Is My Sushi Authentic?

by Justin Sevakis,

Andy asks:

As I was sitting in a restaurant having sushi for lunch earlier today, a thought suddenly hit me: How 'authentic' is the sushi I'm actually eating? In almost every sushi restaurant I've been in, there tended to be a few common staples: salmon rolls, dynamite rolls, spider rolls, and millions of types of dragon rolls, nevermind the obviously-not-Japanese "California roll". But is the sushi we get here in North America similar to what one would find in Japan? Or is it the equivalent of calling American Chinese food "Chinese food"?

Unless you live in a fairly populated city on the West Coast of North America, or you're in another major city and forking out megabucks every time you have sushi, chances are fairly good that what you're eating isn't so authentic. While I wouldn't say that American tastes have taken the food in a drastically different direction (like Chinese takeout has -- that stuff bears almost no resemblance to what Chinese people actually eat), a good amount of what we see in an American sushi restaurant is not at all what happens in Japan. Some differences are minor. Others make sushi snobs like me cringe.

First of all, "sushi" itself actually means rice that's been treated with rice vinegar. Technically, the fish (or egg or whatever) is a topping, and the rice is the star of the show. The rice itself is small grained white rice. For a serious sushi connoisseur, the sushi rice is the first thing to look at: its texture, the density of the packing, and how it's seasoned. The portion size, the toppings, and temperature it's served at. This is the part that takes decades for a master sushi chef to get right. It's also the #1 way that bad American sushi goes wrong. A lot of lower-end sushi restaurants just use rice straight out of the rice cooker. No seasoning, no vinegar. Nada. You can't even technically call it sushi anymore.

Most sushi in Japan is nigiri-style: a piece of fish (or other topping), stuck onto a small arrangement of sushi rice. A small amount of wasabi is traditionally used as glue. The entire piece of nigiri is supposed to be a single bite, and can be eaten either with chopsticks or with your bare hands. The cheapest sushi in Japan is the sort you find at conveyor belt restaurants, and it's almost all nigiri.

You can also find maki, or sushi rolls, in Japan. Authentic maki are pretty simple affairs, with seaweed on the OUTSIDE, and probably just fish, or fish and a vegetable or two, on the inside. Really thick rolls, or futomaki, are pretty popular and just have more fillings, like egg, crab, or a sweet dried fish called sakura denbu. Hand rolls (or temaki) are authentic too.

However, American style rolls are quite different. They usually are "inside-out" by Japanese standards, with rice on the outside, and any number of toppings. They usually place far less emphasis on raw fish. Any roll with fish on top, cream cheese, a fried coating, California roll filling, or even just rice on the outside is absolutely not "real" sushi. (Yes, even a Crunchyroll.) And forget about anything using colored soy wrapping.

The emphasis on sushi rice means that several major kinds of sushi don't get eaten much in the West: chirashi zushi is actually a bowl of sushi rice, with fish, sliced rolled egg, fish eggs, and other ingredients arranged as a topping. That's Edo (Tokyo) -style chirashi, anyway. (Gomoku zushi from Kansai mixes cooked and raw ingredients into the sushi rice, while Kyushi uses sake instead of vinegar to treat the rice, then adds toppings.) I've only ever seen Edo-style chirashi in North America, and even then, only in Japanese-owned sushi places on the West Coast. It's also pretty rare in the US to see Inari (sushi rice stuffed into a fried tofu pouch -- commonly in bento). I've never seen Ohshi zushi (cooked or cured fish pressed into a flat square block of rice), or nare zushi, which uses fermented, salted fish.

Many Americans love salmon sushi, myself included. It's soft, buttery, and delicious, and it's usually one of the cheaper fish on the menu. I would eat it like a bear if it was socially acceptable. However, salmon is not eaten raw in Japan. The sort of salmon that live there quite often have parasites in their flesh, and so they're usually only served cooked. The Norwegian salmon that normally gets served in North America does not have as much of a parasite problem, and now that this breed is getting flown into Japan, some restaurants are, in fact, serving it on sushi. Most Japanese are still a little leery of it.

By contrast, Japan's most popular fish to eat raw is tuna, by a landslide. But Japan also loves smaller, oily fish like mackerel, which aren't so popular with Americans, because they tend to be bony and taste fishy.

So, how can you tell if your sushi restaurant is authentic? The first thing to look at is the menu. If they serve other nationalities of food (Chinese, Thai, Mediterranean), they're probably not going to make the best sushi. Buffets are also bad news. Sushi with brown rice is a giant warning sign that the chef has no integrity: brown rice doesn't soak up nearly as much vinegar, and has such a strong nutty flavor that it's simply not possible to make good sushi with it. Restaurants that emphasize happy hour, food that does not go with sushi (like ramen, or cheeseburgers), and the concept of "fusion" are generally pretty terrible at making sushi.

A great sushi restaurant is going to appear humble, not flashy or spacious. They'll likely be on the small side, and have prominent sushi bar seating. They might have a small sake and beer selection, a small offering of desserts, and quiet ambiance. They'll likely have daily specials, and a smattering of fresh seafood-related offerings. Some will have interesting izakaya food options.

You're never going to get a 100% Japanese experience in the West. A lot of that, frankly, is on us. There are a lot of things Americans do when eating sushi that make Japanese people slightly queasy. Probably the most horrifying is our ridiculous over-use of soy sauce. Soy sauce is so salty that it's meant to be used sparingly, lest it drown out all the other flavors. And that's to say nothing of the health implications. One tablespoon of even low-sodium soy sauce has almost 1/3 of your daily recommended intake. You can even die from it: a 19-year-old nearly died a few years ago after drinking over a quart of soy sauce on a dare. He spent three days in a coma with hypernatremia, or sodium poisoning.

But Americans with our deep love of salt will pour it directly into a bowl of rice and eat the rice that way, or lay a piece of nigiri in soy sauce until it soaks through. I've seen a table of two people go through an entire bottle of soy sauce in one sitting. These people are clearly tasting nothing other than salt when they bite into their food. I saw a sign in a sushi restaurant once that said, "soy sauce is not a beverage!" I sadly nodded in agreement.

Also, no self-respecting Japanese person mixes wasabi into their soy sauce dish. (I admit: I can't stop doing this.) You're supposed to dab the wasabi on the fish if you want more, and then just dip the sushi -- fish side down -- into the soy sauce. That's all. Same with the pickled ginger slices: they're meant as a palate cleanser between sushi types, or after your last bite. But a lot of Americans think it's a topping.

I am a bit of a snob. I have absolutely spent hundreds of dollars for perfect, authentic, beautiful, toe-curlingly good sushi, and it has been worth every penny. I would be pretty depressed if I had to eat the packaged sushi you find at Costco or Trader Joe's. The sushi I saw in Europe made my hair stand on end. But even I can't be a snob ALL the time. One of my favorite foods at my neighborhood sushi joint is the Japanese Burrito. I once ate 4 lbs. 3 oz. (~2 kg) in sushi from a buffet in one sitting. I've even happily eaten (some) supermarket sushi. It's all good. It all go in mouth.

Sushi, like all food, is there to make you happy. I might find your fried cylindrical soy sauce sponge slices horrifying, but if it puts a smile on your face, good on you. Just don't give yourself sodium poisoning.

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