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Fish Free Sushi: Is it Sushi at All?

Updated on February 12, 2015

"Ewww, sushi's just raw fish, I'm not eating that."

Yeah. The above phrase really grinds my gears. Partly because sashimi, or raw fish, is a delectable treat, albeit an acquired taste, but mainly because it's flat-out wrong. Sushi is not raw fish; sushi is sticky rice seasoned with sweetened vinegar. Also associated with sushi as a whole are soy sauce, nori (dried roasted seaweed), wasabi, and gari (pickled ginger).

Based on these five elements, sushi appears simple enough, but when combined with different ingredients sushi has the capacity to delight, excite and stimulate even the most jaded of palates. Yes, it often incorporates sashimi, but there are a million and one different ways to enjoy sushi without raw fish ever making an appearance.

"Meat sushi? Sounds worse than fish."

Everybody loves beef, right? Well, except for vegetarians and vegans, and people who don't like beef, but let's pretend they don't exist for a while. Beef works great with sushi, particularly when it's cooked rare, sliced thinly and laid atop a nigiri, which is basically a bite-size pellet of rice. Top with mayo and a sprinkling of spice et voila! Delicious sushi tailor-made for carnivores.

Poultry also makes for lip-smacking sushi; hoi-sin shredded duck wrapped in sweet rice and seaweed? Nom. Teriyaki chicken, duck and plum sauce; I've even seen turkey and cranberry sushi at Christmas which was a little out there but tasty all the same.

Seared beef nigiri, duck California roll, cucumber maki
Seared beef nigiri, duck California roll, cucumber maki
Shrimp nigiri
Shrimp nigiri

"Cooked fish doesn't sound so bad I guess..."

Okay, so some of your fears about raw fish may have a grain of truth to them. Some fish do carry parasites, making them unsafe to eat raw. All freshwater fish should be cooked or otherwise have undergone some form of curing process such as pickling, brining or smoking.

There's plenty of sushi out there that utilises cooked or cured fish as a main ingredient. Shrimp nigiri is a personal favourite, along with unagi, or smoked eel. Smoked salmon is great when paired with asparagus, and while tuna is at its best eaten raw, you can use the tinned variety with some mayonnaise as a filling for a futo-maki (large maki roll.)

Although it's not cooked, it would be remiss if roe sushi wasn't mentioned here. There are many different types of fish roe used in sushi, including ikura (salmon), tobiko (flying fish), and uni (sea urchin). These all have different flavours and textures, and if you're a little uncomfortable with the idea of fish eggs, it helps to think of it as a type of caviar.

"Vegetarian sushi? I could go for that."

By far the most accessible sushi for sushi noobs is the vegetarian stuff. Cucumbers and avocados are now synonymous with sushi, and it's very rare to find a restaurant that doesn't offer a cucumber maki or an avocado California roll.

But veggie sushi is by no means limited to these two run-of-the-mill options. Pickled vegetables are a big part of Japanese cuisine, and you'll find them in some truly tasty sushi dishes. Pickled daikon, or Japanese radish, is crunchy with a sweet and sour flavour, and it's often found in maki rolls or as an ingredient in California rolls. Pickled cucumber, pickled carrots, if it can be stored in vinegar then it's a fair bet the Japanese have pickled it and used it in sushi.

Also falling under the vegetarian umbrella is tamago, otherwise known as egg. Sweetened with mirin (sweet sake) and cooked as an omelette, tamago nigiri is eaten as a final course. It actually tastes a little bit like sponge cake, so sushi can even work as a dessert course!

Finally, inari, which are deep-fried tofu pouches. These can be filled with rice, diced veg, meat... whatever takes your fancy.

Rice inari, roasted red pepper nigiri, seared beef and veg California roll
Rice inari, roasted red pepper nigiri, seared beef and veg California roll

"So maybe I could try some sushi..."

You're God-damn right you could. The really beautiful thing about sushi is its versatility. If there's something you really love, there's no harm in trying it after it's been rolled in sweet rice and nori. Like avocado? Try avocado sushi. Like hoi-sin duck? Try it in sushi form and give your taste-buds a treat.

At the end of the day, it's all down to you and how adventurous you are. Sure, you can dismiss sushi as just raw fish and never try it, but you'll never know what you're missing. Most Western sushi afficianados started off with cucumber maki and avocado nigiri, and now we're wolfing down whole tuna, fresh off the boat. Well, not really, but we would if we could.

So start small, be brave and remember: it's only food. It's not going to kill you. Unless it's badly-prepared fugu, in which case it might.

© 2015 Guy Matthews


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