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I know many people who think seafood the moment they hear sushi, probably because they relate the dish to different varieties of raw fish. I don’t blame them because there are so many variations of sushi and the dish has evolved so much over the years that it’s normal for a beginner to be confused.
Is sushi seafood? As the owner of a sushi blog, I can say with confidence that sushi is not seafood. Sushi means ‘sour’ in Japanese and it refers to the ancient tradition of wrapping fish in rice in order to preserve it. The sushi you see today comprises of rice, nori, and raw/ cooked fish or vegetables.
To understand this better, I will first take you back in time and then fast forward to present day where sushi has evolved into various exciting possibilities in the western world.
Why Is Sushi Often Confused As Seafood?
This has its roots in the way sushi originated thousands of years ago as a tradition to preserve raw fish. To keep the flesh edible for longer, the raw and cleaned fish was wrapped in layers of rice and salt. It was then kept pressed by a heavy stone for months.
The rice vinegar produced as a result of fermenting rice with salt resulted in breaking down the flesh into amino acids. This gave a strong umami flavor, one of the five primary tastes that a human tongue can identify.
When the fish meat was properly fermented, the sour rice was discarded and the fish was enjoyed. Thus, it was a tradition to preserve raw fish before ice-boxes and refrigerators were invented. In the Muromachi period, they started using vinegar to ferment rice quickly without spoiling it.
A few centuries later sushi and ozaka combined to form ozi-sushi which included different types of seafood and sushi rice pressed together in a mold. In the 19th century, a chef named Hanaya Yohei created the most modern version that the world recognizes as sushi today.
Does Sushi Always Contain Raw Fish?
The modern sushi derived its name from ‘Edomae nigirizushi’ which was called so because it was prepared using freshly caught seafood from the Edo Bay, now known as Tokyo Bay. Different varieties of raw seafood used in sushi gave rise to the belief that sushi is a dish made of raw fish.
The extensive variety of seafood used in sushi includes sea bass, tuna, mackerel, blue marlin, yellowtail, salmon, clams, ark shell, trout, eel, abalone, swordfish, sweetfish, squid, scallop, halfbeak, cockle, shrimp, sea bream, octopus, flatfish, and crab.
However, sushi does NOT always contain raw fish. When sushi arrived in western countries, the notion of raw fish did not impress the foreigners so the chef started serving cooked seafood including smoked salmon, cooked imitation crab, cooked shrimp, squid, octopus, and clam.
If you do a quick search for traditional and Americanized sushi rolls, you will find that 6 or 7 out of 10 contain fish or seafood in some form of the other. They may be raw (sushi-grade variety) or the fish may be boiled, steamed, cooked, fried, or baked/ roasted with seasonings and sauces.
Seafood Dominance In Traditional Sushi
Let’s first consider the traditional sushi and you will find that the most popular and common name among all is the Tuna sushi roll. While the red raw tuna as the sole filling is the first thing that comes to the mind when talking about this dish, meat from different parts of a tuna fish look and taste different.
After tuna, it has to be the salmon sushi that has a characteristic bright orange color with white stripes. When cut precisely by a master chef, the raw sushi-grade meat looks no less than a glistening jewel on the top of rice. In sushi rolls, salmon strips may be smoked or baked before adding them as fillings.
In some recipes, tuna or salmon may be cut into small cubes or shredded, mixed with mayo sauce or any other sauce of your choice before using as fillings in temaki sushi or gunkan maki. After these two most popular fish, we then come to tempuras and shrimp tempuras are one of the most sought after Japanese delicacies.
Thus, shrimp tempura rolls are one of the must-have sushi you will find at any sushi restaurant. Although tempuras rule due to their crispy texture and yummy taste, there are several other types of shrimps and seafood such as octopus, squid, and eel.
Talking about eels, both the saltwater and freshwater eels are considered as traditional delicacies in Japan. This type of fish is not eaten raw, and they are mostly marinated or steamed in some way before using in the recipe. Although the slimy appearance may look off-putting at first, when you get a hang of the sweet taste and rich flavor, you will like it more.
