So I owe lots to sushi. When I started University in 2001, I was having some major dietary allergies and was forbidden to eat wheat/gluten. Sushi became my friend. Since then, I have become a diehard fanatic and make it quite regularly in the comfort of my own home. But it's still nice going out.
For those of you who have never had sushi, you might feel intimidated. I haven't been in a sushi place yet that doesn't have at least ONE menu item in Japanese. So in order to help you on your very own raw fish discoveries, below is a list of classic sushi and Japanese cooking terminology to help you know what you're getting:
- sushi - sort of a broad term, but on menus it normally refers to nigiri sushi. See next word.
- nigiri - a slab of raw fish, roe, crab, egg, sea urchin... on a little log of rice. You can pretty much put a little slab of anything on a little log of rice and call it nigiri.
- sashimi - raw fish. Alone. No rice in sight. It is simply large slabs of fish or shellfish, etc. A common sashimi dish is chirashi, which literally means 'scattered sushi'. It consists of a variety of sashimis served on a bed of rice.
- maki - literally 'roll' in Japanese. It is made by putting rice on a piece of seaweed paper (nori), and rolling it around a combination of fillings. For example, a cucumber roll (translation: kappa maki) has only cucumber in it. Maki can come with the seaweed on the outside of the roll, or the rice on the outside of the roll. More complex maki can have cucumber or salmon instead of rice - which is beautiful when presented, but can get a bit awkward to stuff in your mouth in one go.
- temaki - literally 'hand roll' in Japanese. It is made from a piece of nori (see below) with a small bit of rice and filling rolled into a cone-shape. It is eaten with your hands, usually, and looks a little like a waffle cone - only green.
- nori - the seaweed paper used to make maki, temaki, and commonly used on nigiri with some kinds of topping. Roe, urchin, and egg usually have bands of nori keeping them on the rice log.
- California Roll - not Japanese, but possibly the most popular maki out there, a California Roll in sushi restaurants usually refers to a roll with (cooked, and usually fake) crab, avocado, cucumber and flyfish roe. It can also refer to a maki that has the rice on the outside, but this is less common in restaurants.
- futomaki - A strange term that literally means 'fat cut roll'. It is usually a vegetarian roll, usually with egg and sometimes with mushrooms, pickled radishes (daikon) and other vegetables.
- daikon - pickled radish. It comes in many different colours that are outrageous, like fuschia and bright yellow - similar to pickled ginger, only not normally shaved.
- edamame - boiled soy beans in the pod. They are usually salted, and are most common as an appetizer. They look more like green beans than anything, but taste nuttier.
- bonito - crunchy, prepared tuna flakes. They don't taste a thing like tuna, but are great to add a crunch. The tuna is smoked, dried, fermented and flaked to create bonito - to the point you wouldn't know it was fish at all. Sometimes it comes in the shape of large paper-like flakes that dance with the heat coming off a dish - a beautiful sight.
- udon - a big fat thick rice noodle. Very al dente texture - like tapioca or rice. Normally the dishes are soups in restaurant, but some will offer both soup and only noodles.
- soba - a thin noodle made of at least 30% buckwheat. It is stiffer than the udon noodles, due to its high fiber content, but not crunchy. Like udon, they usually come in soups, but can be offered both ways.
- miso - speaking of soups, this one defines sushi. Miso is made of fermented soybean, and is very smooth and salty in taste. Miso soup is traditionally served before the main course. While recipes differ from place to place, miso soup usually comes with tofu, wakabe seaweed (different taste than the nori), sometimes even mushrooms or green onion. It is a very light soup - mostly broth - and is served in bowls without spoons. Soup in Japan is to be drunk from the cup/bowl, not spooned out.
- anything 'don' - Beef don, Chicken don, unagi don... Don simply means "on a bed of rice". The only exception is chirashi (see 'sashimi' above).
- gyoza - a rather tasty dumpling usually made with pork and veggies, then pan-fried.
- wasabi - the rather famous 'green stuff'. It's a horseradish-based paste that has a wicked burn. Because you can control the spiciness of wasabi by processing it, a lot of restaurants don't serve it at full strength. Mixing it with soy sauce is the most common way of having it with sushi... except for nigiri. Be careful: nigiri is sometimes attached to the rice log with a daub of wasabi. Which can be an unexpected and unpleasant surprise for those with low pain tolerance.
- teppanyaki - almost a Japanese cooking presentation, where your meat, veggies and seafood are cooked on a hotplate in front of you. Sometimes by yourself, though this is less common.
- teriyaki - almost everyone's heard this, but not everyone knows it's Japanese. It's the most familiar of Japanese sauces and one of the mildest as well. It's a sweet, soy sauce-based marinade. Sushi restaurants usually have chicken, beef, and salmon available. So if you're feeling shy, start with a chicken teriyaki dinner and order a side of edamame. You can work up to sashimi and dancing bonito flakes later.
Toronto, like I said, is inundated with international cuisine, and sushi is no exception. My favourite link to finding sushi nearby is The Toronto Area Sushi Society which includes both reviews and maps to a number of different restaurants across the GTA.
So, dozo! Have fun with your own sushi experiences!
(I may do one on making your own sushi in the future... but for now, I will not bore you with the details. If you're curious, tell your server you'd like to be seated at the bar. These seats usually have a great view of the knife action behind glass.)