Monday, May 18, 2009


What exactly is "sushi"?

Is it fish? Is it rice?

Technically, sushi is acidulated rice. When this rice is served with a topping, the assembled dish, confusingly, is also called sushi.

The original sushi topping was raw fish. Today, people use raw and cooked fish, vegetables, raw and cooked meat, egg, and nearly everything else you can think of. The toppings can be placed on or over the rice (nigirizushi or chirashizushi); the toppings and rice can be wrapped in seaweed or in edible paper in various ways (makizushi); or they can be pressed in a box or mold (oshizushi).

The rice is typically sticky short-grained white rice, although other kinds of rice are sometimes used, with varying degrees of success.

Sushi in its oldest form (narezushi) emerged as a by-product of a fish preservation strategy. Raw fish were cleaned and gutted and then packed in cooked rice, and the warm rice was allowed to ferment (or rot, depending on your point of view). The acidity of the fermenting rice preserved the fish. The rice was then either discarded or eaten, depending on how strong it had gotten.

When vinegar became popular, people discovered that they could quickly and conveniently use vinegar to preserve rice, and to mimic the flavor of fermenting rice. So "sushi rice" nowadays is seasoned with vinegar, salt, and sugar, to simulate the properties and flavor of rotting rice!

Served with fresh fish or other ingredients, this vinegared rice is sushi as we know it today, officially known as hayazushi (quick sushi) or Edomaezushi (Tokyo Bay sushi).

Sushi has been popular in Japan for some time. In the past few decades, it has also become very popular in the rest of the world, and has been adapted to suit local tastes and ingredients (tuna, avocado, raw beef, kimchi, Spam, etc.).

Sushi and Health

Sushi has many health-giving qualities. Fermented foods such as soy sauce, fermented rice, and pickled vegetables are excellent and easily-digested sources of vitamins, and they contain enzymes that help digest proteins and fats. Fish, shellfish, and nori (seaweed) contain minerals essential to the human body that may be difficult to get from other sources. Raw seafood contains enzymes and vitamins that are destroyed by the heat of cooking. Fish, egg, and avocado are excellent sources of healthy fats. Finally, fish and egg are great sources of protein.


Corson, Trevor. The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Washington, DC: NewTrendsPublishing, 1999.

Katz, Sandor Ellix. Wild Fermentation. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2003.

Isenberg, Sasha. The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy. New York: Penguin, 2007.

Trenor, Casson. Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2008.

Tsuji, Shizuo and Yoshiki. Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1980. Wikipedia: Sushi


Sam White said...

I hope this is the start of a book! If it is, I would give the health and not-so-healthy facts so you are not biased.


Alex Lewin said...

Sam, great idea. I'll be posting more about sushi…

Dwayne said...

Love the article! I never knew that we have rotted rice to thank for today's sushi.

Further, unlike raw oysters (sadly), sushi is reliably safe (even for pregnant women):

"If you take raw and partly cooked shellfish out of the equation, the risk of falling ill from eating seafood is 1 in 2 million servings, the government calculated some years back; by comparison, the risk from eating chicken is 1 in 25,000. (Over all, 76 million cases of food poisoning are reported a year.)"

But not the tuna at Nobu: