Defining What Sushi Is:
The culture of a nation is heavily tied to its approach to food. The cuisine of a country is often regarded as a defining feature of its history and culture. How a chef tackles the preparation of their ingredients, more often than not, shows the consumer how the people have lived with the surrounding landscapes and their evolution as a culture and nation.
When one thinks of the Japanese culture, their delicate and precise handling of seafood often comes to mind. This way of preparing food is encompassed in the world renowned sushi. The direct origins of sushi are clouded in mystery, however, the most common story told is that it is the successor to the ancient dish called nare-zushi. The nare-zushi (which roughly translates to salted fish) was a type of dish which involves the preservation of raw fish. This process involves storing of raw fish in barrels with fermented rice. It is then served by removing the fish from the fermented rice and is consumed on its own. Another predecessor for the modern day sushi would also be the Funazushi. This variation of the nare-zushi still contains fermented fish as its base but is topped with cooked rice that is mixed with vinegar. The addition of vinegar to the rice led to a faster fermentation time and an increase in the sour and umami flavors.
It was only during the Edo period that the form of sushi, that is known today, was conceptualized. In an effort to make more dishes and to serve more customers, Hanaya Yohei developed techniques and recipes that would later be described as the precursor to Japanese fast food. As the father of contemporary sushi, Hanaya Yohei developed the hand-formed sushi, called the nigiri-zushi. During this period of time, fishes were mostly caught in Tokyo bay. This was a time before refrigerators were invented so food safety was a big concern. Yohei would slightly cook the fish meat and serve them with vinegar to prolong their lifespan but at the same time remove the need for fermentation.
From the humble beginnings of sushi as a means to eat fish during winter to the development of quickly prepared dishes, Sushi has become the global standard for fine dining Japanese cuisine. Restaurants around the world have opened up and introduced the concept of raw fish on rice as the defining feature of Japanese food.
The Great Jiro Ono
Throughout the world, the term sushi is often said in conjunction with the name Jiro Ono. Born in the year 1925, Jiro Ono is regarded as the world’s greatest sushi craftsman and restaurateur. He brought the humble roadside sushi into the 20th century and through his modern and innovative methods of preparations, he had elevated it into the global fine-dining industry. He introduced the world to sushi as something new and bold. Each new item that he released into the world stage was received with much praise and recognition.
It can be said that this man was born into the kitchen. He started his culinary journey in the town of Hamamatsu, located in the Shizuoka prefecture. Here, he would start working at a local restaurant at the ripe age of seven. From there, he moved to the booming city of Tokyo as an apprentice, and at the age of 26, he had become a full-fledged sushi chef(1951). It was only after 14 years that he had opened his own restaurant called the Sukiyabashi Jiro, in the Ginza district of Tokyo. It was his restaurant that he had started to build his fame and even got awarded with three Michelin stars. The mainstream world got to know more about the history and greatness of Jiro Ono through a documentary called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” This documentary was filmed in the year 2011 by director David Gelb. His restaurant has served many notable persons throughout the years of its operation including the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and the former President of the United States of America, Barrack Obama. Barrack Obama had famously been quoted to have said that growing up in the islands of Hawaii, he had tasted many forms of sushi, however, the dishes he tasted in Jiro Ono’s restaurant was the best sushi had eaten in his whole life.
In recent years, he is still operating his restaurant and has been supportive of both of his son's journeys to becoming sushi chefs in their own right. In fact, his youngest son, Takashi, also has his own restaurant that was awarded Michelin stars.
The Best Sushi Restaurants Near Me
Once someone decides to take the trip to the beautiful island nation of Japan, eating sushi should top their list of must try Japanese food. Whether one would decide to spend their trip in the bustling city of Tokyo or go to the rich in history city of Kyoto, great sushi is to be found everywhere. These restaurants are known not only for their great sushi but for its welcoming environment to tourists.
For obvious reasons, one of the best restaurants to recommend for visitors in Japan who are looking for sushi would be Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza, Tokyo. Surely, there are newer restaurants that have the same quality of preparation and ingredients, however, it is only through the prestige and history behind Jiro Ono’s life story that this restaurant tops the list of must try sushi restaurants in the city of Tokyo.
For the traveler heading to Kyoto, the best place to explore for Japanese cuisine would be the Gion district and it is here that the famous Gion Matsudaya is located. Just a quick google search of the restaurant's name would yield food reviews claiming it to have served them the best sushi people have tried in their lives. Gion Matsudaya is well known for the chef Kazunori Matsuda. It is no secret that Chef Kazunori Matsuda takes precise control of his restaurant as he carefully chooses each fish to be served every day, prepares all the fish, and constructs each dish on his own. It is also a big selling point that chef Matsuda has a good grasp of the English language and is very sociable to his customers.
