36 Interesting Facts About Sushi

Japanese sushi set

Sushi is one of the most iconic and globally popular Japanese foods. The unique flavors, beautiful presentation, and cultural heritage around sushi make it a culinary delight like no other.

Beyond just being delicious, sushi also has some surprising facts behind its origins, etiquette, nutrition, and more. Read on for 36 fascinating facts that will give you a whole new appreciation of sushi!

A Brief History of Sushi

shushi

1. Sushi Originated in Southeast Asia, Not Japan

Contrary to popular belief, sushi did not actually originate in Japan. The earliest form of sushi was developed around 2,000 years ago in Southeast Asia as a way to preserve fish in fermented rice. This fermented fish dish was known as narezushi and served as an early form of pickling and fermentation.

Around the 8th century AD, narezushi was brought to Japan from Southeast Asia. The Japanese further refined the dish into what we now know as sushi. However, the original idea of using rice as a preservative for seafood came from ancient Southeast Asian cultures.

2. Sushi Was Once Used as Currency in Japan

During the 8th-14th centuries in Japan, rice was so highly valued for its use in sushi that people used bundles of rice as a currency and a means of paying taxes! Sushi was considered a rare delicacy at the time, reserved for the wealthy and elite. So sushi had incredible monetary and bartering value.

There are records of peasants paying taxes to landlords and nobles with carefully prepared sushi rice. So you could say sushi was “as good as money” in ancient Japan!

3. The Edo Period Saw Innovations in Sushi

Nigiri-zushi

In the early 19th-century Edo period in Japan, several key innovations transformed sushi into something much closer to the version we are familiar with today:

  • Nigiri-zushi – Fish filets placed over small, lightly seasoned rice balls. This lets the fresh fish flavors shine.
  • Makizushi – Seafood and rice rolled up in sheets of nori seaweed. This helped sushi become portable and convenient to eat.
  • Oshi-zushi – Sushi rice pressed into wooden molds with fish pressed on top. This became a fast street food version of sushi.

So the Edo period took sushi from an ancient preserved food to a fresher, portable, and convenient fast food perfect for Tokyo street stalls.

Types of Sushi

Sushi has evolved into several main types that each have their distinctive ingredients, flavors and preparation methods.

Set of sushi and maki
Set of sushi and maki

4. The 6 Main Types of Sushi

There are 6 broad categories of sushi that you’ll typically see on any sushi restaurant menu:

  • Nigiri-zushi – Thin slices of raw fish draped over small oblong bricks of seasoned sushi rice. This is the most common sushi variety.
  • Makizushi – Seafood and rice rolled up in toasted nori seaweed sheets. Cut into bite-sized rolls.
  • Temaki – Large nori cones filled with sushi rice and ingredients. Meant to be hand-rolled and eaten.
  • Chirashi-zushi – Sushi rice served in a bowl and topped artfully with seafood and vegetables.
  • Inari-zushi – Deep fried tofu pouches stuffed with sushi rice and vegetables. Named after the Shinto god Inari.
  • Oshi-zushi – Sushi rice pressed into a mold and topped with fish slices. Originally a type of fast food sushi.

There are also many unique regional sushi varieties like oshinko maki (pickled radish rolls), gunkan maki (battleship sushi), and more!

5. Gunkan Maki: “Battleship” Sushi

gunkan maki with caviar on black
gunkan maki with caviar on black

A fun sushi variety is a gunkan maki, or “battleship” sushi. It consists of a ball of sushi rice wrapped in nori and topped with soft seafood or fish eggs that need a “boat” to hold them in place.

Popular gunkan maki toppings include uni sea urchin eggs, ikura salmon eggs, mentaiko pollack roe, and lobster salad. The rice base looks like a battleship, hence the creative name!

6. Temaki: The Sushi “Ice Cream Cone”

Temaki
Temaki

Temaki is a hand-rolled sushi cone that often gets compared to an ice cream cone shape. Fillings are wrapped in a large toasted nori sheet that is then carefully shaped into a conical handroll.

Temaki is great for picnics and parties since they are meant to be picked up and eaten by hand. Plus you can customize the fillings to your taste – smoked salmon, tuna, and shrimp tempura are all popular options.

Eating Sushi Properly

Sushi has some etiquette and customs around how to properly eat it. Follow these tips for good sushi manners!

7. Use Your Hands, Not Chopsticks

sushi chopsticks hand
sushi chopsticks hand

Unlike most Asian foods that use chopsticks, sushi is meant to be eaten with your hands. Sushi masters have carefully shaped and balanced each piece to be picked up between thumb and forefingers.

Using chopsticks will likely lead to the sushi falling apart. The exception is sashimi (raw sliced fish without rice) which can be eaten with chopsticks.

