Sushi, once a bona fide Japanese concept, has gone global. The beauty of its simplicity is providing the basis for a plethora of imaginative culinary adventures and delights. Whether from the seasoned professional, keen cook or novice, the re-invention of sushi has begun.
Above: Varieties of sushi from late Edo / early Meiji period (based on printings by Gyokusho Kawabata: with thanks to Mizkan Group Co., Ltd.)
Once upon a time there was no raw fish topping or ginger garnish to accompany sushi, which was simply a fermented rice mixture that allowed for the preservation of fish. As food culture developed, and vinegars created, the 19th century saw nigirizushi come into being, with a bed of vinegared rice (rather than bite-sized pieces) topped with the fast becoming prerequisite of the time; fresh raw fish.
Now sushi comes in a myriad of forms. Pressed, squeezed or scattered, eaten on the go, at a party or as a sumptuous meal, whether with a glass of beer, sake or green tea, the versatility of this one dish has become huge. It’s come a long way from its original mission of preservation, and as sushi goes global, it’s continuing to adapt to the innovations of its various host-environments.
When sushi first hit the UK market, it seemed something of a luxury food, a dish for special occasions, a culinary treat. Japanese restaurants were few and far between, hidden along narrow streets for only the most ardent Japanese food fans to find. Now, sushi can be found easily, everywhere from high-end dining establishments to chain restaurants, not forgetting the cheap and cheerful snack packs in supermarkets. Ingredients to make sushi are also becoming readily available, with rice vinegar and nori (sheets of dried seaweed) making their way onto the shelves of popular British supermarkets. And whilst you may still think of sushi as the original nigirizushi (vinegared rice topped with fresh raw fish), many professional chefs are eager to explore the possibilities offered by ingredients not necessarily linked to Japan’s rich menu of flavours.
Take last year’s winner of the UK Sushi Roll Championship at HYPER JAPAN, Asuka Kobayashi, with her rather lovingly named sushi creation, Precious Memories. Using Italian ingredients inspired by her mother’s pizza restaurant, Asuka’s ingredients included red wine, mascarpone, sun-dried tomato puree, capers and basil. Her win illustrates how sushi can be adapted to fit in with other food cultures, and enjoyed as such. This year’s Sushi Roll Championship will see another five chefs battle it out with their creative culinary endeavours vying for the public vote, so if you’d like to be a part of the sushi renaissance, get your ticket now!
But it’s not just professional chefs who can have all the fun. The Original Sushi Competition was created to showcase the talents hidden away in many a kitchen up and down the country, and now it's back after a five year break. Anyone with a penchant for sushi can enter, all that’s required is a bit of imagination and one essential ingredient--vinegared sushi rice. Take a look at how to enter here. Now in its seventh year, here we take a look at some of the competition’s past winners, fusing Japanese tradition with Western ingredients. (Try making these winning pieces of sushi yourself and taste why they got the judging panel's vote of approval!).
Elegant and meticulously crafted, the first ever winner of the competition back in 2002 was Maggie Thurer, with her Sushi Eggs Benedict. Blending both Japanese and British food traditions to create this winning entry, Maggie used quail eggs, which sit beautifully atop the bed of rice and smoked salmon.
Winner of the 2003 competition Miso Mozzarella by Chikako Aoki combines the two ingredients of the title to make this sumptuous sushi. Mixing chilli in with the miso adds a slight kick whilst the softness of the mozzarella adds beautiful texture in this umami-rich bite.
Absolutely loving the look of this London inspired sushi! Children’s Silver Winner 2003, Yui Hamada with Double Decker Sushi shows us how fab sushi can look with just a few ingredients. For this London Bus, smoked salmon, olives, nori (and a few carefully placed dots of cream cheese) did the trick!
The Essentials of Sushi
However innovative sushi has become, however creative one can be, without getting the basics right, the sushi will flounder. The foundations of each type of sushi, from California roll to chirashi (scattered) sushi, are based on vinegared rice. Made using Japonica short grain rice from Japan, California or Italy, the rice must be carefully cooked before adding the vinegar. Check out the treasure trove of information that is Sushi Perfect, where you’ll find step-by-step instructions that will get you on the way to sushi mastery.
The freshness of ingredients has also always been paramount, and with seafood playing a central role in the make-up of the Japanese diet, it’s little surprise that a whole host of tasty morsels from the ocean have been included on the sushi menu--along with condiments that help keep food poisoning off. Rice vinegar has powerful sterilising and anti-bacterial effects, whilst wasabi prevents the germination of bacteria, helping to prolong the freshness of the raw fish used.
The strong taste and smell of wasabi also stimulates the appetite and aids digestion. Soy sauce and gari (pickled ginger) also help sterilise against bacteria whilst providing delicious accompaniments to a sushi meal. But as we’ve seen, raw fish doesn’t have to feature anywhere near your piece of vinegared sushi rice, though you might still be able to find the flavours of wasabi, gari and soy sauce complimentary to your own inspired sushi and the fresh ingredients you use.
So whether you want a sushi that recreates your own precious memories, (perhaps recalling holidays of sweetness and spice?), or you prefer to see how the professionals do it, why not be a part of the sushi renaissance and join the Sushi Awards 2012!