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Sushi: A Cultural Representation

Despite my half Japanese background, I only discovered sushi in my early twenties.  Recently, I traveled to Japan where I truly gained an appreciation for the cuisine and now I believe I will never tire of the endless combinations of rice, fish and seaweed.   Why do I love sushi? Trying to pinpoint any reason of taste is difficult.  This is because flavour is only one of the elements.  Sushi also represents culture and ritual through colour, balance and texture, and it is meant to engage not only your palette but to be “eaten by the eyes.”

The definition of sushi is “to sour,”  referring to the origins of the preparation method.  Traditionally, 1300 years ago, salted raw fish would ferment in between layers of rice.  Decades later, vinegar replaced the fermentation process and the resulting sour taste is closer to the sushi we eat today.

The three basic types of sushi are nigiri sushi, vinegar rice formed into a long box shape topped with raw fish; sashimi, sliced raw fish; and maki, sushi rolled inside or around pressed, dried layers of nori (seaweed).

Rice and fish are an integral part of Japanese culture, with rice considered a sacred food and where approximately 3000 different kinds of fish are consumed each day.  The waters around Japan are world famous fishing grounds and the Japanese take full advantage of their fresh, local produce. Rice and fish have been staples in their diet for centuries, and with such a strong appreciation for their food, the preparation of ingredients becomes as important as the final presentation.

Like in Japanese art and architecture, discipline, balance and elegance are represented in their cuisine.  To begin making sushi, the cooked rice is transferred to a wooden tub with sugar, rice vinegar and salt, and then fanned to a precise temperature.  The vinegar breaks down the stickiness of the rice and dissolves the sugar, which in turn coats the rice to become sticky again .  The amount of sugar controls the sour taste, while toppings, or “gu,” such as wasabi, nori, fukube (gourds) and pickled vegetables, provide balance for what the Japanese believe are the other four tastes to a balanced diet — hot, salty, sweet and bitter .  Other gu, such as Japanese cucumber, are used in maki to bring a firm, crisp texture, while colourful carrots and snow peas brighten the roll.  These contrasting textures, colours and flavours are elements that must be balanced in each dish.

How the sushi is consumed is an important process. When eating multiple plates of sashimi if moved must be returned to the exact same position on the table, showing respect for the chef.  When eating nigiri sushi, the leaner cuts of fish such as hirame or kasugo must be consumed first to keep a sharp palate, leaving fattier fish such as salmon for the end, as the rich fat globules will stick to the tongue and soften the taste buds.  Nigiri is always presented in twos for an aesthetically balanced presentation.

As the number of sushi restaurants continues to rise across North America, we must keep in mind that sushi is more than the popular California rolls & maki.  I only began to understand the subtleties of a great sushi meal after one particularly delicious spread in Hakone, Japan.  There was such care and discipline behind my meal, that I took a moment to sit back and take in the presentation, slowly absorb the tastes and textures and only then did I fully appreciate the origins of sushi.

Zschock, Day. The Little Black Book of Sushi: The Essential Guide to the World of Sushi. Page 8.Peter Pauper Press. 2005 Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sushi Zschock, Day. The Little Black Book of Sushi: The Essential Guide to the World of Sushi. Page 13.Peter Pauper Press. 2005 Zschock, Day. The Little Black Book of Sushi: The Essential Guide to the World of Sushi. Page 22.Peter Pauper Press. 2005 Lowry, Dave. The Connoisseur’s Guide to Sushi: Everything You Need To Know About Sushi. Page 4. The Harvard Common Press. 2005 Lowry, Dave. The Connoisseur’s Guide to Sushi: Everything You Need To Know About Sushi. Page 4. The Harvard Common Press. 2005 Lowry, Dave. The Connoisseur’s Guide to Sushi: Everything You Need To Know About Sushi. Page 267. The Harvard Common Press. 2005