30 Days of Japanese Food: Nigiri Zushi
Day 16: Nigiri Zushi
In western cultures, I think we sometimes use the term ‘sushi’ very broadly to describe anything Japanese that has raw fish. We treat it like a synonym for all Japanese food when, in fact, there is a very particular type of food that should be defined as sushi and, within that, some very specific subgroups of sushi.
Other than perhaps the rolls, the one you are probably most familiar with is the small rectangle of rice with a slice of raw fish on top. This is actually called ‘nigiri zushi’, which literally means ‘handmade sushi’.
The rice here is very important and it is a very specific sushi rice which has been specially vinegared. The chef pushes it into shape with the palm of his hands before doing anything else. He will often then put a little dab of wasabi on top and then drape the piece of fish over the rice. Certain toppings are held into place with a strip of seaweed – normally octopus, eel, squid and egg.
The most common toppings are seafood ones – salmon, tuna, prawn, and crab cakes. There are also options like avocado, tofu, egg, and mushrooms.
Although it looks quite simple, it’s actually considered to be a fine art to make nigiri sushi properly. That doesn’t mean they have to be made slowly, though. If you ate it at a sushi train, for instance, you’ll see the chefs whipping up pieces of sushi extremely quickly right in front you.
This plate of nigiri sushi (with a couple of bits of maki sushi) was eaten quite leisurely, though. It was from an upscale restaurant in the city of Kawasaki, about half an hour south of Tokyo. For a set with some tempura and miso soup, it costs 1600 yen (US$16.25).