It is suggested that a tourist plan trips to these restaurants in advance as they can get really full and reservations are often impossible to get, especially during the holiday month of December.
Health Benefits of Sushi: Calories and Nutritional Facts
For the health conscious eater, sushi is a great dish that has many benefits to one’s health. Due to its use of fresh fish, it is a well-known fact that sushi is a great way to lower blood pressure and decrease the amount of one’s bad cholesterol. Fish, like salmon and tuna, and soy sauce (the typical accompaniment to sushi) contains a high amount of iron. Iron is a core nutrient in the production of red blood cells which in turn is responsible for one’s metabolism, hair growth, overall blood circulation, skin tone and color, and the healing of skin cells and tissues. Wasabi (the paste that is used as a binder for the fish to the rice) has recently been linked to having cancer preventive properties. The anti-carcinogenic and anti-mutagenic nutrients found in wasabi are responsible for preventing the radicals in the body from mutating the healthy cells through neutralization. The nori (the seaweed that is used to wrap around sushi) has been linked to having positive effects on hormone regulation. This ingredient is very high in the nutrient Iodine. This nutrient is often overlooked in modern diets. Proper intakes of Iodine can ensure that your body will properly release and produce the right amounts of hormones which in turn also regulates your metabolism and brain functions. Fiber is also present in sushi as many of these contain vegetables that have high concentrations of this nutrient.
For all the health benefits contained in the bite-sized sushi, the weight watching customer will be disappointed at the amount of calories contained in the small meal. The average amount of calories contained per sushi would be 200 calories. This is just the traditional raw fish and rice sushi. Once one consumes the more modern variations like the spicy California maki (a western sushi roll containing avocado, cucumber, crab, and fish roe), expect that the calories per sushi would go up to at most 500.
Sushi Eating Etiquette: Eating Sushi vs Other Meals like Sashimi and Inari Sushi
Eating sushi has become very well known throughout the world, however, when eating at expensive restaurants that specialize in creating sushi dishes, it is best to know the proper manners involved as to not insult the restaurant owner and chef. The etiquette involved in eating at sushi restaurants can be broken down into a few simple steps.
The first step would be to always make a reservation. Sushi restaurants always need to make proper preparations for every customer. As everything is served fresh and most ingredients are bought at the start of the day, any dietary restriction or requests must be made in advance in order for the chef and staff to give the customer the best experience that they can offer. As with general manners, once a reservation is made it should be followed strictly. Japanese are known for their timeliness, never arriving too early or too late and one should do the same with a sushi restaurant.
Once one has taken their seat at the sushi restaurant, it is very tempting to take photos of everything and everyone. More or less the restaurant will not restrict you from doing so but it is proper to always ask them before taking the photo. One should be considerate of the other diners as well as the sushi chefs when taking photos so no flash photography.
Another rule would be to not wear any strong perfumes as this would affect the taste of the sushi both for you and the other customers. Smell is strongly linked to taste so before you spend your hard-earned yen on the expensive sushi make sure you get the most out of the taste by not putting on perfume.
Eat in the prescribed order. It is surprising to many that there is a specific way to consume the sushi presented to you but there is a reason behind this. Starting with the lighter fish and working your way up to the richer and fatter ones will allow you to taste more of the flavors in every dish as opposed to doing it the other way around. Generally the sushi chef will present the customer with a wide variety of sushi but each kind of sushi will be arranged in the order to be eaten.
Another rule would be to finish every piece of sushi that you order. It is a great disappointment for the chef to see an unfinished meal as to them this means that you were not satisfied with their dishes. Sushi chefs and restaurant owners will not only feel as if they made a mistake but will also feel insulted that you wasted their fresh seafood.
Soy sauce is only to be used sparingly. Do not drown the dish in soy sauce and make sure to dip the sushi with the fish touching the soy sauce, not the rice.
Typically sushi is to be eaten with your hands. So make sure to clean your hands carefully before starting the meal. The reason behind the hand rule is very simple. Typically, only sashimi would constitute the need for the use of chopsticks as the bacteria in your hands could transfer to the fish. Sushi can be eaten with hands because the vinegar that is mixed in the rice, which one will hold on to and not the fish, would neutralize any bacteria that would touch it. The only exception to this rule would be the Inari sushi. The Inari sushi is a sushi that is wrapped in tofu and since your hands would not touch the vinegar soaked rice, it is recommended that chopsticks are to be used for health concerns. However, some sushi restaurants, for health reasons, have started to accept the use of chopsticks.
The last rule for eating at a sushi restaurant is to never overstay your welcome. It is important to understand that the Japanese are very mindful of others and will only go to restaurants to eat. Once done, they would leave in order for other customers to have a chance to enter. This is something that is not followed so much in the western world, however, tourists must be mindful of the Japanese culture and follow them in the country.