Somewhere over the rainbow roll, tuna fins are blue. And the dreams that Jiro dares to dream really do come true. But unfortunately, not all sushi reaches such lofty heights.
Today, much of what Americans eat comes prepackaged off of a grocery store shelf. Store-bought sushi can range widely in quality
(some is actually legit!), but even the best-intentioned grocers aren't going to be able to recreate the sushi bar experience.
So to find out the differences we spoke with the author of The Story of Sushi
, Trevor Corson (aka the Sushi Concierge
) and learned 18 ways that grocery store sushi pales in comparison to its higher-end cousin.
And for the record, Trevor admits that he does shamelessly indulge in store-bought 'shi
occasionally, but it's usually vegetarian rolls, as he tries to save his money for the good stuff. Maybe after reading his insights, you will too.
It's too mushy... or too dry
The rice is likely cooked with too much water, leading to an initial texture more akin to baby food. But after a few hours in a cold case, that roll will be dry as a bone.
The temperature is wrong
Sushi rice should be served close to body temperature and kept slightly warm until being served. That's not happening in a grocery store.
The flavor of the rice is off
Grocery store sushi rice is usually cooked with much more vinegar and sugar, often a pre-mixed ratio, leading to more overpowering rice that attempts to make up for less flavorful fish.
The rice loses its integrity
Decent sushi chefs don't view the rice as one ring of starch, they think of each grain as separate. Over time those grains of rice cease to be unique snowflakes and conform into one bland snowman.
The rice isn't packed right
The chef makes a decision with each piece of sushi as to how tight to pack the rice. Generally it's so loose that it'll be falling apart by the time it reaches your mouth, but with cheaper sushi that level of care isn't taken.
Raw fish loses flavor when chilled
Once a sushi chef's hands have cut and formed the fish over rice, the fish has been slightly warmed. Those few moments of handling greatly increase the flavor, a personal touch that your grocery case cannot provide.
The fish is coming from bigger suppliers
High-end sushi bars will have very intimate relationships with their suppliers, who are only selling the best of the best. Grocery stores are still getting quality fish, but it's not as meticulously graded on taste and texture.
The freezing technology is different
Most fish used in sushi these days is frozen at some point between the ocean and your mouth, but the technology varies widely. A well-frozen fish is dipped in liquid nitrogen and hits negative 65 degrees instantly, leaving the flesh and muscles perfectly intact. However, cheaper methods of freezing will lead to water crystallization that is going to degrade the overall flavor. The flip side of this is that when high end restaurants do get fresh, never-frozen fish, there is a greater chance that the fish will be carrying parasites. So in theory, grocery store sushi could actually be considered less of a health hazard.
Seasonality isn't taken into account
Fish have different life cycles, so some will taste best at certain times of the year. A good sushi chef knows what's in season and will recommend it, whereas at grocery stores it's always spicy tuna season.
You're more likely to be eating bogus fish
There's a big problem with grocery stores and crappy sushi bars mislabeling fish. This is more likely a supply chain problem than any unscrupulousness on the part of of the seller, but respected sushi joints won't get burned by their suppliers.
Grocery store sushi is oxidized
The point of cutting sushi just before serving is that meat oxidizes when exposed to air, and the flavor deflates. No amount of loosely fitting plastic cover can keep that fish from turning sour once it's been cut.
They're not starting from the whole fish
Cheaper places are starting from pre-cut fillets, and there's no telling if there is something about the whole fish that might cause a more experienced chef to discard it.
Less flavorful fish are more common
Salmon and yellowtail are big sellers at grocery stores because they're fattier, less flavorful cuts whose melt-in-your-mouth qualities mix well with sweeter sauces.
The seaweed is just missing the point
Traditionally, seaweed should be dry and a bit crispy compared to the roll's softer contents. Refrigeration and the mushier rice cause it to lose its texture.
Most sushi chefs don't want to hide behind mayo
You'll see a nice rainbow of sauces drenching grocery store sushi, but most respectable sushi chefs would prefer that the diner is focusing on the fish rather than a zig-zag of mayo.
The ginger is mass produced
Most serious chefs will pickle their ginger in-house. Grocery store ginger tends to be mass produced and much sweeter.
The wasabi isn't fresh (and might not even be wasabi)
The spice and flavor of real wasabi disappears within 10 or 15 minutes of grinding, so there's no way you're getting the real stuff.
The soy sauce isn't custom
Like ginger, a legit sushi chef is probably using a custom blend of soy sauce that doesn't come out of a miniature packet.
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food and drink team. He has eaten tons of grocery store sushi in his day, and doesn't plan on stopping now. Follow him to $6.50 H-E-B spicy tuna rolls at @Dannosphere.