Understanding the Basics and Types of Sushi

Thanks in part to modern freezing technologies, "fresh" sushi is available in just about any metropolitan area in the country, not to mention many suburban or even rural areas. In many parts of the country, sushi can be found everywhere from supermarkets to college campuses, and you can even order different types of sushi at ballparks ranging from New York's Shea Stadium to Seattle's Safeco Field.

While sushi is on the road to becoming commonplace, many people have not yet hopped on the bandwagon. Some folks have trouble with the idea of eating raw fish, while others simply have not had the opportunity to take the plunge.

Visit a Sushi Restaurant
If you're thinking about testing the waters, but don't know where to start, the best thing to do is go with an experienced sushi restaurant. Assuming your friend is not the type who will try to gross you out, he or she will happily show you the proper way to get your toes wet. But if you don't know anyone who can show you the ropes, here are a few words of wisfom for the sushi neophyte.

What is Sushi?
The first thing to know is that the term "sushi" has nothing to do with raw fish. Instead, it refers to the vinegared, short-grain rice that accompanies the fish. While commonly lumped in with sushi for the sake of convenience, raw fish served without the rice is properly called "sashimi." In fact, sushi does not have to involve raw fish at all, as many types of sushi are made with cooked or marinated fish, or without any seafood whatsoever.

Common Types of Sushi
It's handy to know the most common styles of sushi, as the same ingredients can be assembled in many different ways. Again, sashimi refers to slices of fish served without rice. Nigiri sushi consists of pieces of fish served atop small rectangles of rice. Both sashimi and nigiri sushi are frequently served à la carte, usually with two pieces per order. Maki is rolled sushi, usually made with nori, sheets of dried seaweed. A standard order of maki often comes sliced into six pieces, while temaki (or hand roll) is a single, large maki shaped like an ice cream cone.

Common Sushi Sides
Your sushi will typically come with slices of pickled ginger (often tinted pink), a blob of wasabi paste (often colored green) and sometimes some shredded daikon (a very mild white radish). You'll also receive a small saucer to hold soy sauce for dipping. If you've never had the first two accouterments before, go easy. The ginger can pack a bit of a wallop and the wasabi will clear out sinuses you never knew you had. Note that the wasabi served at most restaurants is actually made from horseradish and powdered mustard, as authentic wasabi root is very expensive and does not keep well.

Alternatives to Raw Fish
If you're at all squeamish about eating raw fish, try starting with one of the cooked varieties, such as ebi (cooked shrimp). Don't confuse this with amaebi (raw or "sweet" shrimp). Other good choices include kani kama (imitation crab stick) and unagi (broiled freshwater eel brushed with a teriyaki-like sauce). Crunchy shrimp tempura and crisp broiled salmon skin are other cooked ingredients that often find their way into maki sushi. Many vegetarian sushi varieties are also readily available (for example, kappa maki, which is made with cucumber, and avocado maki).

Ready for Raw Fish?
Maki is also the way to go when you're ready to try bona fide raw fish. After all, it's mostly rice. Maguro (tuna) is good for beginners, as it has very little in the way of flavor and will get you acclimated to the idea of eating raw fish.

Then move up to fuller flavored varieties, like sake (salmon), hamachi (yellowtail) and toro (fatty tuna). A nice piece of sake is a beautiful orange with streaks of white and will have a luxurious, buttery texture to go along with the unmistakable flavor of salmon. Hamachi is a rich tasting variety that will almost melt in your mouth, while toro is proof that the best flavor comes from the fat.

Specialty maki varieties take ingredients you've come to know and put them together in artistic ways. America's favorite sushi is probably the California roll (cucumber, crab stick and avocado), often served "inside out," with the rice on the outside, instead of the seaweed. To add a crunchy texture, California rolls are often coated with sesame seeds, tobiko (flying fish roe) or masago (smelt roe). Other popular standards include the rainbow maki (California roll draped with tuna, salmon and yellowtail) and the caterpillar maki (avocado, crab stick, unagi and cucumber).

Types of Sushi to Avoid for the Beginner
Common sushi varieties beginners might want to steer clear of, mostly because of their odd textures, include uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe). Once you can eat those, you needn't be afraid of anything.

Helpful Sushi Tips
An economical way to learn about sushi is to order a combination and identify what you get by using the pictures on the card at your table. Or sit at the sushi bar and ask the chef what type of fish is particularly fresh on that given day.

Although it may sound silly, there is a proper etiquette to follow when eating sushi. Many people think sake (the drink, not the fish) goes well with sushi, but tea or beer are considered better accompaniments. Sake is made from rice, thus too close in flavor to the sushi rice. Drink it with sashimi instead. Also, while most Americans drink their sake hot, in Japan it is traditionally heated only in the winter months or to mask the flavors of lower quality product. Pour the sake for your dining companions, and let them pour it for you.

A book could probably be written on the proper use of chopsticks, but never stick them upright in a bowl of rice, as this resembles sticks of incense used at Japanese funerals. Instead, use the chopstick rests, if provided, or simply lay your chopsticks across your plate. Also, if given disposable chopsticks, do not rub them together to smooth any rough edges. Use your fingers to remove any splinters.

Interestingly enough, it's fine to pick up and eat sushi with your hands, but always use chopsticks to eat sashimi. However you pick it up, eat your sushi in one bite if the size permits. Larger pieces may be taken in multiple bites, but finish a piece without putting it back down on your plate.

It is not considered good form to place the wasabi or ginger into your dish of soy sauce. Your sauce should remain pure of bits of food or other contaminants

When you dip your nigiri sushi, turn it upside down so that only the fish touches the soy sauce. Dipping the rice side will absorb too much sauce or cause it to fall apart and make a mess, thereby violating the previous rule. As Mia Detrick explains in her classic 1981 book, "Sushi," "dipping the rice in soy sauce is like pouring ketchup all over the outside of your hamburger bun."

In many ways, sushi is the ultimate quest for perfection: the perfect fish, the perfect freshness, the perfect cut and the perfect presentation. The best advice is not to get too hung up on the details, and just enjoy!

Article provided by Homesteader.

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