Photos by Rochelle Li, Words by Grady Erickson
Since I arrived in the beautiful city of Boston from my humble Midwest town in Central Illinois, I have been enamored by the fun finger food that is sushi. Before attending BU, my sushi experiences were limited to the occasional stop in a Japanese restaurant when my family went to a city and watching Jamie Lynn Spears eat California rolls on Nickelodeon’s “Zoey 101” when I was a kid. However, I now feel as though I am well-versed in the art that is sushi.
Sushi is a dish that can be either very elaborate or very simple, depending on where you go or who you talk to. One can go to a small fish market to buy a few pieces of simple and delicious salmon nigiri. For those who don’t know, nigiri is sliced raw fish set on a small bed of rice. Today, one can also venture into a Japanese Fusion restaurant and order fancy maki that comes with so many ingredients and sauces that it’s hard to tell what types of fish are actually in the roll—or if there is even fish in it at all.
America is known for putting its own spin on international cuisines to fit our rather extravagant tastes. Authentic Japanese sushi isn’t the same as the Americanized style Maki we consume by the roll. Sushi has become such a vast and customizable food that what it actually is has become ambiguous.
In order to fully understand authentic sushi, we must look at its humble beginnings. Sushi began in the 4th Century BC when the Chinese experimented with certain ways to preserve fish. They found that if they covered the fish in cooked rice, the natural fermentation process of the rice would preserve the fish for a few months. Once the fish was preserved, the rice would be thrown away and the fish consumed.
This method of food storage eventually spread to Japan. The Japanese, who did not believe the rice should go to waste, decided that it was equally as tasty to consume the fish with the rice, and without the months of fermenting. Thus, “sushi” became a dish and not just a method of food preservation. The emergence of modern sushi came centuries later. Japanese street food carts served sushi quite similar to the nigiri we eat today.
During the World Wars, Japan saw an inflow of soldiers from the US and Europe who fell in love with the taste of authentic sushi and wanted to carry it over to their home countries. Back in the States, many people initially had an issue with consuming raw fish. It wasn’t until the 1960s in California that the sushi trend really started to catch on. Today, there are an estimated 4,000 sushi restaurants in the US alone.
Japan must be thrilled that one of their staple dishes has become so popular worldwide, right? Maybe, but the sushi we eat here in America would most likely displease any Itamae. One of the most popular sushi dishes in America is the Philadelphia Roll; a combination of smoked salmon and cream cheese; although there is sometimes a veggie such as avocado or cucumber involved, cream cheese and cooked fish go against the whole concept behind authentic sushi. Authentic sushi is sushi eaten to taste the delicate flavors of the fish and rice. While all sushi in America isn’t necessarily bad, there is definitely a surplus of mayonnaise covered, deep-fried, cream cheese filled rolls in sushi restaurants across the country.
Whether this unauthentic sushi is a product of the US or a new trend in Japanese fusion cuisine, it tends to send a message that doesn’t speak to its originator’s attitude toward food and life. I have compiled a short list of basic sushi etiquette so that you are knowledgeable next time you go for sushi with your friends or even a Japanese business client you're trying to impress:
- If the restaurant you are dining at has chopsticks that require you to break them apart, do not rub them together: doing this sends a message that the atmosphere of the restaurant is cheap.
- It is okay to share rolls with someone. However, when transporting a piece of sushi, do not pass the sushi from chopstick to chopstick, as this is seen as unsanitary. Instead, use the wide end of your chopsticks to place the sushi on your dining partners plate.
- It is acceptable to use soy sauce and wasabi in moderation. Remember, the point of eating sushi is to taste the fish and the rice. When dipping the sushi in soy sauce, dip the fish in. Otherwise, the rice part will soak it all up and the salty taste will overpower the delicate flavors of the sushi.
- You can pick the sushi up with your hands or chopsticks. Each piece of maki, nigiri, or sashimi (pieces of fish without rice) is meant to be eaten in one bite.
- Don’t mix wasabi in with the soy sauce. You’re supposed to taste the fish, remember?
- When putting your chopsticks down, don’t stick them straight up in the rice. This signifies death in Japan, and doing so is considered to be rude… and also kind of creepy.
- Don’t leave hungry!
So now that you know how to eat sushi, without embarrassing your family and friends, go out and eat a roll or two. But remember to choose your sushi wisely. Maybe next time instead of getting the barbeque pulled pork roll covered in bacon and lard, opt for some simply delicious, healthy nigiri. Your taste buds and stomach will thank you.