8. Don’t Dip the Rice in Soy Sauce

Sushi with soy
Sushi with soy

A common sushi newbie mistake is dunking the entire piece of sushi in soy sauce. Only the fish should touch the soy sauce, never the rice.

Dipping the rice in soy sauce causes it to soak up too much liquid and basically fall apart. Leaving the rice untouched allows you to really appreciate the texture and flavors.

9. Eat the Sushi in One Bite

Close-up of woman eating sushi roll with chopsticks
Close-up of woman eating sushi roll with chopsticks

Out of respect for the chef’s careful construction, try your best to eat each piece of sushi in one bite. Don’t take bites of just the fish and leave the rice behind.

It’s fine to give a gentle squeeze with your fingers first to help get it into your mouth, but do your best to eat the full piece as the chef intended!

10. Grated Ginger Is a Palate Cleanser

Pickled Ginger for Sushi
Pickled Ginger for Sushi

The grated pickled ginger or gari served with sushi is not meant to be eaten with the sushi itself. Instead it serves as a palate cleanser between different pieces, helping to reset your tastebuds.

Take a small bite of ginger between sushi pieces to refresh your mouth before moving on to new flavors and varieties. This will heighten and enhance the tasting experience.

Sushi Fish Varieties

chef hands cutting fish for sushi
chef hands cutting fish for sushi

Sushi showcases an incredible array of ultra-fresh seafood. Here are some of the top fish and seafood you’ll often find in sushi:

11. Tuna (Maguro)

Tuna is the king of sushi fish, prized for its ruby red color and clean, rich taste. The best cuts for sushi come from the belly and dorsal loins. Tuna has a firm texture that holds up well in sushi.

12. Salmon (Sake)

sushi - salmon and tuna nigiri
sushi – salmon and tuna nigiri

Salmon is a favorite thanks to its bright coral color, velvety texture, and milder flavor. Higher fat content gives salmon a luscious mouthfeel. Both wild and farmed salmon make tasty sushi.

13. Yellowtail (Hamachi)

With its buttery flavor and texture, yellowtail is considered a luxury sushi ingredient. It has a clean briny taste closer to ocean waters. You’ll pay a premium for prime hamachi belly or toro cuts.

14. Sea Urchin (Uni)

For adventurous eaters, sea urchin offers an intense surge of oceanic umami. The spiky shell contains the prized uni gonads which have a rich creamy flavor and smooth custard-like texture.

15. Shrimp (Ebi)

Shrimp sushi
Shrimp sushi

Plump sweet shrimp are another common sushi filling. Shrimp is often boiled before going into cut rolls. Tempura fried shrimp can also be used for great textural contrast.

16. Squid (Ika)

Chewing tender squid sushi is almost like a salty gush of ocean water in your mouth. Keeping the squid slightly blanched preserves the delicate texture.

17. Surf Clam (Hokkigai)

This large clam has delightfully crunchy lean meat with subtle sweetness. It’s farmed sustainably making it an ocean-friendly choice.

18. Freshwater Eel (Unagi)

Opulent, smoky grilled eel is a luxury topping. Unagi kabayaki is grilled with a savory-sweet sauce for finger-licking richness.

19. Octopus (Tako)

Octopus offers a pleasantly firm, dense chew and mild saline taste. It’s typically blanched or marinated in sake lees (sake kasu) giving refreshing umami undertones.

Making Sushi

Chef making sushi
Chef making sushi

Behind sushi’s elegant simplicity is a lot of craftsmanship and care. Sushi chefs train for years to master these specialized skills:

20. Sushi Chefs Train Extensively

It takes at least five years of intensive training to become a skilled sushi chef or itamae. Novices start by observing and doing basic prep work before ever touching fish.

Sushi chefs must hone knife skills, rice seasoning techniques and learn how different seafood varieties should be handled and sliced. It can take a full decade to master the art of sushi!

21. Sushi Rice Requires Special Preparation

The foundation of great sushi is the shari (sushi rice). Sushi chefs take meticulous care in washing, cooking, and seasoning the rice. It’s cooled to body temp before using.

Key steps include washing away excess starch, precise cooking, and seasoning it with rice vinegar, sugar and salt while fanning to control texture. Proper sushi rice should be glossy, clingy, and not too dry or wet.

22. Knife Skills Are Essential

Knife cuts sushi rolls
Knife cuts sushi rolls

A sushi itamae relies on razor-sharp long blades to slice fish and other ingredients with precision. Knife skills take years to develop both in dexterity and knowing how specific varieties should be cut.

Special techniques like ikejime help ensure fish quality. This involves swiftly spiking the brain to kill the fish without lactic acid buildup affecting meat texture and flavor.

