From Michelin-starred restaurants to grocery store shelves and your Netflix queue, sushi is everywhere. It's not hard to find a decent roll, but the techniques, history, and trivia behind the marriage of rice and fish are still unknown to even the most adventurous eaters.
Based on conversations with sushi consultants, writers, and chefs, we've compiled 14 facts that will give you a greater appreciation of the culinary tradition. Dig into these rolls of knowledge, and for more practical tips, check out our list of Sushi Dos and Don'ts.
1. Sushi has always been cosmopolitan
The image of a sushi chef at the top of a secluded mountaintop is a false one. Sushi has always been most strongly associated with Tokyo, so much so that the term for the most commonly adopted style of sushi (edomai) derives from the old name for Tokyo (Edo).
2. The earthquake of 1923 brought sushi off the streets
Previously, sushi was exclusively a street food, but the devastation from the quake destroyed so much of Tokyo that real estate prices dropped, allowing sushi chefs to afford brick-and-mortar restaurants.
3. The oldest type of sushi in Japan tastes like cheese
Near Lake Biwa in Southern Japan, they still follow old-school, pre-refrigeration sushi techniques of filleting carp, packing those fillets in vinegar rice, and leaving them to age for up to three years. The result is a fermented local delicacy called funazushi that our expert said tastes similar to a pungent cheese.
4. Salmon is technically a white fish
It gets that orange color from a diet of crustaceans.
5. Live scallops aren't actually alive
That's just the natural resiliency of the fibers in the scallop that cause it to contract and expand, making it look like it's moving.
6. Uni isn't exactly what you think
You probably know that uni is sea urchin, but you may not realize the delicacy is, specifically, that creature's genitals. And now that you know, perhaps you wish you could forget.
7. Bluefin wasn't always so desirable
Nowadays bluefin tuna is one of the most expensive sushi delicacies. Case in point, in 2013, a 500lb fish sold for a record-setting $1.8 million in Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market. But fishermen once avoided the bluefin because it was such a strong swimmer that it could easily tear through a fishing net. That changed in the '50s when stronger nylon netting made catching them much more practical. Unfortunately, this has led to dangerous overfishing.
8. Japanese knives are sharpened differently
Unlike the sharp objects that cut food in the West, most Japanese knives are sharpened only on one side. They cut on the pull stroke rather than the push stroke, allowing chefs to keep their elbows close to their side.
9. Sushi meals didn't always begin with miso
Miso is considered more of a breakfast food in Japan. Tamago, a Japanese-style omelet, was traditionally the first sushi course, and was used as a benchmark to measure the skill of a chef.
10. Sashimi's translation makes perfect sense
"Sashi" means cut, "mi" means body.
11. There's already plenty of wasabi on your sushi
The chef puts some between the fish and the rice, although many chefs are starting to use less now that American diners use it so gratuitously.
12. Grocery store sushi will always taste sour
Fish oxidizes once it's been cut and exposed to air, which is why it should be eaten very shortly after preparation. Every second it sits in the freezer case it's losing flavor, which is just one of 18 ways grocery store sushi is different from the good stuff.
13. Plastic grass in takeout sushi had a historical purpose
Actual leaves were once used instead of the now-ubiquitous plastic grass. The leaves were used for decoration and dividing food, but also offered antibacterial properties to help fish stay fresh longer.
14. Pickled ginger is dyed pink
Young ginger plants do have a slightly pink color, but most of what you'll see commercially is naturally a pale yellow before it's dyed with either artificial colors or beet juice.