Japan food series – Sushi

Article updated on May 26, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau

About 5 centimetres (2 inches) in length, 2 centimetres in width (a bit less than an inch), and roughly the same in heigth for just a few grams and 40 to 50 calories… They do not sound like much but sushi have conquered the world to the extent that many identify them with the whole of Japanese gastronomy (as you know by now if you have checked out our Japan food series, this is far from the truth!).

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White text Japen food series about sushi with close-up of sushi.

A brief history of sushi

In ancient times, in order to conserve raw fish that was reserved to the nobility, it was fermented in rice. In the 15th century, the rice that used to be disposed of was also eaten. However, it is only in the 17th century that vinegar was added to the rice to speed up the fermentation process while flavouring the staple food. From nobility, sushi were democratised for common people and sold at yatai as one of the favourite fast foods of the Edo Period (1603-1868). They took their actual size only after the Second World War as food scarcity pushed chefs to considerably reduce their original size.

How to eat sushi in Japan

  • In Japan, it is completely OK to eat sushi with your hand. You can also use your chopsticks.
  • There is no specific order in which to eat sushi when several are brought at the same time even though it is best to start with the light flavours in order to appreciate them all.
  • Sushis are made of the topping called neta such as tuna or salmon, and the rice called shari. The proper way to season sushi is to lightly dip the neta in the soy sauce (and not the rice). The easiest way to do so is to flip your sushi on its side before picking it up with your chopsticks. The chef adds a little wasabi between the shari and the neta so do not add the condiment to your soy sauce.
  • If the sushi is already seasoned, do not dip it in the soy sauce.
  • Pickled ginger is a palate cleanser, so have it in-between sushi.
  • Eat sushi in one piece. Do not cut them in half, and do not separate the neta from the shari: this is rude!

Sushi in Japan

There are plenty of different ways to enjoy sushi (すし or 寿司) in Japan!

  • The local sushi-ya with the chef behind the counter slicing the ultra fresh filets of raw yellowtail, salmon, maguro tuna, sea bream or pieces of scallops, shrimps, crabs, squid, octopus… and arranging them elegantly on a serving plate (geta) with homemade pickled ginger;
  • the fish market stalls where we would order chirashi, or slices of fish arranged on a bowl of vinegar-flavoured rice;
  • sushi bento we would eat in the Shinkansen high-speed train;
  • or kaiten-zushi (meaning conveyor-belt sushi), the automated version of the sushi bar and the budget option: small plates of sushi circulate on a conveyor belt and patrons pick the ones they want. Keep your plate on your table as at the end of the meal, you will get charged by the amount of plates piled up and the colour code (different plate colours mean different prices). A tactile screen above the table allows you to look at the detailed menu and order precisely what you want, from miso soups and salads to a wide variety of sushi and even desserts and drinks. Once your order is approaching, the screen starts flashing and playing a tune warning you to grab it. Pickled ginger (gari), soy sauce and wasabi, as well as instant matcha tea powder are on self-serve on each table. In Japan kaiten-zushi places are quite popular with families, and a great way of sampling sushi while avoiding the language barrier!
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White text Japen food series about sushi with close-up of sushi.
Travel tips:

  • In order to experience sushi in the Japanese way with an expert native speaking English (or another 12 languages!) and answering all of your questions, check out Sushi University while in Tokyo. Make sure to book ahead!
  • Probably the best sushi’s we sampled in Japan, this interactive map points out to the food stalls of the Tsukiji market in Tokyo.
  • Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles (zoom out) about the area!

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For everything about Japan, click here!

For more delicious Japanese food, click on the images below:

Japanese food series: kaiseki. Haute cuisine small bites artfully prepared. Japanese food series: ramen noodles. Steamy bowls of freshly prepared ramen ready to eat. Japan food series: tonkatsu. Fried pork cutlets in curry sauce with green vegetables. Japan food series soba noodles displayed with their dippings. Japan food series, yakitori skewers. Japan food series. People buying bento lunch boxes. Pin this article of our Japan food series about Tempura for later! Yatai, Japan food series, food cart, ramen noodles in Fukuoka.! Japan food series, okonomiyaki, savory pancake, where to find them in Japan.

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