How to eat proper sushi: A beginner’s guide
Stuart Ritchie, 1 July 2022
Sushi is the best food in the world. But it’s only the best food in the world if you get the really good stuff. This article is about how to do that.
A lot of things are called “sushi”. Some of them aren’t actually sushi at all, like the sad, dried-out rice lumps you get in the meal-deal section at UK supermarkets. And some are sushi—like what you get in places like Yo Sushi, Wasabi, Itsu, or your local Japanese takeaway—but they’re cheap sushi: sometimes moderately nice, but barely in the same universe as the high-end stuff I’ll describe in this post. Somewhat paradoxically, I think you’ll start to feel “cheap” sushi is way overpriced after you’ve had the high-end experience.
A proper, high-end sushi dinner, an omakase, is a constantly-varying panoply of different tastes, textures, and colours, lovingly prepared for you personally and presented with a care and attention to detail that’s vanishingly rare in any kind of cuisine; a connection with, and insight into, the maker of the food that’s rarely if ever present in any other kind of meal; and a feeling that you’re taking part in what is a beautiful, high-skilled, artisan ritual that goes back hundreds of years. You’re watching someone who’s dedicated years of their life, or sometimes their entire life, to just this one task—making perfect sushi—and that sort of skill translates to some of the best-tasting food you’ll get anywhere.
Shrimp nigiri by TakaHisa, Dubai [all photos by the author]
If you’re anything like me, once you’ve had the “real” stuff, you won’t want to go back to cheap sushi. And as soon as you skip out of the restaurant after your first omakase meal, your brain will be buzzing with ideas for how you can get your next one.
Can you trust my opinion on this?
A lot of my friends ask me about high-end sushi. There’s a lot to say, even just to describe what such a meal is like. So I thought I’d write down as much as I can think of, and hopefully you’ll find it useful.
I’ve only been properly “into” high-end sushi for 3-4 years. But I have been to some incredibly good (sometimes Michelin-starred) sushi restaurants in Japan, the UK, France, and the UAE. I think about sushi a lot. And now that we can travel more easily again post-pandemic, I always try to scout out a high-end sushi restaurant when I’m abroad. I think I have more experience of high-end sushi than the average person, and even the average sushi fan. So, don’t treat my advice as gospel in any way, but I think if you bear it in mind, you won’t be disappointed and will get a lot more out of eating sushi.
Also: I’m probably going to sound snobbish in some of this, especially where I dismiss more modern/fusion kinds of sushi. This is just my opinion! If you like kinds of sushi that are different from the kinds I discuss here, that’s no problem at all.
Double chu-toro nigiri by Jin, Paris
What do I mean by “high-end” sushi?
When I talk about high-end sushi, I’m talking about the kind where you go to a restaurant and sit at a counter, with maybe only 5 or 6 other customers, and a chef prepares the sushi for each of you individually, one piece for each person at a time. This is like a tasting menu, where you don’t order the courses and the chef decides what you get. Indeed, the name omakase, which describes this kind of meal, means “I leave it up to you” in Japanese.
So, you leave it up to the chef: often you’ll start with some sashimi (raw fish without any rice), some grilled or steamed fish, or some vegetables, and then get into the main part of the meal, which consists of nigiri sushi – the classic oblong-shaped rice balls with fish or other seafood on top. This is known as Edo-style or Edo-mae sushi, after the old name for Tokyo, where it first arose. You’ll get a lot of different pieces—for example, at the last dinner omakase I went to, I was given 17 nigiri—and the centrepiece is usually a variety of different cuts of tuna (see below for more on that).
High-end sushi places tend to get their ingredients from fish markets, so the courses vary from night to night, and from season to season. Aside from tuna, you might get: sea bass, sea bream, bonito, yellowtail, (horse) mackerel, red snapper, red mullet, trout, gizzard shad, sardine, ice fish, scallops of different sizes, all kinds of clams, octopus, various squid and cuttlefish, sea urchin, shrimp of all sizes, the eggs from various fish, one or both of the common types of Japanese eel (unagi and anago) - or any number of other possibilities. One of the greatest pleasures of this kind of sushi is you have no idea what you’ll be eating - but you know it’ll all be good; you can’t predict what’ll come next until you literally see it being made right in front of you.
