It’s an easy mistake to make. If you’re on a trip to Japan and step into a restaurant for something to eat, you’ll probably want to try the sushi. It’s what Japanese cuisine is most famous for, so of course you’ll be trying it.
You run your gaze down the counter, looking for tiny plates covered in raw fish. Instead, you see lots of colours, many of them comprised of dried seaweed and vegetables and lots and lots of rice.
“Fish, please! Sushi.”
It happens every year, in every place - but probably most of all in Japan. It happened to me in a Japanese restaurant in England. I was insistent: no, not the vegetables, the sushi please!
So, get a head start on everyone by learning the different up front. A few centuries back, sushi did indeed mean pickled fish preserved in vinegar. Nowadays, its common use has expanded to mean any dish containing rice that uses a particular type of vinegar. You can have plates of sushi that are entirely free of fish, favouring other seafood meats or just vegetables and grains alone - and they’ll be just as delicious, too.
But if you really want pickled fish, you should ask for sashimi - although be aware that it’ll arrive on a plate on its own, nothing but the slices of fish, so if you’re wanting “sushi with fish”, you’ll need to take your pick from what’s on the menu.
Outside of Japan, this is a fairly straightforward process for foreigners like me, since those sushi restaurants come with English translations, along Spanish, French, German and the like. Inside of Japan...well, there might be English on the menu, but it might be such an eccentric translation that it’ll leave you none the wiser.
Outside of Japan, the three most popular types of sushi are nigiri, uramaki and norimaki (or just maki). The first is a rice ball with something (usually fish) draped over it. Uramaki is a Westernised slice of a roll containing multiple fillings - what most people around the world would recognise as sushi, along with maki, upright seaweed rolls stuffed with rice and something else.
Inside Japan, of course, anything goes. It’s like going to Italy after a lifetime of pizza and spaghetti: you’ll be amazed at how sushi types differ wildly wherever you go, according to the chef, according to the season, with all sorts of varieties, some of them unrecognisable. For example, you may see a yellow cuboid of something custard-coloured that wobbles when you poke it: that’s tamagoyaki, sweet egg omelette, and yup, it’s definitely sushi.
One dish you probably won’t be served is something called fugu, a type of sashimi made from the flesh of the pufferfish or blowfish. Its sale as a meal is strictly controlled in Japan, and only licensed chefs that have undergone years of training are allowed to serve fugu in any form. The reason is dramatic: in a typical Japanese year, around 50 people suffer fugu poisoning in around 30 incidents - around half of all poison deaths in the country - and a few of them are fatal.
While well prepared sashimi of all kinds is generally a safe bet, the liver of fresh fugu contains tetrodotoxin, which leads to paralysis, respiratory failure and death within just a few hours. Modern trained chefs know how to separate the toxic part of the fish (incredibly, before 1984 there were Japanese gastronauts prepared to risk eating it!) - but there’s still a chance something could go wrong, and for some thrill-seeking diners with deep pockets (fugu is not cheap), that’s part of the appeal…
Generally speaking, though, sushi in general is remarkably healthy, low in fat, stuffed full of nutritional goodness, and entirely safe to eat.
(On the flip side, it’s also rather high in salt, and the rice grains are stuck together in a sweet, sticky matrix, so it’s best to watch your salt & sugar levels there. It’s also generally advised that pregnant women and children under the age of 16 avoid eating raw fish as a rule.)
A word on etiquette: when your plate arrives, don’t feel like you have to pick up your sushi rolls with chopsticks. Generally speaking, they’re meant for tackling sashimi (although feel free to use them for everything if you’re feeling confident enough). In most restaurants, using your fingers is considered perfectly acceptable.
It will also probably come with a side order of wasabi and ginger. Wasabi, or Japanese horseradish, is a green paste that holds a powerful kick - Japan’s equivalent of hot chili sauce, except you feel it more in your nose than your throat. You’re advised to take just the tiniest amount until you’ve calibrated it against your inner tolerance for spiciness - just the tiniest smear can bring tears to your eyes.
The small slices of pickled ginger, on the other hand, aren’t meant to be eaten directly with the sushi. They’re a palate cleanser for use between dishes - and if you add them directly to the food, they’ll drown out the flavour. (I have learned this to my cost.)
And of course there’s the soy sauce. If you dip an entire roll into it, rice and all, you’re running the risk that it’ll disintegrate, and there’s nothing less gracious-looking in the world of sushi than clawing bits of rice out of your soy bowl. In this case, it’s far better to smear and drip rather than dunk.
However and wherever you eat it, be prepared to fall hard for it. Sushi gives you a palpable sense of entire-body wellbeing, an energetic glow that feels entirely the opposite of the lethargic post-prandial dip you get from other rich-tasting meals.
It’s an easy thing to love - and since Japanese people have something of a tradition for living to a grand old age, there are certainly worse diets you can try out for the good of your health.
Enjoy your meal, delight your senses with all the colours, textures and flavours, and indulge your curiosity about what you haven’t tried yet. There’s always a new dish to learn in the most fun way possible.