19 Sushi Myths You Probably Believe
Fish and tall tales have always gone hand in hand, so it's no surprise that the world of sushi has developed its own set of myths, exaggerations, and bold-faced lies. To help clear up some of the fishiness behind Japan's most famous culinary export, we consulted with Dave Lowry, author of The Connoisseur's Guide to Sushi, about everything from its history as a street food to whether it's okay to eat sushi on a Monday. Read on to learn the difference between frozen fact and wild-caught fiction.
The myth: Sushi is only a Japanese thingThe truth: “Most countries in Southeast Asia have some variation of this. It began as a way of preserving fish because vinegar worked as an antibiotic. Cooked rice and vinegar were packed around fresh fish to preserve them.”
The myth: Sushi has to be expensiveThe truth: “When sushi started out, it was street food, like a dirty-water dog in New York. There were little wheeled stalls where they'd cut the fish up. Now sushi is probably closer to stopping and getting a hot dog or hamburger. It's sort of a nice snack. It's casual food, but you don't want to overstate it and say it's fast food, because there are sushi bars in Japan where you're going to pay $500 for a meal.”
The myth: Some sushi fish are served aliveThe truth: “That's called ikizukuri. It's a different area of Japanese cuisine and not related to sushi at all.”
The myth: Women can't be sushi chefs because their hands are too hotThe truth: “It was just not an occupation that women did; they didn't do a whole lot of cooking in public places. But now there are plenty of female chefs all over Japan.”
The myth: Salmon's a traditional sushi fishThe truth: “Salmon was not considered a traditional sushi fish because it spoils really quickly. It only rose to prominence after refrigeration became widespread in Japan.”
The myth: Miso soup is an appetizerThe truth: “In Japan, miso is usually what you eat for breakfast.”
The myth: Sushi pairs with sakeThe truth: “Since sushi and sake are both made with rice, that's too much of the same thing. You usually pair it with beer or green tea; I can't recall seeing anyone eat sushi and sake in Japan.”
The myth: Rub your chopsticks together to get rid of splintersThe truth: “When you order noodles, you rub your chopsticks together to create a rough edge to pick up the noodles, not to get rid of splinters. If you did that in a place owned by a Japanese person, you'd insult them.”
The myth: Sushi means "raw fish"The truth: “We don't really know the etymology of the word sushi. It's written with characters that are there for the sound rather than what they mean. There's a lot of questions as to what the word actually means, but the idea that sushi means 'raw fish' is wrong. 'Su' is normally vinegar, and there's a lot of disagreement on 'shi.'”
The myth: There's a sushi-specific grade of fishThe truth: “They're just basically saying it's fresh enough to eat raw. Is there some sort of special grade of fish that's suitable for sushi? There is not. It has to obviously be fresh enough, or presented in such a way that it doesn't have any bacterial growth. That's what constitutes sashimi-grade fish -- fish that is fresh enough that you can eat it raw.”
The myth: Sushi rice is a type of riceThe truth: “It's nonsense, sushi rice is just short-grain rice. There are better grains of rice -- they're polished more, and the grains are collected when they're fresher or with more water in them. But in Japan there's no such thing as sushi rice.”
The myth: Sushi is all about the fishThe truth: “Sushi is not about the topping. It isn't about the fish, that's completely secondary. It's about the quality of the rice. They inevitably write about all the toppings, but a sushi connoisseur cares about the rice. If the rice isn't right, it doesn't matter how fresh or special the fish is. American sushi chefs have a ways to go on that. Anybody can get really fresh fish these days if you're willing to pay for it, but it's the ability to manipulate the rice that makes the difference.”
The myth: Only eat at sushi restaurants on certain daysThe truth: “In the old days, maybe that was true because you got shipments on certain days. You weren't getting any shipments on Sunday, so therefore you'd be eating fish from the Friday before. But nowadays, given international trade, many restaurants are getting fish any day of the week.”
The myth: Frozen fish is inferiorThe truth: “What's happening now is a lot of these fish that are harvested, they're freezing them on the boat. They're frozen hours or even minutes within getting caught. So most of the fish you're gonna get in a sushi place is frozen. Very, very few sushi restaurants in the states would sell tuna that would never have been frozen -- that would be pretty rare. Frankly, most people wouldn't like it. Freezing allows the meat to firm up and it tastes a little better. I've had completely fresh tuna and most Americans wouldn't like it; it has a strong gamey taste.”
The myth: Wild-caught fish is superiorThe truth: “Wild-caught fish are going to have greater variability [in quality]. What a salmon may be eating in one part of the world, it isn't eating in another. There's a variability there. You don't have that in farmed fish -- you have a certain consistency. A lot of the tuna in a more affordable sushi place is farmed; more upscale restaurants offer wild- or line-caught. But a lot of stuff like abalone is going to be farmed either way."
The myth: Mercury in sushi is dangerousThe truth: “That's not specifically a sushi thing, it's any fish. You wouldn't want to be eating any fish that has a possibility of mercury contamination. Given where they are in the food chain, some fish have more mercury. Tuna are eating a lot of smaller fish -- those smaller fish eat plankton, [and plankton live] where there's a lot of mercury in the water. You wouldn't have to worry about that issue with regards to most sushi fish.”
The myth: Fukushima nuclear reactor radiation affects fishThe truth: “This probably isn't a significant worry. There are certain bacteria that can get into fish, but there's a very small chance [of that happening].”
The myth: Eating blowfish will definitely kill youThe truth: “It has some toxins in the liver, so it has to be cleaned very carefully. If that liver sack is compromised it's a very powerful neurotoxin. Probably 15 people die a year from fugu (pufferfish) poisoning in Japan. The government of Japan approved a certain course to learn to clean it, so It's usually been prepared in Japan by somebody that's been taught to do it -- they freeze it and bring it over. But it's actually kind of an unremarkable fish.”
The myth: Escolar will give you diarrheaThe truth: “Escolar affects different people in different ways. If you eat just a little bit of it, it doesn't have that diarrhetic effect. Some people are more sensitive than others though, so what you'll probably want to do is try to eat one or two pieces, and then try two or three more. But it's not a reason not to order it.”
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's National Food and Drink team. He suggests you try ordering sardines next time you're at a sushi restaurant. Follow him to lots of little fishes at @Dannosphere.