How Sushi Works

Maki zushi for sale. See more pictures of international snacks.
Photo Courtesy Nurbis / MorgueFile

­Sushi is both a modern culinary treat and a Japanese tradition dating back hundreds of y­ears. But there are a lot of misconceptions about sushi. For examp­le, sushi isn't just raw fish. Fish is merely one of the many possible ingredients that can be added to sushi.

In this article, we'll learn where sushi came from, find out about the different kinds of sushi, and explore what it's like to visit a sushi bar. We'll also learn how to make sushi at home.

Sushi Basics

The most common misconception about sushi is that it is simply raw fish, or that raw fish is an integral part of sushi. When raw fish is served by itself it is called sashimi. Although sushi originally included raw fish, it can be made with a variety of ingredients.

The importance of fish as an ingredient depends on where the sushi is being prepared. In Tokyo, a city that contains the world's largest fish market, nigiri-zushi usually takes the form of a morsel of rice with a carefully sliced piece of fish on top of it, while sushi from the Osaka region might contain cucumbers and other vegetables or herbs rolled in rice and crisp seaweed, or nori.

In the United States, maki zushi is the most common form of sushi. This form involves rice and nori rolled up with the toppings on a bamboo mat, then sliced into small bite-size rolls. The popular California roll is an inside-out roll with crab meat, avocado and cucumber as the ingredients.

­Rice is the key ingredient in all sushi. Short or medium grain is cooked carefully and blended with a special m­ix of rice vinegar, sugar and salt. The texture and consistency of the rice are both vital to making proper sushi - it should be a bit sticky, not gooey or clumpy. The vinegar used should not overpower the natural flavor of the rice.

So sushi is simply specially prepared rice served with various toppings in a variety of shapes and sizes. In fact, chirashizushi, sometimes called rice salad in the United States, is simply a bowl of sushi rice with toppings.

Sushi dates back almost one thousand years, when raw fish was preserved by storing it between layers of rice. Over a period of weeks, the rice fermented, and the chemicals produced kept the fish from going bad. Once the fermentation process was complete, the fish was ready to eat. Eventually, the Japanese began eating the rice and fish together. A form of this traditional sushi, known as narezushi, is still eaten in Japan, although its taste is said to be rather pungent. It is still made by layering salt, fish and rice in a wooden barrel and topping it with a heavy stone for a few weeks.

The invention of rice vinegar made the fermentation process unnecessary, and chefs in the Osaka region began molding rice and toppings in small wooden molds, creating oshizushi. Sushi became popular the Edo region, which is known today as Tokyo, where chefs invented nigiri-zushi by forming the rice into small pockets by hand and pressing the topping into it.

Learn about the different types of sushi ingredients in the next section.