23. Sushi is Assembled With Care

Nigiri sushi in particular requires careful construction. The chef shapes rice bricks, drapes fish overtop, and may brush with nikiri soy sauce. A pressed nigiri brick should only be 1/5th fish.

Rolls also require the skill to evenly spread rice, layer ingredients, roll tightly in nori, and slice the finished rolls without mangling them. It’s an art form!

24. Sushi Chefs Must Handle Seafood Safely

Proper food safety and storage prevent bacteria growth and contamination that could make customers sick. Sushi chefs have specialized training in handling raw seafood.

They also rely on trusted suppliers and monitor fish freshness closely. If anything seems off, they won’t serve it. Keeping sushi safely delicious is the top priority.

Health Benefits of Sushi

Health Benefits of Sushi

Beyond tasting incredible, sushi made with fresh ingredients also provides some nice health bonuses:

25. Sushi Contains Beneficial Omega-3s

The omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood deliver powerful health benefits. They are great for your heart, brain, eyes, joints and more.

Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are especially high in omega-3s. Just two pieces of sushi can provide over 100% of your daily omega-3 needs.

26. It’s a Lean Source of Protein

Sushi offers an excellent lean protein option, with about 10-15 grams of protein in 6-8 pieces. And fish like tuna contain complete protein with all essential amino acids.

Without heavy sauces or oils, sushi gets you high-quality protein without much-saturated fat or calories. It keeps you energized and satisfied.

27. Essential Vitamins and Minerals Abound

The seafood in sushi provides key nutrients like iodine for metabolism, selenium for antioxidants, zinc for immunity, and vitamin B12 for energy. The nori wrap contains vitamins C, A, and K.

Balance is important, but a couple sushi meals per week can fit into a very nutritious diet. Just don’t rely too heavily on any single food source.

28. Low Risk of Mercury and Contaminants

There are some concerns about contaminants like mercury in seafood. However, the fish typically used in sushi such as farmed salmon and tuna have very low risks for mercury or toxins.

Sushi chefs also monitor fish sources and quality closely. So enjoy sushi as part of an overall balanced diet without too much worry.

Sushi Culture and Customs

A man holds a box of ready meals sushi and sticks for sushi. Hands close up. Food delivery home
A man holds a box of ready meals sushi and sticks for sushi. Hands close up. Food delivery home

Beyond the food itself, sushi is deeply woven into Japanese culture and customs:

29. Sushi Originated as a Fast Food

In the early 19th century, sushi street stalls in Edo (old Tokyo) served quick, inexpensive and easily eaten sushi to the masses. Nigiri and maki sushi were portable grab-and-go foods for busy city dwellers.

So while sushi now has a reputation for being expensive or high-class, it actually evolved from Japanese fast food beginnings!

30. Sushi Trains Embody Japanese Love of Efficiency

Kaiten or “revolving” sushi trains combine dining and entertainment with Japanese efficiency. Diners can pick dishes as they circle by, with plates color-coded for price.

This innovation came about in the 1950s and was seen as a way to streamline the sushi dining experience. Sushi trains remain popular today for their fun and novel approach.

31. Sushi Shows Reverence for Ingredients and Nature

Japanese culture values being in harmony with nature. Sushi exemplifies this through reverence for high-quality seasonal ingredients prepared with simplicity to highlight natural flavors.

Each component comes together in careful balance. This reflects the Japanese worldview of finding beauty in simplicity.

32. Sushi Celebrates Umami Flavors

Umami is the savory “fifth taste” that epitomizes deliciousness. Dashi broth, soy sauce, seafood and pickled flavors all provide umami, and Japanese cuisine balances these masterfully.

No other food encapsulates umami as well as sushi. Just a single piece bursts with multiple dimensions of umami richness.

Global Sushi Fusion

While rooted in tradition, sushi continues evolving in creative new global directions:

33. The California Roll was Invented in the US

homemade california rolls
homemade california rolls

The California roll with its rice outside, nori inside, and avocado filling actually originated in Los Angeles in the 1970s. It was created by chef Ichiro Mashita to appeal to American tastes.

This simple but ingenious twist helped popularize non-traditional sushi recipes. The California roll opened the door to further sushi experimentation and fusion.

34. Sushi Keeps Gaining Popularity Worldwide

From humble fast food beginnings, sushi has taken the world by storm. The global global sushi restaurant market was valued at USD 18,955.0 million in 2021.

Sushi’s appeal crosses cultures and demographics. As tastes expand beyond raw fish, more diners discover the joys of this Japanese icon.

