What began as a means to an end, using fermented rice to preserve fish in ancient Japan, became the end in itself when gradually, over centuries, Japanese people began to eat the preserving rice too. Fermented rice eventually became vinegared rice, paving the way for modern day sushi.
The term sushi means vinegared rice, which is the base ingredient of the ubiquitous bite-sized morsels that are consumed with such ardour, the world over.
The making of this modern delicacy still bears the stamp of time, with sushi chefs in Japan required to undergo a decade of training before earning their Sushi Master stripes. Perfecting their craft is oftentimes a life’s work.
Sushi making is an art form: a carefully choreographed display of dexterity and skill. The prelude is a light wetting of the hands, followed by a few sharp claps to disperse and minimise moisture, thus ensuring the slightly sticky rice doesn’t cling to palm or fingers, nor does excess moisture cause the rice to crumble, or taste watery.
The ubiquitous makisushi (rolled sushi), otherwise called norimaki, maki or makimono, is a roll of sushi that is generally wrapped in a sheet of crisp nori (seaweed). Grains of vinegared rice are carefully pressed to the edges of the nori, a single grain high, until rice blankets the sheet like a layer of snow. Slivers of raw fish, seafood, or vegetables are added, then the nori sheet is rolled up and pressed securely with a bamboo mat.
Maki is usually cut into six or eight bite-sized rounds, sometimes dabbed with, or dunked in, soy sauce depending on the diner’s preference, and dotted with wasabi. Shreds of pickled ginger can be used to cleanse the palate, before moving on to another serve of sushi.
Sometimes the seaweed moves to the interior of the roll, where it provides taste, but less texture. This inside-out roll, or uramaki, where the rice is the outer layer, is prettied up with garnishes such as roe or toasted sesame seeds.
Sushi chefs are light fingered and gentle of touch. They’re skilled knifesmen and women, too, sharpening their knives on a whetstone and demonstrating dozens of different slicing techniques, depending on the type of fish they’re working with, as well as the texture and width of the desired slices. Each slice of fish is born from a single knife stroke, with multiple slices identical in size and sheerness.
Nigirisushi (hand pressed sushi), or simply nigiri, consists of a slice of raw fish over pressed vinegared sushi rice. Tapping into an almost sixth-sense of measurement, the sushi chef expertly picks up just the right amount of rice in one hand; a piece of raw fish or seafood in the other. What follows is a finger dance of molding and pressing – caressing, almost – to form an oval-shaped piece of rice. A quick finger flick sees wasabi dabbed on the underside of the piece of fish, which is draped over the rice and dressed with soy. The dance lulls, then starts again. It looks effortless, deceivingly so.
Nigiri is typically served in pairs; two simple mirror images of each other. Sometimes a thin belt of seaweed is used to bind a topping to the rice.
In Japan, nigiri is the most popular sushi, not maki rolls. In the Western world, where sushi has been globalised and hybridised, customers take it as it comes.