A huge variety of toppings and fillings are used in sushi. Some are suitable for a number of different types of sushi, while others are usually served in a certain way. While not exhaustive, we outline here the main types of toppings and fillings you can use.
Hakumai (white rice) generally refers to polished short-grain Japonica rice and is a highly nutritious source of protein, fibre, Vitamin B, calcium and iron. A staple of the Japanese diet since ancient times, hakumai is also an excellent source of energy, and forms part of the traditional Japanese meal combination along with misosoup, and tsukemono. As well as being easier to digest than genmai,hakumai's glutinous texture means that it is easier to pick up with chopsticks and its mild taste makes it a perfect accompaniment to almost any food.
Sushi Vinegar: Specialised for Sushi
Sushi vinegar is a ready-made vinegar mix unique to Japan, made from rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Originally developed as the optimal vinegar for making sushi rice.
Made from rice, this light and mild tasting Japanese vinegar is an essential ingredient for making sushi rice and sunomono (vinegared salads). It has a lower acid level than Western vinegars and has long been associated with youthful-looking skin and longevity. One reason for this is the fact that vinegar increases the potency of Vitamin C, which promotes good complexion, and in the past, komezu was used in cosmetics in Japan. Vinegar is also known for its anti-bacterial properties and this is one reason why komezu is often used in Japanese dishes that include raw fish, seafood and meat.
Nori, a dried seaweed resembling sheets of black paper, is a very popular ingredient in Japan, particularly for the wrapping of steamed rice to make maki-zushi (rolled sushi) and onigiri (rice balls). Nori is an ideal food for those whose lungs have been damaged by smoking as it can help prevent tar attaching itself to the lungs. It is also said to prevent anaemia, hair loss and greying. It is rich in vitamin B1, which helps combat mental fatigue, and calcium. Seasoned nori is also popular.
Shoyu, or soy sauce, is used to impart its rich, savoury flavour to the fish (but not the rice, which should never be dipped in), but as with other accompaniments it also provides other benefits, including antibacterial and antioxidant properties, vitamins and anti-carcinogens.
Long before it was first used as a condiment for sushi,wasabi was valued in Japan for its antibacterial qualities, as well as a medical herb. Its uniquely fiery taste can stimulate your appetite and aid digestion, and is also effective against bacteria including salmonella and E. coli.
Gari is pickled ginger, and as well as acting as a palate cleanser between mouthfuls of sushi, it is said to have a number of medicinal qualities. It contains an antibacterial agent that can help prevent food poisoning, and can improve circulation and metabolism.
Japan’s oceans offer a dazzling variety of fish. Maguro or tuna is perhaps the quintessential sushi fish, with its soft, fatty consistency and meaty taste. Very fatty and meltingly soft toro or tuna belly is most highly prized. Other popular varieties include hamachi (yellowtail), hirame (brill) and suzuki (sea bass). Oily fish such as aji (horse mackerel) and saba (mackerel) are served with the skin on. Sake (salmon, pronounced sha-ke) is not a common sushi fish in Japan, but is popular elsewhere in the world. All of the above can be found as nigirizushi or chirashizushi, with maguro also used in hosomaki to make tekkamaki.
Some shellfish, such as hotategai (scallop), mirugai(gaper), torigai (cockle), and akagai (ark shell) are generally served raw, while the prized awabi (abalone) can either be served raw or steamed in broth and sake. The popular sushi shellfish ebi (prawn) is usually lightly boiled on a skewer (to prevent it curling up) before being eaten, although the ama-ebi or sweet prawn is often served raw. All are served asnigirizushi, and some as chirashizushi.
Most fish roe for sushi is served as gunkanmaki, which thanks to its ‘wall’ of nori around the side, ensures that the eggs do not fall off. Common varieties include ikura(salmon roe), tobiko (flying fish roe) and the prized uni or sea urchin roe, which is one of the most expensive sushi ingredients. One exception is kazunoko, where wedges of preserved herring roe are served as nigirizushi.
