Sushi

Choosing the Best Ingredients

Other than the fish, sushi does not have many special ingredients. They are all ingredients found in an average household in Japan. However the distinctly high quality ingredients are often used by professional sushi chefs to make that small, but noticeable difference.

Water

The water used to cook rice can alter the taste of the whole sushi significantly. High mineral content spring water found in the Tamba region of Japan (near Kyoto) has been prized for other cuisines such as soba as well. Chefs look for water with crisp taste with a faint sweet aftertaste.

Rice

The Japanese “japonica” rice has always been used for sushi. The japonica is a short grain rice which is sticker compared to other rice of the world. There are close to 50 variations under the japonica which are cultivated in Japan, and in the koshihikari, sasanishiki, and akitakomachi are generally considered the best. Recently a variation of the koshihikari called the “Milky Queen” has been calling a lot of attention. The Milky Queen has a lower amylase content, so the rice becomes stickier and more chewy. Unlike other rice, the grains of the Milky Queen are translucent before they are cooked and are beautiful just to look at.

Salt

Sea salt is always the natural choice. It is about 25% lower in sodium than regular salt, and it is milder in savory taste. Table salt, which is about 99% sodium, should not be used, not only for sushi, but for any cuisine, for it makes the savory taste of the food “spikey”. Many sea salts are harvested in Japan and the Okinawa (Southern Japan) sea salt and the Noto (Northern Japan) sea salt are famous. Besides domestic sea salts, many sushi chefs are starting to experiment with Australian, Schezwan, Mongolian, and Himalayan sea salt, which are all of very high quality.

Sugar

A small amount of regular white sugar is used for sushi rice preparation. Brown sugar has a bold taste, and is too strong when matched with sushi. Sugar was imported to Japan from Southeast Asia in the form of brown sugar, and it was very expensive. During the Edo period, this sugar was refined to something close to white sugar. This was called the wasanbon. It has a taste in between white and brown sugar and is used in creating Japanese sweets. Some sushi chefs prefer using this, but the clearer white sugar is more subtle, and is preferred to smoothen the vinegar taste in the sushi rice vinegar. 

Rice Vinegar

It is important to use naturally fermented and aged rice vinegar. Not only that it has a milder tang, but it contains macrobiotic agents that can properly cure fish such as mackerel. Natural rice vinegar is often drunk alone (in small amounts) for health benefits. The artificially made rice vinegars are made by chemically producing acid, and then adding artificial flavorings. This drops the acid content ratio from a normal vinegar, and it requires more time to cure fish, and eventually “cooks“ the flesh. As for the taste, it is too sour and more sugar will be required to make the sushi rice vinegar smoother, which results in a sweet sushi rice.

Kombu

Kombu is a type of kelp used to accentuate many flavors in Japanese cuisine. It is one of the basic ingredients, and the bland mineral taste magnifies the flavors of seafood. It is seldom used as a main ingredient except in Okinawa. (High mineral content of kombu along with other dishes are linked to the long life span of Okinawans.) The best kombu is cultivated in the northern seas of Hokkaido near Rishiri island and is considered superior in quality.

Sake

Naturally fermented sake, or rice wine is required. A lot of cheaper sake are a blend of lower grade factory produced wine. Sake also has the reputation of tasting sweet, and lingering. A high quality sake should taste light, and have the sweet aroma of rice. The sake should always come from a single barrel and real breweries wrap their bottles with paper to avoid sunlight. There are the Junmai Shu (Pure rice wine), Ginjo and Dai Ginjyo sake, and they represent how much the rice has been processed before fermentation (from high to low respectively). The Junmai Shu has the lightest taste, with sweet aromas. A good quality junmai shu should be used when blending the sushi rice vinegar. The later two are stronger in flavor and aromas and should be enjoyed as a drink.

Soy Sauce

Soy Sauce was introduced to Japan from China, and after many years of modifications, small differences in taste have developed. Japanese soy sauce was modified to match with domestic food, and raw fish is a good example. Japanese soy sauce, are made with various ingredients, and the basic, koikuchi type which is made with wheat and soybeans match the best with sushi. The koikuchi meaning strong savory taste, is originally a Edo (old name for Tokyo) style (known for their salty foods) soy sauce which became mainstream in Japan. The unpasteurized ki joyu (raw soy sauce) version of koikuchi has more complex aromas and the best ones come small manufactures that maintain the old traditional production methods..  

Nori

Nori is dried chopped laver made into thin sheets. Nori is an intriguing ingredient to choose. The strong ocean scent that is characteristic are sometimes thought be too overpowering against the delicate aromas of some fish. Therefore only fish with robust flavors were made into sushi rolls which require nori. Nevertheless, a good quality nori must have a strong aroma, so they are used carefully. Laver is usually farmed in the ocean bays. They are sensitive to the quality of water so the best quality are found near oceans free of pollution.

Wasabi

Fresh wasabi is always used. The antibacterial properties which come from the isothiocyanates work the best when used fresh. A very fine grater made with shark skin must be used to properly break the cells to release these compounds. It is apparent by the stronger taste when it is grated with the fine grains of shark skin. Wasabi is cultivated in fresh spring water and sand. There are wasabi farms throughout Japan, but the Mazuma (central Japan) wasabi from the Izu peninsula stands out the most. Most of the pre-made, or powered wasabi sold in Japan are made from horseradish, and food colorings, since mass production of wasabi is difficult. There are a few products that use real wasabi, and they are usually a little more expensive.