Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Monday, May 28, 2012


Nigiri Sushi. にぎり寿司。

Squeezed "fingers" of sushi rice with a topping ("nigiru" is "to squeeze"). When raw fish is used, between rice and topping a smear of wasabi is usually added. The old name is Edomaezushi, referring to the fact that initially all toppings were fished out of the Bay of Edo.

The right "squeeze" takes years and years to learn. After moistening the hands with "hand-vinegar" (part of the vinegar dressing for the sushi rice that is kept apart for the purpose), the rice is placed across the first joint of the fingers of the right hand and formed roughly by clenching that hand. With the index and middle fingers of the right hand the rice is pressed firmly but gently into a more defined shape, turning it around to bring equal pressure to bear on all sides. A slice of raw fish is picked up in the left hand and a dab of wasabi is smeared in the middle with the right hand (which still carries the sushi, now concealed) - note that no wasabi is used for sushi made with marinated fish, grilled fish, fish eggs or omelette. Finally the rice "finger" is placed on the fish slice and the two are pressed firmly together with index and middle fingers of the right hand. This whole process should be one flowing movement.

A variant of nigirizushi are gunkan-maki, literally "warship-rolls" (more friendly also called "boat sushi" in English), where nori is wrapped around the sides of the sushi to prevent loose ingredients as ikura (salmon eggs) from falling off.

The following types of toppings (neta) are used for nigirizushi:
  • fish with red meat (akami)
  • fish with white meat (shiromi)
  • silver-skinned fish (hikarumono) 
  • shellfish (kai)
  • roe (gyoran)
  • others (this includes anything from sea eel to squid, and prawn to octopus, plus omelet)
In all cases except perhaps the last one, freshness is of the utmost importance. The sushi chef must finish the ingredients he has bought early in the morning during the same day - if he keeps them for a night in the refrigerator, they are not fresh anymore.

Sweet pickled ginger (shoga amazu-zuke or gari) is served with nigirizushi to eat in between different types of toppings and so refresh the mouth. There is also a dip sauce of either soy sauce or thicker tamari sauce, and a dab of wasabi. Sushi shops often make their own special dip by reducing these over heat with sake, mirin, bonito flakes, etc. Use the wasabi sparingly, as in fact the sushi chef has already added wasabi to the sushi where necessary. The same goes for the dip, which should only be applied to the fish and not to the rice.

Nigirizushi are normally served in restaurants in pairs. They can be enjoyed in exclusive sushi bars where the bill is made up creatively in round figures and always comes to a couple of hundred dollars per person; or in kaitenzushi restaurants ("conveyor belt sushi"), where you only pay a dollar per plate - and everything in-between. There are also economical "take-out" sushi shops as Kyotaru and Chagetsu, and nigirizushi are always sold in department stores and supermarkets, made freshly on the premises.

When you eat in a sushi bar, you can either sit at the counter and order every sushi separately, or sit at a table and order a menu. These have fanciful names as Matsu (Pine tree), Take (Bamboo) and Ume (Apricot), which indicate certain grades, volumes and prices. At the counter you can also take an "omakase," leaving everything to the sushi chef. In that case you can be sure you get the best ingredients he has to offer that day, but the final price come as a shock. It is therefore wise to agree on a price in advance fro omakase, if that is possible.