘sushi’ is used to cover a broad range of dishes that have been prepared using various methods including being hand-formed, rolled, packed, or pressed, just to name a few. Interestingly, in Japan the term ‘sushi’ usually refers to nigirizushi (hand-formed shari topped with fish or other topping), but here in Adelaide, the image that springs to most local’s minds is makizushi (rolled sushi)!?
The history of sushi
It is commonly believed that the term ‘sushi’ originally comes from the word ’酢飯’ (sumeshi, su = vinegar and meshi = cooked rice) and somewhere in history the middle ‘me’ was cut leaving the word ‘su-shi’. The original type of sushi, now known as narezushi, was first created in Southeast Asia during the 4th century BC and was made by placing gutted fish that were salted in uncooked rice and allowed to ferment which preserved the fish.
Narezushi then travelled through China and the technique was introduced to Japan during the 8th century. During the last part of the Muromachi period (15~16th centuries) narezushi came to be considered a type of food in its own right rather than simply a method for preserving, and people began eating it with rice.
The style of sushi that is popular today, known as nigirizushi, spread during the Edo period (17~19th centuries). This style is also known as edomaezushi as it used seafood and seaweed that was caught in Tokyo Bay (at that time known as ‘Edo-no-mae’ (in front of Edo) sea).
After the war, sushi restaurants were considered to be high-market restaurants in Japan, however this changed with events such as the opening of the first kaiten-zushi (often called things like ‘conveyor belt sushi’, or ‘sushi train’, or even ‘sushi-go-round’). This new wave of sushi restaurants became popular with the general public, and now sushi can even be enjoyed at home.
Types of sushi and ways to eat it
Known as ‘hand-formed sushi’ this sushi is made by pressing a small mound of sumeshi (sushi rice) between the palms of your hands to make a rectangular bar of rice. This is then topped with some sort of ‘neta’ (topping) such as fresh seafood or Japanese style omelette. Nigirizushi is usually eaten in one mouthful. There are many types of shōyu (soy sauce) used with sushi and these also change depending on the area of Japan you are in, however the most common is tamari shōyu which brings out the flavour of the sashimi (raw fish). Although there is no formal ‘manner’ covering wether you put the shōyu on the sumeshi (also known as shari) or the neta, a lot of people like to put it on the neta as it reduces the risk of the rice falling apart as well as loosing its flavor. (Either way, be careful not to add too much shōyu so you don't loose the foods natural flavor)
Makizushi is very popular as a quick, healthy meal here in Adelaide, loved by everyone regardless of nationality. Also known as ‘norimaki’ (seaweed roll) sumeshi is spread over a sheet of nori (dried seaweed) and then toppings such as fish and vegetables are placed on top before it is rolled up. It can be cut into bite-size pieces, or you can eat it left as a long stick. If you are making it at home, it’s great to have everyone roll their own sushi, topped with whatever they choose. Salmon, fresh tuna, prawns, cooked egg, vegetable sticks, teriyaki chicken… This is known as ‘temakizushi’ (hand-rolled sushi) and is perfect for parties or family gatherings.
Chirashizushi is commonly eaten home made during times of celebration. Broadly speaking, there are 2 types of chirashizushi, one that has the same ingredients as nigirizushi placed on top of the sumeshi, and the other is a mix of fish and vegetables that have been finely shredded and sprinkled over the seasoned rice.
This type of sushi is popularly used in bento boxes and is made by simmering abura-age (tofu pouches) in a sweet spicy soup then filling them with sumeshi. It is believed that Monzenmachi in the Toyokawainari region of Aichi prefecture is where this type of sushi originated, and was called inarizushi because the fox messengers of the god named Inari loved abura-age.
Sumeshi and toppings are layered in a special wooden box and compressed for a period of time to make oshizushi. The common fish used include mackerel and trout but are specific to each region of the country. Popular in Western Japan, oshizushi is famous for having well-known bento boxes unique to each region.
On February 3 each year, the setsubun (bean throwing festival) is held to celebrate the day before spring. One tradition of this celebration involves facing the direction deemed to be of good fortune for that particular year (known as ehō) and eating a futomakizushi (thick makizushi); this is believed to bring good luck. It is important to close your eyes and silently eat the futomakizushi while thinking of your wishes. This was originally practiced in the heart of Ōsaka, but in recent years people from all over Japan are familiar with the custom. Incidentally, the ehō for 2012 is north-northwest.
The star of sushi
Of course the star of sushi would have to be the neta, but just as important is the sumeshi known as shari. The word ‘shari’ comes from the Buddhist word for Buddha’s bones. According to Buddhist belief, when bones decompose into the soil they return as grains such as rice and wheat, which are very important to all of us. That is to say, it was believed that rice is the incarnation of Buddha’s bones, and thus a very sacred item.
Even though the shari used by sushi restaurants is a carefully balanced blend, at home any short grain rice can be used to make delicious homemade sushi. The essential sushi vinegar can be made using a grain based vinegar and mixing in sugar and salt, or you can use pre-prepared sushi vinegar which has these mixed in already.
Sushi’s supporting roles
The degree of freshness is crucial to sushi. It is taken for granted that you must use fresh seafood, but one of the necessities when enjoying raw fish is wasabi. Wasabi not only takes away the ‘fishy’ smell and sharpens the flavour, it is also effective in killing germs. Similarly, ‘gari’, the pickled ginger eaten with sushi, not only freshens your mouth, it too works as a good sterilizer.
Gari is not the only thing that is good for freshening your mouth; ‘agari’ (hot green tea) is also perfect. The word ‘agari’ literally means ‘to complete’ and was originally the term used for hot green tea drunk at the end of a meal of sushi; despite this it is also ok to drink it during the meal. The hot tea melts away any of the fats from the fish that are left in your mouth making the next piece of sushi you eat even more delicious.
To become a respectable sushi chef it is said to take more than 10 years of training, ‘3 years of preparing rice and 8 years of hand-forming the sushi rice’. Because of this, the taste and beautiful appearance of sushi made by a veteran sushi chef is a work of art. For example, the shari made by an experienced sushi chef will not break up in your hands but it is made with the perfect balance for it to melt in your mouth.
There is, in fact, a secret in the hands of an experienced sushi chef. They use vinegar to stop the grains of rice from sticking to their hands, as well as to sterilise them. When you hear the crisp sound of the chef’s perfectly fitting hands clap together and his energetic voice ask what type of sushi you’d like to eat, this clap is actually the sound of him sweeping off the excess vinegar that he has put on his hands. The use of vinegar also reduces the temperature of the hands, which helps to protect the natural flavour of the neta and shari. Another thing that brings out the best in the flavour of the neta is the chef’s use of the knife. The flavour of fish is so delicate that even the same piece can have a completely different taste depending on how it is cut. Perfectly made shari, hand-forming that uses an exquisitely balanced amount of vinegar, and precise knife skills; each of the sushi chef’s techniques holds the secret to Japan’s sushi culture.
Go out and have some sushi!
Photography assistance: LITTLE TOKYO