Use of Veggies – Both Fresh And Pickled Varieties
So, you see there appears to be a dominance of fish, seafood, and fish eggs but that does not mean that sushi is only what you get from the seas or oceans. There are a lot of fresh fruits, pickled vegetables, and cooked veggies that can make a wholesome and delicious sushi meal.
For example, we have the traditional dried gourd sushi roll, which is also known as Kanpyo Maki in Japanese. It contains dehydrated strips of calabash fruit. Natto maki is another popular variety that includes extremely nutritious fermented soybeans. Other examples are pickled plum and cucumber roll, pickled daikon sushi roll, avocado roll, and so on.
Dominance Of Seafood In Americanized Sushi
When we look at the western counterpart, we again find fish and seafood dominating the market. I randomly made a list of top 10 western sushi rolls available around the world and I am amazed to find that they all contain fish or seafood in some form.
- California roll – real or imitation crab meat with avocado and cucumber
- Shrimp Tempura roll – Shrimp tempura, cucumber, and avocado
- Spicy tuna roll – Tuna, spicy mayo
- Dragon roll – Shrimp tempura/ octopus, fish roe
- Spider roll – Soft shell crabs, avocado
- Rainbow Roll– Imitation crab meat, tuna, and cucumber
- Philadelphia roll – Smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber
- Boston Roll – Shrimp, fish roe, avocado, cucumber
- Teriyaki chicken roll- Cooked chicken breasts, cucumber
- Volcano roll – crab meat, spicy tuna, scallops
So, you see most of the Americanized sushi rolls that I could think of contains fish or seafood in their raw form or cooked/ baked/ fried options. However, let’s not forget that there are also a good number of vegetarian sushi and vegan options for those who prefer it that way.
The Evolution Of Vegetarian Sushi
As sushi evolved as a popular fast food around the world, different varieties of vegetarian sushi dishes also came into existence. Today, we have the popular maki or cucumber rolls, avocado rolls, tofu rolls, mushroom rolls, and so on.
In fact, many restaurants around the world prefer making vegetarian sushi because it is safer to use veggies in regions where sushi-grade fish is not easily available. Furthermore, vegetarian sushi has a longer freshness window so there is less wastage for leftover food.
Another reason why sushi is strongly thought as seafood in western countries is that no matter what type of toppings is used, the dish is served cold. As the initial impression of sushi stood out as a Japanese delicacy containing raw fish, which was a new concept for westerns, people started identifying sushi as seafood.
What Are The Most Popular Types Of Vegetarian Sushi
The biggest proof that validates sushi is not seafood is that some of the most popular sushi dishes contain vegetables and fruits as fillings/ toppings. The maki rolls, for example, may contain cucumber strips, boiled sweet potato, ripe mango, semi-boiled carrots, and red pepper to name a few.
Another fantastic example is the caterpillar roll (see recipe) that has a world-famous vegetarian format. It may be filled with tofu or shitake mushroom slices inside. You may add cucumber strips for some extra freshness. It is adorned on the outer side with thin slices of avocado, flattened in a way to resemble a caterpillar.
Some of the veggie options include:
- Spicy Shitake Mushroom rolls
- Carrot Lox and Avocado Sushi
- Spicy Vegan Scallop Roll
- Teriyaki Veggie Crunch Rolls
- Crispy Enoki Mushroom Roll
- Vegan Eggplant sushi roll
- Tofu Cucumber Sushi Roll
- California-style vegan sushi rolls
- Avocado cream cheese cucumber rolls
- Avocado and Mango brown rice sushi roll
Most of the vegetarian and vegan sushi names are self-explanatory as they give you a clear hint of the ingredients you may expect to find in them. So, you see there is no dearth of non-seafood options in sushi. Hence, it boils down to your preferences and individual choices.