Other main kinds of seafood used in sushi are tako(octopus) and ika (squid), served as nigirizushi. The former is always served cooked, while the latter is generally enjoyed raw. Unagi (eel) is also popular, and is grilled with a sweet sauce or tsume before being served as nigirizushi. Denbu, white fish or shrimp that has been boiled, parched, seasoned and coloured pink, is often used in futomaki and chirashizushi.You can ask your fishmonger to cut the fish for you as required, and provide help and advice where necessary.
A number of non-fish ingredients appear in traditional, authentic sushi. These include tamago, or egg, served asnigirizushi and secured with a strip of nori, or infutomaki, and kyuri (cucumber) and kampyo (gourd), served as hosomaki (cucumber hosomaki is known askappamaki). More recent, Western innovations include avocado and red pepper, which appear in futomaki and California roll.
The uchiwa or paper fan is an important part of Japan’s heritage, providing some welcome relief amidst the stifling heat of the Japanese summer, and becoming something of an art form in itself. It is also essential in sushi making, and is used to cool the rice down quickly and prevent it becoming sticky.
The handai is the best receptacle for placing cooked rice in preparation for adding vinegar and cooling, as it is specially designed for the purpose. Its large surface area ensures the rice can be cooled quickly, and the rice will not stick to the cypress wood from which it is made.If you can't get hold of a handai, you can use a wide, flat-bottomed, non-metallic bowl instead.
Japanese knives or hocho are renowned the world over for their sharpness and high quality. They come in many different shapes and sizes, including a sashimibocho for slicing raw fish. A good, sharp knife is also required when cuttingmakizushi, to ensure the roll retains its shape and the nori does not tear.
This simple bamboo rolling mat may not look like much, but it really is essential for making attractive and neatmakizushi, and given that it does not cost very much, is a really good investment. If you’ve ever tried rolling sushi without one, you’ll realise straight away what a difference it can make!
Every kitchen in Japan has a suihanki or rice cooker, which is no surprise given that rice is the traditional staple food. Even if you don’t cook rice everyday, however, it is a worthwhile investment, as you can achieve consistently cooked rice every time, and get the quantities of rice and water just right.
The traditional Japanese shamoji or wooden rice scoop is another useful piece of kit that is tailor made for the job. It is specially designed to ensure that it does not stick to the rice, or crush the cooked kernels, which can make the rice sticky, and above all else it is pleasurable and convenient to use.
While sushi may also be enjoyed with other drinks such as sake and beer, agari or green tea is an essential accompaniment that is always served in sushi restaurants. The bitterness of the tea again refreshes the palate between mouthfuls, but it also serves to disinfect the mouth, as well as providing all the health benefits of green tea.
Beer was first test-brewed in Japan in 1853, following a Dutch recipe. The country's first brewery was established in the 1870's and since then, beer, especially lager, has become very popular as an accompaniment to Japanese food. Japanese beer drinkers consider how well a beerrefreshes the throat and cleans the palate as being particularly important (an aspect known as 'kire' - literally, 'cutting'), and major Japanese beers are especially brewed for a sharp, clean finish. In 1994, the minimum production quantity needed for a brewery to obtain a manufacturing licence was reduced, and since then many small regional breweries have been established, providing a great variety of originalbeers.
Sake, Japan's national alcoholic drink, is made from fermented rice. Brown rice is 'polished' to make the smaller white rice grains used in the brewing of sake, which is categorised according to the the degree of rice polishing: junmaishu (pure rice sake), honjozoshu (sake with a limited addition of brewer's alcohol), ginjoshu (the highest grade category) and futsushu (common grades of sake). Sake is clear, but sometimes has a yellow tint. It has a slightly sweet taste and an alcohol content of 14 to 16%. Traditionally, it is served warm in a small porcelain cup or cold in a glass.