35. Inventive Regional Rolls Emerge

Philadelphia roll
Philadelphia roll

While traditionalists frown on excessive fusion, creative localized varieties keep sushi exciting. Popular rolls showcase regional twists – like the Philadelphia roll with salmon and cream cheese.

Food lovers enjoy seeing how sushi can absorb new flavors while staying true to its essence. It’s now a truly global food trend.

36. Sushi “Burritos” Cater to New Tastes

Another modern fusion creation is the sushi burrito or sushirrito. Large seaweed sheets wrapped into a convenient handheld burrito filled with sushi rice, fish and veggies.

Sushirritos make sushi filling, portable and approachable for non-traditional eaters. Though not authentic, they show sushi’s ongoing evolution.

Key Takeaways

  • Sushi has ancient Southeast Asian origins as a fermented fish dish, before becoming refined in Japan around the 8th century AD. It was even used as a form of currency.
  • Traditional sushi comes in many varieties including nigiri, maki rolls, handrolls, and scattered sushi bowls, each with unique elements.
  • Sushi is meant to be eaten with the hands, and you should only dip the fish into soy sauce, not the rice. Eat sushi in one bite if possible.
  • Fresh seafood like tuna, salmon, yellowtail, shrimp, and eel are common sushi toppings that showcase both texture and umami flavor.
  • Sushi chefs train extensively in knife skills, handling fish properly, cooking flavorful rice, and assembling pieces.
  • Sushi offers healthy protein and essential nutrients from fish, plus omega-3 fatty acids that benefit heart and brain health.
  • From street food beginnings, sushi is now a global phenomenon with over $58 billion in worldwide sales and creative new fusion forms emerging.

The long heritage, care, and craft behind sushi make it a singular culinary experience. Next time you enjoy sushi, savor each piece knowing the history and mastery involved!

FAQ

A: Some intriguing facts about sushi include that it did not originate in Japan as widely believed but along the Mekong River. It also takes a sushi chef about 10 years to become proficient and the term ‘sushi’ actually refers to the vinegared rice, not the fish. Moreover, sushi was initially considered as street food and not the high-cost cuisine we see today.

A: Sushi was a method of preserving fish in fermented rice during the Yayoi period in Japan, around the 2nd century BC. It wasn’t until the 18th century Edo period that sushi transformed into an early form of fast food in Japan, eaten by hand as a form of street food. This form of sushi is still enjoyed today as nigiri sushi.

A: A sushi chef, known as an itamae, undergoes extensive training, often for more than 10 years, to master the art of sushi making. They not only have to perfect the art of handling fish and rice but also need to know how to use a sushi knife correctly. In addition, they must also delicately add wasabi and soy sauce which have precise roles in the sushi experience.

A: The six types of sushi you should try are Nigiri, a slice of fish or seafood served atop vinegared rice; Maki, the traditional sushi roll wrapped in seaweed; Uramaki, which is similar to Maki but the rice is on the outside; Temaki, a hand-rolled cone of sushi; Sashimi, which is just the slice of fish or seafood without the rice; and Chirashi, a bowl of sushi rice topped with a variety of sashimi.

A: Yes, certainly! Did you know that sushi can be a form of art in Japan? Some sushi restaurants create “sushi cakes” and “sushi donuts” as a creative take on the traditional dish. Also, 18th June is celebrated as International Sushi Day, and wasabi served in most sushi restaurants outside Japan is often horseradish dyed green!

A: Not at all. Although sushi is often associated with raw fish, it can also be prepared with cooked seafood, vegetables and even eggs. In fact, the term ‘sushi’ refers to the vinegared rice, and not the topping or filling.

A: Sushi rice, often referred to as ‘sushi-meshi’ in Japan, is short-grain rice mixed with a dressing made of rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. It’s this unique combination that gives sushi its distinctive taste. The rice is slightly sticky, making it perfect for forming sushi rolls or topping with fish for nigiri.

A: The cost of eating at a sushi restaurant can vary significantly depending on the location, the type of sushi, and the level of craftsmanship. A budget-friendly restaurant can start as low as $15-$25 per person, while fine dining at a sushi bar can cost anywhere from $75 to over $200 per person.

A: Yes and no. Many sushi chefs continue to uphold traditional methods, while others have embraced modern influences, introducing new ingredients like cream cheese and avocado or creating fusion dishes like sushi burritos. However, the presence of vinegared rice, the cornerstone of sushi, remains constant.

A: Yes, that’s true! Sushi can be quite healthy as it is often low in fat and high in nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly if it’s made with fatty fish like salmon or tuna. Nori, the seaweed used in sushi rolls, is packed with vitamins A, B, C and E. However, caution should be exercised with items like soy sauce and tempura, which can increase the dish’s salt and calorie content.

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