For all those who think that sushi only tastes great with seafood of some kind or the other, I would like to say that you can substitute fish or meat in almost every recipe with vegetables and fruits. For example, rainbow sushi roll can be recreated in veggie format by adding slices of mango, strawberry, and avocado on the top.
What Is Sashimi And How Is It Different From Sushi
If you asked me if sashimi is seafood, I would say yes because this Japanese delicacy comprises of slices of raw fish dipped in yummy sauces and often served alongside sushi. While sashimi and sushi are often used interchangeably to refer to the same delicacy, they are actually two different types of food.
While sushi is made of several accompanying ingredients like rice seasoned with vinegar, raw fish, seaweed, soy paper, cucumber, omelets, and avocado, sashimi is just one slice of seafood. Slices or strips of raw fish may be used in making sushi rolls, but to be called pure sashimi, it should be on its own.
Most restaurants use salt-water fish for sashimi because freshwater fish may contain harmful parasites. In the high-end Japanese restaurants, fish may be kept alive in fish tanks. They are prepared fresh just before serving to the customers.
Some of the most common varieties of seafood used in making sashimi are salmon, tuna, octopus, horse mackerel, fatty tuna, scallop, and sea urchin. In restaurants, sashimi is usually served on top of shredded daikon or radish along with wasabi, pickled ginger, and soy sauce.
Can People Who Are Allergic To Shellfish Enjoy Sushi?
Unfortunately, some people with shellfish-allergy stay away from sushi out of sheer ignorance. They believe that all types of sushi contain seafood (particularly shellfish), hence it’s a no-no for them. If you belong to that group, you are surely missing something delicious in your life.
Believe me, not every sushi out there contains shrimp, crab, or lobster. You can order vegetarian sushi in a restaurant or just make an informed choice by ensuring that you order a roll that contains absolutely no shellfish.
You can always tell the chef or server about your allergy so that they keep it out of your order. Here are some of my recommendations to be better safe than sorry.
You may try the dynamite sushi roll that contains yellowtail, cucumber, carrots, avocado, bean sprouts, chili, and spicy mayonnaise.
If you are not a fish lover, you may try the teriyaki sushi roll that contains avocado, chicken, and teriyaki sauce. This is another example that screams ‘No’ for ‘Is sushi seafood’.
Alaskan sushi roll brings you the irresistible combination of smoked salmon, avocado, and asparagus. A great treat for someone who doesn’t like the taste of raw fish.
Seattle sushi roll is another amazing option for those who are not a fan of raw seafood. It contains cucumber, avocado, and smoked salmon.
Spicy Tataki sushi roll has spicy tuna inside and it is topped with slices of raw tuna and avocado on the outside to make an appetizing treat.
Check out the best sushi recipes in my website. Also, don’t forget to get some of my recommended sushi accessories to enjoy making this Japanese delicacy like a pro at home!
Is sushi always raw?
No, sushi comprises of cooked sushi rice, seaweed, and raw fish, but the fish may also be cooked at times. Many restaurants serve cooked crab meat, shrimps, fish and chicken in sushi rolls. Some recipes may also have shrimp tempura for a crunchier feel.
What is sushi without rice called?
All types of sushi will always have vinegared rice because this is an essential ingredient, but some people often refer to sashimi as sushi. Sashimi is a similar Japanese delicacy with a slight difference – it does not contain any rice or seaweed. It refers to succulent slices of raw fish that glisten like jewels and is not accompanied by anything other than wasabi, soy sauce, and ginger.
Is sushi without fish still sushi?
Yes, of course. You can enjoy a variety of vegetarian sushi dishes that contain cucumber, avocado, and other fruits/ vegetables in the place of fish. They are still called sushi and in fact, they are extremely popular around the world.
Does sushi always contain shellfish?
Not necessarily. Many varieties of sushi contain different species of fish other than shellfish. Furthermore, if you are allergic to shellfish, you can always try veggie sushi or cooked meat variations as mentioned above.
Related Article: 15 Most Popular Cooked Sushi To Order in Restaurant