If you’re reading this, chances are you love sushi.
But if you’ve never been to Japan, there’s a fair chance that the sushi you know and love will pale in comparison – and in some cases bear little resemblance – to the sushi you’ll have the pleasure of experiencing here in Japan.
While this won’t surprise sushi connoisseurs or frequent visitors to Japan, for everyone else we have compiled a list of a few of the top myths and misconceptions about sushi in Japan.
But to better appreciate what modern-day Japanese-style sushi is (and is not), the best place to begin is with a brief background on Edomae sushi and its origins.
The Origins of Edomae Sushi
Sushi as we know it today is a relatively new phenomenon.
But the history of sushi stretches back a couple of thousand years and is believed to have its origins in Southeast Asia, having developed as a means of preserving fish using fermented rice.
Even within Japan itself sushi has a long history, and only gradually evolved into what we generally recognize as sushi today.
Culinary travelers with an adventurous palate can get a taste of what sushi might have been like by visiting Lake Biwa (just outside Kyoto) and trying the local specialty, funazushi.
While sushi continues to develop, and in a hundred years may be quite different than it is today, a major turning point in its long evolution took place in the great city of Edo – modern-day Tokyo – in the early 19th century.
In the bustling city of Edo a new style of sushi emerged, which became what we now know as Edomae sushi.
The Edo-based innovators of Edomae sushi placed pieces of fish, and other ingredients from Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay), atop balls of vinegared rice.
Thus was born quite possibly the most delicious fast food the world has ever seen.
Fortunately for all of us, this new form of sushi – served from Edo food carts – caught on.
As Edo-era sushi sellers did not have the luxury of refrigeration, they came up with innovative and delicious ways to give their products a longer shelf life. So in addition to raw fish, many of the ingredients were simmered or cured in vinegar or soy sauce, or cooked in some way.
Nowadays, sushi featuring raw fish is more popular than ever, but in traditional Edomae sushi it’s very common for the neta (the toppings, i.e., the fish or other ingredient on top of the rice) to be cooked or cured in some way.
Common Misconceptions About Sushi
Which leads us to our first, and perhaps the most common, misconception about sushi…
Sushi Myth #1: Fresher Equals Better
Many sushi lovers are under the impression that the best sushi in the world is always the freshest. But this simply isn’t the case.
As our friend Rebekah Wilson-Lye puts it, “If you’re eating the freshest sushi in the world, you’re not necessarily eating the greatest sushi in the world.”
While some ingredients – such as uni – are usually best as fresh as possible, others are best after aging or other forms of preparation.
For example, tuna – one of the most popular sushi neta – is typically aged for 3-4 days, and in some sushi-ya (sushi shops) up to 2 weeks.
In general, fish right out of the water doesn’t yet have a considerable amount of flavor. This is particularly true when it comes to white fish, which are extra taut and muscly, with little fat. It takes time for a fish to begin breaking down, and for amino acids to be released.
One way this is done by sushi chefs is by placing a cut of fish between sheets of kombu (kelp) and allowing it to age, to bring out the fish’s umami.
A great sushi chef knows when a fish or ingredient will taste its best, and this can vary greatly from fish to fish, and season to season.
When dining at one of Tokyo’s traditional Edomae sushi establishments, you’re likely to have the chance to enjoy a wide variety of preparations, including neta that have been cured, aged, simmered or par-boiled.
Sushi Myth #2: It’s All About the Fish (Forget the Rice)
If you’ve ever eaten good-quality sushi in Japan, then you already know that the quality of the shari (rice) is just as important as the quality of the neta.
Sushi novices tend to place all the emphasis on the neta, and fail to appreciate what many sushi connoisseurs consider the real treat: the shari.
Far from a mere filler, there is a delicate art involved in preparing shari, with many different techniques. Sushi rice is comprised of meticulously-cooked white rice, mixed with red or white vinegar, sugar and salt.
Every great sushi chef pays extreme attention to each step of the process, from procurement of the finest sushi rice to its perfect preparation.
As Rebekah says, “For many people it’s all about the shari,” and sushi enthusiasts obsess over different chefs’ methods of preparing the perfect sushi rice.
She continues, “If you’re going to spend a lot of money on the tuna, it’s always going to be good. But it’s the chef nailing the seemingly simple – but mindbogglingly detailed – elements, like the rice, that make sushi so much more beautiful than the sum of its parts.”
Sushi Myth #3: Sushi is an Everyday Food
A surprisingly common myth about Japan is that Japanese people, in general, eat sushi very often.
While hardcore sushi enthusiasts do eat sushi often, in general sushi is not an everyday food. One reason for this is simply that Japanese cuisine is extremely varied.
In addition, as Rebekah shares, “The main reason is that – just as for foreigners – sushi-ya are intimidating. They’re formal, traditional spaces.”
So while it is fairly common for Japanese people to grab a quick, casual sushi lunch from a convenience store or supermarket, dining at a sushi “shrine” or “temple” is typically a rare and special occasion for Japanese people, just as for non-Japanese people visiting Japan.
Neighborhood sushi joints are a bit more casual, but anytime you go out for sushi is an experience to be cherished!
Sushi Myth #4: All The Best Sushi Shops Have Michelin Stars
With more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, you might think that Japanese people would wholeheartedly embrace the famed culinary guide.
However, the truth is that the Michelin Guide is quite controversial in Japan, and often Japanese critics and diners are at odds with what Michelin’s inspectors have opined.
While Michelin stars are certainly symbols of quality, some of Tokyo’s best sushi shops don’t have Michelin stars, yet are extremely respected in Japan.
So when trying to decide on a sushi restaurant or two at which to splurge, we recommend you look beyond the Michelin Guide if possible.
As Rebekah notes, “You have to keep in mind that it’s a foreign standard being imposed on a cuisine that does not have the same traditions or judging criteria. Michelin’s criteria include elements like saucing, ambience and wine list as part of the overall assessment, which are not necessarily factors in determining what makes a good sushi-ya – and in some cases don’t even exist.”
Indeed, not all great Tokyo sushi shops are the sleek and stylish establishments you may be imagining. Some of the best sushi-ya have little ambience at all, or may even feel uncomfortable.
So while the Michelin Guide is not a bad place for English speakers to begin, keep in mind that it’s not the end-all-be-all guide it’s often made out to be.
To see a list of the sushi shops in Tokyo most loved by locals – Michelin star or not – we recommend consulting the top sushi shops as chosen by users of Tabelog, a popular restaurant rating website in Japan.
We hope you enjoyed this article about sushi myths and misconceptions! See our full article on the Top Myths About Japan Travel for even more surprising Japan travel tips.
We’d like to give a special thanks to our friend Rebekah Wilson-Lye for her insights into Tokyo’s sushi world. You can connect with Rebekah on Twitter (@IchifortheMichi).