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Raw seafood has been a treasured delicacy and a key ingredient in many southeast Asian dishes, sushi included. The raw ingredients give the dishes a unique light, clean, and fresh taste. However, if you are new to sushi or you want to give it a shot but for some reason, the thought of raw ingredients churns your stomach, there is some good news for you!
Not all sushi is raw, there are varieties that are fully cooked while others have some ingredients cooked and others semi-cooked or served raw. The main component in sushi that is vinegared rice, is always cooked. When people speak of raw sushi, they mostly refer to sashimi, which for classification purposes isn’t categorized as sushi because it doesn’t have rice an ingredient. The component that is mostly served raw in sushi is the seafood which could be salmon, yellowtail, tuna, mackerel or imitation crab meat.
Stick with me on this explorative sushi culinary journey to learn more about sushi varieties including the cooked and the raw. You will also get to know what types of sushi to start with as a beginner.
Sushi and Sashimi -Telling the Difference
Historically, sushi which is a Japanese term meaning ‘sour taste’, dates to the Yayoi period (300 BC–300 AD) practice where raw fish was persevered by way of fermenting it in raw rice and salt.
Sushi and sashimi are terms often used interchangeably and to some extent confusing. Therefore, before delving into what gives sushi the raw connotation and the different types of sushi available, it helps to clear the air on the difference between the two.
Sashimi is made of raw meat such as tuna, salmon, squid, octopus, clams, and scallops. The meat is thinly sliced and served without rice. This sharply contrasts with sushi where cooked vinegared rice or shari is the main part of the dish and raw meat may or may not be added as an ingredient. Cooked meat, vegetables or even fried eggs can be used as toppings.
The bottom line is that sashimi is not sushi, they are two separate dishes connected only by the use of raw seafood or meat.
Sushi Varieties- The Raw and The Cooked
Since the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) when the rice used to preserve the fish or seafood started to be eaten, varieties of sushi have emerged over time differing in shape, flavor, and size. If you are looking for a quick guide on what is raw and what’s cooked in the sushi universe, I’ve got you covered.
While eating raw sushi may be your ultimate goal, trying cooked items as you get comfortable with raw seafood is highly commendable. Did you know that you could have an entire sushi meal made of cooked ingredients? Read on!
Unagi and Anago Sushi
This is sushi made from eel. When the eel is from fresh water, it is called unagi and if it is drawn from saltwater, it is referred to as anago. Freshwater eel has a bold rich taste while its saltwater counterpart is soft-textured and has an incredible natural sweetness. Packed with vitamins, protein and calcium, the filleted and deboned eel is first steamed then basted in sweet sauce before being grilled. It is then served on a bed of rice.
See more: What are Unagi And Anago? (eel)
This is a popular sushi in the United States. It is made of cooked rice, cucumber, avocado, toasted nori (seaweed), and cooked imitation crab meat. The imitation crab meat is made from minced fish flesh that has been deboned and washed and thereafter heated and pressed into shapes that resemble crabs.
Vegetarian Sushi Rolls
These are sushi varieties made of cooked vegetable ingredients including cucumber, nori (seaweed), sesame seeds, and carrot shreds. If you would love your sushi spicy, look for ingredients such as mayonnaise, ketchup, garlic powder, and coconut milk.
Also go for toppings such as grilled squid, octopus or shrimp. Clam is almost always served cooked as well.
For more information: 15 Most Popular Cooked Sushi To Order in Restaurant
The Raw Sushi and the In between
Getting into the raw world of sushi can be exciting but also intimidating. However, if you’ve been on cooked sushi, you need to gradually dip your other feet into these waters as well. The best way is to start with semi-cooked sushi that gives you a flavor of both worlds.
This is a link between the raw and the cooked. The scallops are usually seared on the outside but the inside largely remains raw. Butterflied scallops have a slightly tender but firm flesh. Their flavor is sweet, especially when garnished with spicy mayo.
When thin slices of raw fish are laid over balls of vinegared rice, the resulting sushi arrangement is called nigiri. This sushi dish is mostly raw with the exception of the cooked rice and other ingredients. However, there is an option; you can have your nigiri with seared or cooked fish. Garnishes are not common with nigiri, but you may dip your fish in plain soy sauce when eating.
This is Japanese for hand ball or embroidered ball. The cooked rice is pressed into a ball and layered with ingredients including fish. You have a choice on whether to take temari with raw fish or have the toppings cooked. If you are a beginner in sushi, it is preferred to take it cured or cooked.
This type of sushi got its name from the wrapping. Maki rolls come in wide range of varieties but the structure remains the same. The cooked rice is wrapped in dried seaweed sheets and the toppings may include fish. Again you have a choice, if your taste buds are inclined towards raw stuff, you may order your maki with raw salmon, tuna, snapper or mackerel. However, if you are a novice sushi fan, you may opt for cooked seafood.
How to Enjoy Sushi as a First Timer
In order to avoid a disgusting first time experience with sushi, you need a plan. It is okay to be selective and picky, but most of all getting the right sushi and moving on gradually until you get to sashimi is a worthy experience.
Try the Cooked Varieties First
The maki roll and specifically the California roll is a good sushi to start with. As explained above, this roll is cooked and therefore there is no raw seafood on it. Even if the nori seaweed is disgusting to you, the California roll has it rolled up on the inside with cooked rice on the outside.
Begin with What You Are Familiar With
Start with something that is easier on your neophyte palate. Assuming you like grilled salmon or you enjoy it smoked, you may want to start with salmon sushi. In this way, you always have something you like even if the rest of the ingredients turn out to be less tasty than you expected. Taste and texture always interplay in sushi to give you the right choice from where to begin. If you enjoy scallops, try the scallop sushi or go for one topped with calamari or shrimp if you love these seafood varieties.
Rolls Hide the Raw (inside-out rolls)
Instead of the outright sushi where the raw fish is layered right at the top of the ball of rice, a sushi roll may be a good idea. Eating raw fish can be off-putting but with a roll, all the ingredients are on the inside which means you don’t get to see them when eating. The cooked rice will give you a buffer until you get used to the concept of raw seafood.
Can I Start from a Non-Fish Sushi?
Yes, you can start from sushi that has no meat and gradually switch on to the meat varieties. Vegetarian sushi such as kappa maki which are cucumber rolls can usher your palate into the style of food in the sushi universe before adding meat to your plate.
Do All Fish Have a Strong Raw Flavor?
Not all fish have a strong flavor. There are those that are a little mild and therefore giving you a great place to start. Think of seafood varieties such as halibut, squid, red snapper, and scallop. They give you the taste, satisfaction, and preparedness as you adventure into the overly fishy toppings. Mackerel should be the last on your list as this requires a bit of experience with raw seafood.
It Helps to ask for Guidance
In every sushi bar worth its salt, there is almost always a dining choice. This is a sushi arrangement that the chef also known as itamae regards it as the best for the day. If you are not quite sure whether or not you should break the raw barrier, getting more clarification on every food on the choice list is important. This will help you avoid heaping a hunk of mackerel and ending up with a bad aftertaste.
Now you know that sushi is not always raw and even when it is, only components of it such as the toppings are. Try to explore all the flavors your tongue can taste that is sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami. In this way, you can immerse yourself into the world of sushi and appreciate every taste whether raw, semi-cooked, or fully cooked. Having a personal experience with specific sushi varieties can help you debunk most sushi myths.