Sea urchin gunkan maki by Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi, Tokyo
Not all the courses are raw: the eels are grilled, the shrimp are boiled, and some of the fish might have been marinated (e.g. in soy sauce) or pickled - the latter two techniques being the traditional, pre-refrigeration ways of keeping the fish from spoiling. Often the tuna has been dry-aged, and sometimes the chef will produce a blowtorch and sear the top of a sushi piece (especially the fattier ones – pieces of sushi, I mean, not chefs).
At some point you might get a miso soup (sometimes flavoured with crab or lobster or shrimp or clams), and there’s usually a dessert. The classic one is the Japanese sweet omelette, but I’ve seen desserts that are based entirely on fruit, that include matcha cakes, and more.
In short, it’s the kind of sushi you saw in the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi (and if you haven’t seen that film, do so now! As I write this, it’s available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK). There are no conveyor belts, no plastic boxes or packets, and… well, it’s worth listing all the things that differentiate the type of sushi I’m talking about from the cheaper kinds. That’s what I’ll do in the next section.
But before that, I just want to emphasise: another of the best things about sushi omakase is that no two experiences are ever the same – even if you go to the exact same restaurant. Each sushi chef will put their own spin on things, whether that’s interesting combinations of ingredients, rare kinds of fish, unique ways to prepare the fish like special knife techniques, or even just the flow of the order of the pieces. In the best places, every single aspect of the meal has been considered in extreme, exacting detail. There’s really nothing like it.
The sushi counter at Sushi Matsumoto, Tokyo
How you can tell it’s good sushi
None of the following are diagnostic of good or bad sushi in and of themselves; they’re just rules of thumb. Good restaurants will do several of the following things; the best will do them all. So if you’re looking for something that’s intermediate between the highest high-end stuff and the cheapest supermarket sushi, try finding somewhere that does at least some of the things on this list. The first point itself is, I find, a really reliable (not 100%, but pretty good) indicator of whether a restaurant is serious or not.
* They differentiate between different types of tuna. Just as there are different cuts of beef (brisket, T-bone, flank, etc), there are different cuts of tuna. There are three:
o the lean part, akami;
o the medium-fatty part, chu-toro;
o and the fattiest part, o-toro (or sometimes just toro).
If the restaurant has all three available, it means they’ve spent some time and money sourcing high-quality ingredients and aren’t content to serve you the cheapest stuff they can find. If the menu just says “tuna”—and this is the vast, vast majority of restaurants that serve sushi—forget it.
Comparing and contrasting between the three types of tuna is one of the great pleasures of a sushi omakase: it’s fun debating with your fellow diners the three flavour/texture combinations and which you each prefer. It’s a cliché to say that the sweet, fatty o-toro will melt in your mouth, but it really is the best way to describe it.
* The pieces of sushi come out one at a time. As noted earlier. This is the crucial part of the omakase – the chef is choosing which type of sushi to give you, one piece at a time. It doesn’t come on a big plate in “sets” with a variety of different kinds (though lots of pretty good sushi comes this way).
O-toro nigiri at Maru, London
* They use real wasabi. A lot of people aren’t aware that the “wasabi” you get in little packets at cheap sushi restaurants is just horseradish paste with green food colouring (and maybe a low-single-figures percentage of actual wasabi). Real wasabi is a special root (or, technically, rhizome), which is imported from Japan, so can be pretty expensive. Your high-end sushi chef will normally grate it for you at the start of your meal on a lovely wooden grater. In almost all cases, the chef will put the wasabi on the sushi while it’s being made. If you don’t like it, in some cases they’ll be happy to not add any, if you ask. Watching the complex set of hand movements as they put the rice ball together, put on a dot of wasabi, then add the fish and place the whole thing in front of you, is genuinely a beautiful thing.
* The fish:rice ratio strongly favours fish. In a high-end place, you’ll barely even see the rice. This is particularly true in high-end places in Japan, where the pieces of fish are routinely enormous. On the other hand, in cheaper, more penny-pinching restaurants, you’ll get a sad sliver of fish that barely covers the huge rice ball. Alas, sushi in the UK—even in quite nice places—tends to be on the tiny side, and if like me you’ve been to a few places in Japan (or just browse through people’s Instagram photos of sushi restaurants in Japan), the difference is stark.
* The rice is seasoned. Proper sushi chefs use vinegar to season the rice. There’s a lot of variet